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Black Christmas (1974) (Blu-ray)

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Black Christmas

Black ChristmasStarring Olivia Hussey, Art Hindle, Keir Dullea, John Saxon

Directed by Bob Clark

Distributed by Scream Factory


There is only one Bob Clark Christmas movie I watch each year and it doesn’t feature Ralphie and his Red Ryder fantasies.

The endurance of Clark’s 1974 legendary slasher, Black Christmas, can be chalked up to a number of factors but the greatest is this: it is a disturbing film. I frequently come across horror message board topics asking for genuinely scary titles devoid of jump scares and excessive gore, but oddly enough Black Christmas doesn’t get many mentions. Maybe because it has been relegated to the “seasonal viewing only” heap? Regardless, fans will agree that the unsettling events portrayed don’t diminish with repeat viewings; if anything, subsequent watching serves to reinforce that it is a standout among a sea of imitators. The film is also a noted influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) – arguably the granddaddy of slasher films – adding a bit of prestige to its legacy.

The girls of Pi Kappa Sig are throwing a holiday party before the Christmas break when, toward the end of the night, they receive a phone call from a man they’ve been calling “The Moaner”, who has a habit of calling and making unusual noises. Jess (Olivia Hussey) initially accepts the call but also allows her other sisters to listen in, prompting outspoken Barb (Margot Kidder) to jump on the line and goad this mystery man. She and Phyllis (Andrea Martin) argue over the possibility this guy may be more threatening than anyone realizes. Unbeknownst to the ladies partying downstairs, however, moments before the phone call came through an unidentified person (very likely this same caller) snuck up the side of the house and into the attic. And once the party wraps up that same person is found hiding in Claire’s (Lynne Griffin) closet, whereupon she is strangled and placed in a rocking chair in the attic.

The next day Claire’s father comes to the campus to meet her and is understandably stood up. He heads to the sorority house and reports her missing, at which point the girls and their housemother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), agree to help him locate her. The file a report with the police, led by Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), and Jess also wrangles in Claire’s semi-boyfriend, Chris (Art Hindle), who helps bolster the search by raising hell at the station. Jess, meanwhile, is having problems of her own after confessing to her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), she is pregnant. She wants an abortion; he is vehemently against it. Claire’s absence grows more concerning when another missing girl is found dead in a nearby park, prompting the cops to ramp up their efforts. The girls are being picked off one by one as the unseen assailant remains hidden in the attic, continuing his phone calls that come after each murder. The cops suspect Peter may be a person of interest, as his interactions with Jess have become increasingly aggressive, but everyone is in for a shock when a tap on the line reveals the true source of the calls – they are coming from within the house.

With the film having been around for over forty years, and fans having been sold one “upgraded” home video version after the next, I suspect most readers are more interested in how Scream Factory’s Blu-ray stacks up against similar editions – which is basically my way of saying this review is a bit glib. For the uninitiated, however, let me say that I cannot overstate how exceptional Clark’s film is – never giving the killer an identity, an entire subplot concerning abortion, a palpable sense of grief for Claire’s father, a cast of interesting, unique people who don’t ever feel like archetypes, and a potentially downer of an ending. Some of his moviemaking tricks are brilliant, like the decision to create Billy’s voice from a combination of three different people (one a woman) and using interchangeable actors to portray the killer so you’re never quite sure who is in the attic. Carl Zittrer’s score is disorienting and minimal, making use of odd instrumentation to add extra unease; it also appears infrequently, giving the movie more of a real life quality. Black Christmas was a reasonable success upon release, more so commercially than critically, but time has been kind to this old gem and many now view it as an outright horror classic.

Hell, it was Elvis’ favorite Christmas movie.

Now the news you’ve all been reading for: the transfer. Scream Factory has taken the additional step of including not only their new 2K scan from the negative but also Critical Mass’ 2006 transfer, which is odd because that edition is clearly inferior to their own. The new 2K disc features a 1.85:1 1080p picture that is very likely the best this film can and will ever look. Black Christmas has a long home video history of looking very grainy, murky, dulled, and soft. I can’t say the new disc’s results are far off that mark but there are clear improvements. For one, grain has been resolved in a tighter field that looks less noisy and more “grindhouse-y”; do not expect an image clear as a crystal unicorn by any means. There is still softness to many faces and objects though detail looks far better here than it ever has before. Colors are more vibrant, too. Black levels run on the hazy side but they’re more stable here than ever. I suppose with a scan of higher resolution and some meticulous work the picture could be improved to some degree but that isn’t to take anything away from the good work Scream Factory has done.

