The American Horror Film

A Comparison between Original and Remake in the Example of "Black Christmas", 1974 and 2006

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

17 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

I. Introduction: Oh, the Horror

II. The History and the Fascination of the Horror Genre

III. Comparison Original and Remake: Black Christmas, 1974 and

IV. The Contemporary State and the Future of the Horror Film

V. Conclusion

Works Cited

I. Introduction: Oh, the Horror…

Original and Remake—what are the differences, what are the similarities? What mattered then and what matters now?

The American slasher film has many influences that need to be illustrated through the history of horror cinema, and to, furthermore, understand why a horror movie is apt to turn real life issues, sensitive topics and personal predicament into metaphors for the audience to watch in theaters or on their television screens at home. Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava, John Carpenter and Bob Clark (whose 1974 movie Black Christmas will be the main subject) have all influenced the horror film with their visionary direction, their addressing of sensitive subjects and the uniqueness of suspense-buildup in their films.

Many filmmakers are influenced by the creative approaches the aforementioned directors took, referencing them, copying them, or even remaking their films. Movie remakes have always existed, as for instance, John Carpenter’s remake of Christian Nyby’s horror/sci-fi movie The Thing from another World (1951). However, looking back, remakes have not been as prominent as they are these days. The “remake craze” experienced a boost in 2008 and again in 2010 when thirteen remakes were released, respectively, to theaters in the United States. There are still remakes soon to be released and some soon to undergo production.

The hows and whys might deduce from cultural and social changes. Most remakes do well in theaters, audiences do not seem to mind to have the same story retold to them with flashier visuals; and movie production companies, of course, welcome the remake trend. To them it is less of a risk to remake than to try out and maybe fail at the box office with introducing a new franchise. Since audiences do not seem to mind (and the box office numbers encourage this opinion, see Figure 5), production companies are going to play it safe.

However, will this trend last much longer? As mentioned, new remakes are already in production and some are soon to be released, but is there a chance that the future of the horror film will look differently in a few years than it does now? New directors, like Ti West, for instance, try to bring back old horror movie conventions to the screen. West’s movie The House of the Devil (2009) achieved cult status from seasoned horror movie fans and newer fans. Maybe it is a gateway to the classic horror movie reintroducing itself to today’s audiences. Maybe it will ignite the younger generation’s interest in classics like Psycho (1960), Black Sabbath (1963) or Halloween (1978). It is likely that with the increasing interest in classic horror movies Hollywood will cater to this specific audience and maybe reduce their productions of remakes that seem to purposely strip the source story from its edge in regards to social criticism or sensitive issues.

This term paper addresses the history of the horror film, and will compare original and remake, in the example of both the 1974 and 2006 version of Black Christmas. What has been changed from the original in order to update the same story for this generation’s audience? How do scholars like Linda Hutcheon, Charles Derry, Stephen Prince and Steffen Hantke feel about the current onslaught of remakes and where lies the future of the horror film?

II. The History and the Fascination of the Horror Genre

Wheeler Winston Dixon begins his chapter with the “Origins” of the horror movie: “Before there were horror movies, there were written or spoken horror narratives, fables handed down from one generation to the next, and, as we shall see, theatrical presentations designed to thrill and horrify audiences.” (Dixon 1). His quote already raises a question: Why would any audience member want to be horrified when watching something that should entertain him or her? And why is the horror subgenre, the slasher movie, so beloved by the horror movie crowd?

The slasher movie finds its origins in folklore and urban legends of the “boogey man”—an unknown, psychotic man, who breaks out of an asylum for the criminally insane and is on a rampage to kill coming-of-age teenagers. A tale that has arisen in the early 1950s to contain the sexual drive of teenagers, warning them that if they are to have sex, they have to consider the consequences; in this case, a metaphor, a maniac who has a hook instead of a hand and who will not shy away to kill innocent teenagers. (Lukas, Westphal 271). Even the high school graduates in Jim Gillespie’s 1997 movie I Know What You Did Last Summer discuss the history and meaning of this specific urban legend, only to fall victims to a similar killer. However, the United States of America, while being very famous for it, did not invent the slasher movie as we know it. Influenced by British-born director Alfred Hitchcock and Italian director Mario Bava’s iconic Giallo movies, the American slasher took notes—especially from the Giallo.

A Giallo movie (Giallo is Italian for ‘yellow’ and refers to the covers of dime novels that always revolved around a crime mystery case) is a movie that entails the following: beautiful men and women tormented and killed by an unrecognizable killer. Gialli (plural form of Giallo) have no supernatural aspect. The only supernatural aspect always turns out to be a red herring—the killer is always human, and is revealed by the last act of the movie. It is, like the dime novel, a crime mystery.

However, the focus lies less on the investigative part of the mystery that needs to be solved and more on elaborate set-pieces regarding the murders. It is a cinema of sentiments with its opulent tracking shots and color schemes (Koven 125).

