Black Christmas Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
The college town of Bedford is receiving an unwelcome guest this Christmas. As the residents of sorority house Pi Kappa Sigma prepare for the festive season, a stranger begins to stalk the house. A series of obscene phone calls start to plague the residents of the sorority and it becomes clear that a psychopath is homing in on the sisters with dubious intentions. And, though the police try to trace the calls, they discover that nothing is as it seems during this Black Christmas. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
As many an author/critic has noted over the years, it is difficult to boil down decades of influence in order to mark the exact birth of the slasher genre. The origins extend back as far as the pre-film Grand Guignol theatre tradition, silent era movies, like Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927), gothic thrillers, like Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase (1946), and, of course, the violent murder mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock. More direct parallels can be drawn to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ early gore movies and Italy’s giallo thrillers, but the most popular consensus seems to be that the first ‘true’ slasher movie was either Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (aka: Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger in the House), both released in 1974. Personally, I’d rather categorize both as proto-slashers, because, while they both influenced other horror/exploitation movies, neither was as directly influential as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).
Still, one must acknowledge that Clark’s film ticks more boxes on the ‘official’ slasher-defining checklist. A solitary killer with an inciting event in his/her dark, humiliating past? Uh, probably? It’s not clear exactly who the killer is or why s/he is killing. An isolated and/or small town environment? Check. A holiday theme/setting? Check. A bevy of young, beautiful victims? Check. A Final Girl who combats the killer and survives the ordeal? In spirit, yes, even though there is a post-final-attack twist. Inept police officers that can’t solve the case? Check. Subjective camera work representing the killer’s point-of-view? Check (the opening sequence is thematically almost identical to the opening of Halloween). Graphic, special effects-laden murder sequences? Eh, not so much. Most of the gore occurs off-screen/out of frame. But Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween also left their most virulent violence up to the audience’s imagination.
Legacy aside, Black Christmas was a uniquely creepy film in its time that is so well made that it can still elicit dread more than 40 years after its release. It is remarkable on all of these merits and genuinely one of the better thrillers of the 1970s, but I personally find it even more interesting in connection with the director’s other early work. Clark found greater success with comedy and is more fondly remembered as the writer/director of Porky’s (1982) and A Christmas Story (1983), both of which were also incredibly influential movies (Porky’s birthed a series of teen sex comedies and A Christmas Story helped pave the way for other ‘80s/’90s childhood nostalgia trips, culminating in the long-running The Wonder Years TV series). In later decades, those comedic instincts waned and he died shortly after directing a pair of Baby Geniuses movies (1999 and 2004). Before all of this, though, he made Black Christmas, which ended up being his third and final horror film, following Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973) and Deathdream (a.k.a. Dead of Night, 1974). Aside from all sharing a gritty aesthetic and dry sense of humor, this ‘trilogy’ is connected by their underlying subversive qualities. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things grows into a meta-satire of horror fandom, Deathdream is a potent anti-war parable dressed-up in EC comic book trappings, and Black Christmas hides a melancholic abortion drama beneath the guise of a dead coed movie. Deathdream, in particular, makes for a valuable companion piece to this more well-known picture. I suppose there’s still something to be said for watching Black Christmas and A Christmas Story back-to-back, as well.
There have been many DVD and Blu-ray releases of Black Christmas over the years and the results have been mediocre [i]at best[/i] almost every time. The first issue has been aspect ratio, as the earliest DVDs were misframed at an open-matte 1.33:1 (some 1:66:1) and, later, anamorphic discs varied from 1.78:1 to 1.85:1 – both of which are considered ‘accurate’ by imdb.com’s estimations. Beyond this, none of the transfers were particularly attractive. This is in part due to Clark and cinematographer Reginald H. Morris purposefully dark compositions. Standard definition just can’t handle all of that black without pooling up, but HD versions didn’t really fare that much better. The base scan seems to have originated with Critical Mass in 2006, who used it for a Blu-ray release with Sommerville House (based on comparisons here, the German Capelight release is a fuzzier, slightly zoomed version of the same transfer). The darkness is less of an issue, but the image is teeming with CRT noise. Obviously, there was room for improvement.