There are a few audio options here, but know that as of this writing one of them is faulty. English DTS-HD MA is available in original mono, 2.0 stereo, and 5.1 surround sound. Being a bit of a purist I decided to go with the original mono track and was instantly greeted by extreme hissing and more popping than a breakdance contest. Scream Factory has (quietly) agreed to an exchange program for those who want a corrected copy. Switching over to the 5.1 track, the audio sounds smooth and refined, offering a more spacious environment for plenty of subtle, creepy rear effects to heighten the terror of Billy’s rampages. If the mono track’s issues are a dealbreaker, by all means exchange your copy but if you have a surround sound system the multi-channel track is a definite winner. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

DISC ONE:

There are four audio commentary tracks: director Bob Clark; actors John Saxon and Keir Dullea; “Billy” (actor Nick Mancuso reprising his role); and Bob Clark again, in what is an interview played over the film.

DISC TWO:

“Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle” – Hindle, who still owns that jacket, talks about being a working actor in Canada when there wasn’t much work, as well as how he wound up auditioning for Clark for a different role.

“Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin” – The actress who is most famous for having a plastic bag over her head tells a few tales from the set.

“Black Christmas Legacy” – This is a lot of interviews from the film’s actors and notable fans. I found it to be a bit tedious.

“40th Anniversary Panel at Fan Expo 2014” – Saxon, Hindle, Griffin, and Mancuso sit down for this interview/q&a at a convention.

“On Screen!: Black Christmas” – This is an older TV episode covering the making of the film, filled with interviews and anecdotes.

“12 Days of Black Christmas” (SD) is a featurette that runs for 19 minutes and 48 seconds. Saxon opens this piece with some interesting trivia narration before it becomes another standard making-of.

“Black Christmas Revisited” – Hindle and Griffin revisit the old house used in the film, while talking heads are interviewed and spliced in between their visit.

“Archival Interviews with Olivia Hussey, Art Hindle, Margot Kidder, Bob Clark, and John Saxon” is a lengthy series of interviews with some of the cast circa 2006.

“Midnight Screening Q&A with John Saxon, Bob Clark, and Carl Zittrer” – Taken from a screening at L.A.’s Nuart Theater circa 2004.

“Two Scenes with a New Soundtrack” – These feature an earlier sound mix with some slight variations that only super fans or those who just watched the movie will notice. Cool nonetheless.

There a few theatrical trailers (SD), in English and French, a series of original TV and radio spots, an alternate title sequence under the name “Silent Night Evil Night” and an extensive photo gallery.

Special Features:
DISC ONE:

  • NEW 2016 2K scan of the negative (1.85:1)
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
  • Audio Commentary with director Bob Clark
  • Audio Commentary with actors John Saxon and Keir Dullea
  • Audio Commentary with Billy (actor Nick Mancuso)
  • Audio interview with director Bob Clark

DISC TWO:

  • 2006 Critical Mass HD Master (1.78:1) – DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1)
  • NEW Film and Furs – Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle
  • NEW Victims and Virgins – Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin
  • Black Christmas Legacy
  • 40th Anniversary Panel at FanExpo 2014 featuring John Saxon, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin & Nick Mancuso
  • On Screen!: Black Christmas featurette
  • 12 Days of Black Christmas featurette
  • Black Christmas Revisited featurette
  • Archival Interviews with Olivia Hussey, Art Hindle, Margot Kidder, Bob Clark, & John Saxon
  • Midnight Screening Q&A with Bob Clark, John Saxon and Carl Zittrer
  • Two scenes with a new vocal soundtrack
  • Original Theatrical Trailers (English and French)
  • Original TV and Radio Spots
  • Alternative Title Sequences
  • Still Gallery

BUY IT NOW!

  • Black Christmas (1974)
  • Special Features
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Annihilation Review – A Fascinating, Gorgeous New Take on Body Horror

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Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac

Written by Alex Garland

Directed by Alex Garland


Have you ever walked out of a theater and thought to yourself, “That was more than just a movie. That was an experience“? It’s only happened to me a handful of times, the last one I remember being Mad Max: Fury Road. Last night, that sensation washed over me as the credits for Annihilation began their crawl after a near two-hour runtime. I remained in my seat until every name slipped by before I found it within myself to stand up and leave the theater. All I could think was, “I’ve just witnessed something incredible.

An adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his The Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation follows Lena (Portman), an ex-soldier-turned-biologist professor at Johns Hopkins whose husband Kane (Isaac) has been missing for a year after leaving on a covert mission of which Lena has been able to get zero information about. When Kane mysteriously returns and almost immediately falls gravely ill, Lena finds herself in a secret government facility that is monitoring a strange and potentially cataclysmic phenomenon: a strange shimmering dome that appeared in a remote region after a meteorite landing, a dome that grows larger with each passing day. Realizing that the answer to her husband’s malady may very well lie within that area, Lena joins four other women as they embark on an expedition into what is called “Area X”. However, it’s quickly realized that nothing is quite what it seems to be and that the laws of nature no longer apply.

The majesty of Annihilation is the time in which it takes to build the story and to ramp up the tension. While it has no problem with frenetic scenes, the film moves at an almost poetic pace, every moment adding something to the overarching narrative. From showing the relationship between Lena and Kane to the interactions between the five women who venture into “Area X” to the action sequences, every part of the movie feels necessary. This is even seen in the climax of the film, which is a 10-minute scene that features almost zero dialogue and yet feels fraught with danger.

Visually, the movie is absolutely gorgeous. The jungle that takes up most of Area X is lush and beautiful. Crepuscular rays break through the leaves and tease a rainbow iridescence thanks to the “shimmer”. A wide variety of flowers impossibly blossom from the same source, a result of the genetic mutations occurring within the dome. Strange fungal patterns explode across the walls of abandoned buildings, their patterns a tumorous cornucopia of colors and textures. Even when the movie brings gore into the equation, it does so with an artist’s gaze. Without ruining the moment, there is a scene where the team comes across the body of a man from a previous expedition. For as macabre as the visual was, it was equally entrancing, calling to mind the strangely beautiful designs of the “clickers” from The Last of Us.

Each setting in the story has a visual style that sets it apart from one another but still feels connected. The governmental facility feels cold and sterile while the jungles of Area X are warm and verdant. As the team ventures further into the contaminated zone, we are taken to the beach next to the lighthouse that acts as “ground zero” for the mysterious event. Here we see trees made of crystal and bone-white roots clinging to the nautical beacon. In this 3rd act, we’re taken into the basement of the lighthouse, which can only be described as Giger-esque, with strange ribbed walls that feel like they pulsate with a life of their own.

The characters of Annihilation feel real and the exposition given doesn’t feel forced. When Lena is rowing a boat with Cass, the sharing of information feels like camaraderie, not awkward plot reveals. Additionally, no character is without their flaws. Even Lena has her own issues that burden her with guilt, making her journey into Area X all the more understandable. As the stress of the mission wears on these women, the seeds of distrust begin germinating into deadly situations that have very real consequences, including the appearance of a bear that would be right at home in the Silent Hill universe. Also, kudos to Garland for writing the film in such a way where the gender roles not only feel natural but are never focused on in a disingenuous manner.

Musically, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who scored Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, create a soundtrack that is atmospheric, haunting, and hypnotizing. The music elevates the dreamy phantasmagoria of the film without overpowering any scene. Meanwhile, cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also worked on Ex Machina, helps create a film where nearly every frame is a work of art.

Those entering Annihilation expecting a clearly defined sci-fi/horror offering will be disappointed. There is certainly a great deal of both to be had but the movie doesn’t want to offer something fleeting. Instead, it uses those genres as a foundation to create a film that will stay with viewers long after they leave the theater. When you get to the core of Annihilation, it’s a body horror film that pays homage to the work of David Cronenberg while carving an entirely new path of its own. Just don’t expect it to hold your hand and answer all of its mysteries. Some questions are left for you to see through on your own.

I do not say this lightly but I truly believe that Alex Garland has offered audiences one of the best genre films in recent years.

  • Annihilation
5.0

Summary

Annihilation is a bold, gorgeous, and stunning melting pot of horror, sci-fi, and drama, culminating in one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen this decade.