Giallo movies have had their impact on the slasher movie. Starting with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) (Figure 1) to Blood and Black Lace (1964), his Giallo from 1971, Bay of Blood, left a big impression on Steve Miner and inspired the American filmmaker to direct the second part of the Friday the 13th movies in 1981. There are references in Miner’s movie that have been directly taken from Bava’s Bay of Blood.

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Letícia Román as Nora Davis in the first Giallo:

Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) (Fig. 1)

The Giallo filming style can also be seen in the movie discussed later, Black Christmas, especially with the introduction of Lieutenant Fuller, played by John Saxon, who also had a part in Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much. The classic Giallo has almost always at least one police man or one police detective present that some American slasher movies try to put aside or not incorporate at all in fear that it might not appeal to younger audiences who want to see mostly teenagers interact on screen.

Even if there is no authority in a Giallo, the main character will take over the function of the investigative detective (Koven 77). In most slasher movies the main and supporting cast is mostly there to find an unhappy ending before the credits roll. There is no time to investigate the murders as most slashers’ time frame is very limited. The Giallo has the advantage to tell its story in a course of more than one day. Slashers usually take place in a shorter amount of time, like in the example of Black Christmas.

Furthermore, horror movies have always had a tendency to tackle social and personal issues. The issue of abortion will be discussed in the next chapter. Other issues that have appeared in horror movies are, besides the coming-of-age topic that seems prevalent in the American slasher film, for instance, the Vietnam War. Bob Clark’s horror movie Deathdream, also known as Dead of Night from 1974 (Figure 2) deals with the post-traumatic disorders of soldiers that return home after the war.

The movie begins with Andy’s mother praying that her son will return home safely from the war. It is established that she does this every night since her son left. The power of her prayers and her strong will enables Andy to rise from the dead after he is shot in crossfire. He returns home from Vietnam, obviously changed and scarred by the experience of still being alive after dying, and the war itself. It is obvious to everyone, namely his father and his sister, that something is different about Andy. Only his mother is cheerful to the fact that her son is home again and that her prayers have been answered. She stays oblivious, always defending her son, who slowly decomposes, killing people to slow down the process of becoming a walking corpse. However, when she follows Andy to the cemetery where he has prepared a grave for himself, imploring his mother to let him go, she indulges and helps him bury himself in his own grave.

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Scene from Bob Clark’s Deathdream, also known as Dead of Night (1974) (Fig. 2)

Deathdream is a dramatic horror movie that displays both sides of the Vietnam War: the people at home that are constantly worried that their son, brother or husband might not survive the war; and the soldiers who have to witness the cruelty and mercilessness of the war themselves. Andy is a changed man when he returns home. He seems to have been robbed from all his life force. He is not the cheerful man everybody seems to have known before, and in order to stop from decomposing, he injects himself the blood of his victims with a syringe—a direct reference to the drug abuse among soldiers that have returned home after their traumatic experience in the Vietnam War.

Another aspect of how a horror movie functions is named in Edward Lowry’s article “Genre and Enunciation: The Case of Horror”. He states:

[…] [N]o other type of film depends so thoroughly on a sado-masochistic relationship between the audience and the film spectacle as does the horror film. This is exemplified by the fact that the spectator’s relation to the horror film is often quite active—screaming, covering the eyes, laughing either nervously or derisively. (Lowry 15)

The author is correct in assuming that this is one of the reasons why some audience members watch horror movies. Viewers want to be entertained. Some of the viewers like to be grossed out by what happens on the screen, others like the thrill of a well-filmed chase scene between the killer and his victim. It is entertainment that goes deep into the psyche of the viewer and evokes the audience’s primal fears: the fear of the dark, the fear of something unknown or strange, the fear of monsters, the fear of loss and death, etc.

The American slasher movie combines all these fears into one movie. The cinematography is almost always darker than in a movie from another genre. There is a killer, evil personified, a monster, whose only mission is to kill the protagonist. The protagonist finds her- or himself alone in, for instance, a house. The audience sees the darkness in the vacant rooms through her or his eyes. It places the viewer in “complete scopic identification” (Lowry 17) with the victim—or the perpetrator; an eerie thrill that seems to appeal to the audience, as well. The fascination of seeing through the killer’s eyes and witnessing what he does is, as Lowry says, “a sado-masochistic relationship between the audience and the film spectacle” (Lowry 15). It is a strange fascination that nobody wants to come across with in real life, but enjoys it, or, enjoys to be scared by it, through movies.

III. Comparison Original and Remake: Black Christmas, 1974 and 2006

Upon watching both movies back-to-back, one thing that can be claimed as the biggest difference between Bob Clark’s Black Christmas from 1974 and Glen Morgan’s remake from 2006 is how differently the audience is treated by the directors, as for instance, in the amount of blood, gore and violence that is shown in the 2006 version.