For this release, Scream Factory has prepared an all-new 2K scan of the original film negative. The transfer was then remastered and presented in 1.85:1. Assuming some folks might not like their transfer, they’ve also included Critical Mass’ original 2006 master at its 1.78:1 aspect ratio. I have included screen caps from both the 2K remaster and the original Critical Mass/Sommerville Blu-ray, rather than from the second disc of Scream Factory’s slightly less compressed rendition. Personally, I don’t think there’s any question that the new transfer is superior. It is brighter without sacrificing the intended mood of the dark photography (there are a few blown-out highlights throughout), edges are tighter, textures are slightly sharper (you have to click on each image and zoom in to really tell the difference), and its telecine artifacts are no longer an issue. The fact that the 2K image is still so gritty tells me that Black Christmas has always looked this way, which isn’t a surprise, given the similar look of Clark’s other earlier films (even Christmas Story). Grain levels are occasionally chunky with a few discoloration issues, but appear ‘accurate’ to my eye. The color quality has been revised considerably. The overly-red skin tones have been given a more natural orange tint and the brown/maroon neutral tones have been cooled a bit, leading to more pure black levels.
Both transfers include DTS-HD Master Audio versions the original mono, as well as the 5.1 remix that had accompanied various DVD editions and a compressed stereo version of the remix. I usually recommend sticking to the original audio tracks, but the remix is actually quite good. Not only does it remain true to the basic design of the single channel mix, but it cleans up the centered dialogue and incidental effects. The mono track, on the other hand, is fuzzier and distorts at high volume and when characters speak hard consonants. I’m also impressed by the atmosphere achieved by spreading Carl Zittrer’s eerie music into the stereo and surround channels. On the other hand, certain effects are awkwardly moved outside of the center speaker (at one point, the phone rings in the left speaker and the characters all look right) and seem to have been culled from a library sound collection, because they don’t have the same tone on the mono track (stuff like doors opening/closing and impact noises). I’m not sure what use the 2.0 track serves, but I suppose it’s nice to have options.
Disc One (2K remaster):
Commentary with director Bob Clark – All three commentary tracks, including this one, have been available with other DVD and Blu-ray editions. I believe they were recorded specifically for the Critical Mass DVD. It’s a bit low-energy and Clark spends a lot of time describing the on-screen action, but he still squeezes some good factoids between the cracks.
Commentary with actors John Saxon and Keir Dullea – The second legacy commentary features two of the stars, recalling their time on the film. Each was recorded separately and, because neither participant has all that much to say, the two recordings are spliced to fill the time. Saxon starts the discussion moving, then, when he tapers off, Dullea pops-up around the 23:20 mark (around the time his character first appears). From there, the track bounces around between them.
Billy is Watching commentary – Actor Nick Mancuso comments on certain sections of the movie while in character. This is another holdover from previous special editions and, frankly, sort of obnoxious.
Audio interview track with Clark – The only exclusive track is Movietalk interview (the interviewer doesn’t say his own name, but Clark refers to him as David) via phone with the director. The interview structure brings out more consistent information from Clark and doesn’t overlap too much with the older, less structured scene-specific commentary. The interview runs about 26:27.
Disc Two (2006 transfer):
Film And Furs (26:11, Scream Factory exclusive, HD) – Actor Art Hindle, who also appears in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), discusses being cast, rehearsing Dullea’s scenes with Olivia Hussey, the other major cast members, the Canadian film industry in the ‘70s, and his ongoing career.
Victims And Virgins (26:35, Scream Factory exclusive, HD) – Actress Lynne Griffin talks about playing the first victim (despite being the virgin), spending most of her scenes playing dead with a bag on her face, seeing the film at the premiere, Black Christmas’ lingering impact, and putting a bag over her face to get attention at horror cons.
Vintage featurettes/interviews – The following extras were taken from Anchor Bay and Critical Mass’ Blu-rays/DVDs:
Black Christmas Legacy (40:22, HD) – Interview featurette with Clark (older video-shot footage), composer Carl Zittrer, actors Hindle, Griffin, Mancuso, Olivia Hussey, and Margot Kidder, and a collection of writers/critics.
Footage from the 40th anniversary panel from FanExpo in 2014 (18:02, HD)
On Screen!: Black Christmas (48:41, SD) – An episode of the television series that celebrates the Canadian film industry.
12 Days of Black Christmas (19:48, SD) – Critical Mass’ retrospective featurette, narrated by John Saxon.
Black Christmas Revisited (36:25, HD) – Griffin and Hindle host a tour the original sorority house location
Archival interviews with Clark, and actors Hussey, Hindle, Kidder, and Saxon (1:41:30) – These appear to be extended versions of the interviews conducted for Black Christmas Legacy.
Midnight screening Q&A with Clark, Saxon, and Zittrer (20:21, SD)
Alternate audio for two scenes (3:04, SD)
Alternate Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger in the House title sequences (2:47, SD)
Still Gallery (4:33)
English and French trailers
TV and radio spots
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