Among the most enduring and dubious contributions of the '70s to American culture is the slasher picture. Like many of the villains it traffics in, the genre refuses to die. Hence the appearance of "Black Christmas," a wholly needless and tediously executed remake of the 1974 movie of the same name, an early example of this bloody and now moribund tradition.
The setting is an unbelievably spruce sorority house where a desperately chipper house mother (Andrea Martin) tries to whip some Christmas spirit into her lovely but almost uniformly petulant charges. But this isn't just any house. Some 15 years earlier, it was the scene of a murderous rampage of a young man, Billy (newcomer Robert Mann), who took the Christmas season as an opportunity to wreak vengeance on his family for the years of abuse that had driven him insane. As the movie opens, he broods in the madhouse, contemplating his escape and return to the scene of the crime. The fact that this institution seems to have just about the laxest security system conceivable portends doom for the coeds.
Like the James Bond franchise, which, in the view of many, depended on a now-vanished Cold War ethos for its vitality, the slasher movie seems a powerless and noncompelling thing when lifted out of its historical context. Whatever grim pleasures movies like "Halloween" (1978) or the first "Black Christmas" (1974) may have provided were linked to their shabby era. In the time of Watergate, Vietnam, shag carpet and bell-bottoms, it made sense that a madman should appear to punish the complacent and the pretty just for being part of that low, dishonest decade. A creeping sense of rottenness, or "malaise" as President Carter famously dubbed it, seemed to invite senseless mayhem of a kind that the Manson family and Jim Jones provided in real life.
Times have changed, but the new "Black Christmas" doesn't really do a thing to bring itself into the present, except at the most superficial level. What director and screenwriter Glen Morgan seems proudest of is the insertion of cell phones into the plot, gadgets as yet undreamed of during the Ford administration. Whenever a sister goes missing, a call to her cell results in a jaunty ring tone going off in some remote corner of the house the attic, the crawl space, behind the plaster where a bloody corpse awaits discovery. The glow of the cell phone screen gleams through chinks in walls. Caller ID becomes a thing of terror.
But this small technological innovation isn't enough to let us relate to the characters or to make us shiver at the murderous goings-on. It doesn't help that the eight sorority members are introduced to us so quickly, one after another, it's almost impossible to keep them straight. It's hard to get worked up over the fate of characters whose identities remain largely a matter of conjecture. Their lines, consisting almost exclusively of nondescript, catty banter, could well have been assigned randomly, so paltry is the characterization. The one exception is Lauren (Crystal Lowe), whose bratty lecture debunking the sanctity of Christmas makes her stand out, albeit unwelcomely.
Somewhat better are the flashbacks to Billy's early days, his torment at the hands of his mother and his first experiments in homicide. At least in those scenes there are tacky, midcentury furnishings to take in. In the role of Billy's sadistic, increasingly unhinged mom, Karin Konoval throws herself energetically into end-stage Joan Crawford drag mode. She is the only member of the cast to rise to the level of high camp that might have saved this movie, if only her determination not to be humiliated by the lousy material had been shared by her colleagues.
Oh, yes, and then there's the gore. "Black Christmas" contains the requisite dose of splatters, impalements, flayings and eyeball-munching. Those who demand nothing else from an outing to the multiplex will probably feel they've got their money's worth. Everyone else is advised to stay home and polish off what's left of the eggnog. (R) 84 min. * S