While Clark’s Black Christmas manages to show as little on-screen violence as possible, Morgan does not hold back and shows blood splattering in every violent scene there is. It is a very gory movie, after all. The audience sees how eyes are being ripped out, or how Billy kills his family and then devours their remains in a flashback. It is hard to watch and sometimes a little too elaborate in execution—which is a compliment to the special effects department who seem to know their craft. While Clark tries to let the audience themselves imagine the horrifying things that Billy does to his victims, Morgan decides to take that choice away from the audience and rather show them in gruesome detail what happens.

It is this prevention by the director of giving the audience a chance to decide for themselves as to why and how things in the storyline of the movie happen that makes the biggest difference between the original Black Christmas and its remake. It seems to be a trend in Hollywood remakes to give their iconic ‘monsters’ a background story, as it was the case in Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of John Carpenter’s slasher movie Halloween from 1978. The 2007 remake also decides to change the story of the iconic Michael Myers. In the original movie, Michael kills his sister at a young age. Nobody knows why and it is never explored or revealed throughout the entire film. Rob Zombie’s Halloween delivers a back story: Michael was raised in an abusive, white-trash family and seems to not have another choice than to turn to murder, according to Zombie—which takes away the suspense and “interactivity” the viewer would construct for him- or herself while watching the movie.

The mystery of why? and how? and the audience’s own thoughts and explanation as to why a little child all of a sudden turns into a murderer is non-existent in the remake. Michael Myers is evil personified in John Carpenter’s original Halloween; the remake rids the movie, and thusly the audience, of that specific mystery.

Like Carpenter, the same can be said for Bob Clark’s Black Christmas: the audience is not getting a proper introduction to Billy, his back story or motives that explain why he is the sadistic murderer that he is. The viewer does not even get to see his entire appearance—only his hands and eyes (Figure 3), and a vague contour. Billy remains a mystery to the audience throughout the entire film. There is not even a conclusion in the end and the movie leaves the audience with a bitter open-ended aftertaste. Is Billy given the chance to murder Jess now that she is all alone in the house?

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From Jess’s point-of-view: The killer is staring at her through the door crack (Clark 01:23:39) (Fig. 3)

Similar to the remake of Halloween, Morgan delivers a back story to Billy’s family life and almost condones his behavior. The Black Christmas remake is full of flashbacks (Figure 4) that are narrated by the characters in the movie, giving the audience an idea what Billy’s motives might be. The viewer knows what Billy has been through in his life and what he has done (and what he does, as seen in the many violent and gory scenes throughout the movie)—the mysterious and sinister atmosphere of not knowing what has happened, what is going to happen and why it happens that prevailed the original Black Christmas does not exist in the remake. Even the conclusion of the remake makes it clear that there are no secrets anymore for the audience to ponder by themselves. Kelli manages to kill both murderers, a relatively happy ending for a final girl. In contrast, the original has an open ending. Admittedly, Jess can escape Billy, but Lt. Fuller never finds him and leaves Jess to rest in the sorority house where, unknowingly to any of the authorities, Billy still lives.

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Flashback scene: Billy’s birth (Morgan 16:14) (Fig. 4)

The authorities are another aspect that shows the difference between both films: there are none in the remake. Kelli manages to call the police, but, conveniently to the storyline, a snow storm keeps them from arriving at the sorority house in time. The original has almost a thriller aspect to it in terms of genre with the introduction of Lt. Fuller. His presence makes the movie more realistic, which might increase the audience’s fear of the events happening in the movie also happening in real life.

Furthermore, the filming technique, narrative and pace used in both movies are very different from another. Bob Clark’s direction lives from carefully, gracefully edited shots and a slow build up. Even in Jess’s chase scene he manages to “hide” Billy’s face and never relies on quick camera movements. Clark also seems to have more of an eye for play-like mise-en-scènes. The ways he arranges the actors in front of the camera seem to have more of a theatrical quality. The narrative, as well, differs from the remake. Clark presents the scenes and sequences coherently. Everything that happens in the movie happens chronologically. Morgan’s movie, however, is interrupted by the aforementioned flashbacks. The sequence of scenes is also shorter in his remake in order to display what happens in two different locations at the same time. A visual aid to demonstrate the urgency of a scene; however, it makes the pace of the movie seem incoherent.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


The American Horror Film
A Comparison between Original and Remake in the Example of "Black Christmas", 1974 and 2006
University of Salzburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Filmwissenschaft, Medien, Movie, Movies, Film, Horror, Genre, Black Christmas, Remake, Original, Vergleich, Comparison, Slasher, American Studies, Amerikanistik, Gender Studies, film studies
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Denis Memedoski (Author), 2015, The American Horror Film, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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