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Mom & Dad Review – When Parental Protection Goes Horribly Awry

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Starring Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters

Written and directed by Brian Taylor


The love of one’s parents is something that can propel an individual to not only personal, but professional heights as well, and that’s not to say that the aforementioned love should be taken for granted, either. The reason why I’m making this statement is that you never know when that love could turn to blind, unrestrained rage, and you as the child could be forced to save your own life from those very people who raised you – enter Brian Taylor’s ultra-black comedy, Mom & Dad.

Josh (Zachary Arthur) and his sister, Carly (Winters), are your typical American children: generally oblivious to the life around them provided by their progenitors, and when a mysterious and unexplained virus causes all parents to turn violently towards their kids, it’s the youngins that are the ones being stalked, sometimes with horrific results. What gives this film a tremendous sense of “oomph” is the fact that there really isn’t a whole lot of time spend on useless build-up. Taylor’s style of balls-out direction is no truer on display here as the parental duo of Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair as Brent and Kendall Ryan is one of cinematic gold. Cage, who on the normal is an actor that harnesses his bat-shit nuts style of character portrayal until it’s time to fully unleash the beast – well, consider this performance off of the friggin’ chain! It’s clear from the get-go that the relationship between the folks and the kids isn’t entirely the most drama-free and devoid of subtle hostility.

Some of the scenes of various attacks are a bit tough to take at times, and although the film was created in jest, it’s still the shock factor that carries this one to the finish line with the audience kicking and screaming all the way. One scene inside a newborn delivery room had me shifting in my seat, and for that to happen is pretty damned impressive, and I’ve seen some rather demented shit over the course of my years. The film does get a bit disjointed at times, but order is restored when the mayhem returns in full-force, and Taylor’s action-film resume shows through with psychotic camera-angles and dizzying arrays of brute force from some characters. Blair and Cage didn’t exactly come off doubtless as a couple, and maybe they would have been better set as a separate-working tandem, but the two nevertheless provided some real entertainment once their switches got flipped (well, Cage’s switch never really has an “off” position in this movie).

In the end of it all, Mom & Dad is the textbook definition of a “mindless movie,” and that’s not meant to be a negative in any fashion – I absolutely loved it from beginning to end, and this one is meant for a viewing with the kiddies to gently remind them what could happen if they ever get out of line (wink, wink).

BUY IT NOW!

  • Film
3.5

Summary

Ferocious, frenzied and ultimately fun, these parents certainly aren’t to be f**ked with!

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Drag Me to Hell Blu-ray Review – Scream Factory Tops This Double Dip With Tasty New Extras

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Starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao

Directed by Sam Raimi

Distributed by Scream Factory


After jump-starting his career in horror, Sam Raimi branched off into different genres – western, drama, thriller – before getting called up to the big leagues for Sony’s Spider-Man (2002-2007) trilogy. Fans who had hoped for a return to the ol’ splatter days had a 17-year wait until that moment finally arrived with Drag Me to Hell (2009). Raimi had been kicking that script around for close to a decade, even offering it to Edgar Wright at one point after realizing he didn’t have the time to see it through. Once the dust settled from a public spat-of-sorts between Raimi and Sony over the direction of a proposed “Spider-Man 4”, however, suddenly Sam found himself with a whole lotta free time and the desire to work on something “smaller”. The script he and his brother, Ivan, had written all those years back now fit perfectly within the wheelhouse of Ghost House Pictures, a production company Raimi launched with longtime producer Robert Tapert in 2002. Armed with a bigger budget (~$30 million) than he had for any previous horror film, Raimi still kept the scale small and (surprisingly) lightened up on the gore, making a more accessible film that still retained his trademark style.

Pasadena, 1959. A Hispanic family brings their son to see Shaun San Dena (Flor de Maria Chahua), a medium who specializes in demons and malevolent spirits, claiming the boy has been hearing voices after stealing a gypsy’s necklace. Before anything can be done the ground opens up and the child is literally dragged down into the fiery depths. Cut to present day, where we meet Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), an ambitious loan officer hoping to score that big promotion to assistant manager. She just has to impress her boss, Jim (David Paymer), and prove her abilities over Stu (Reggie Lee), a new co-worker gunning for the same position. Christine gets a chance to show she can “make the hard decisions” when elderly gypsy Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) pays her a visit, looking for a loan extension on her about-to-be-foreclosed-upon home. Christine defers to Jim for advice, but he lobs the ball back into her court for the final decision. Thinking about that coveted promotion, Christine refuses the extension. Despite Mrs. Ganush’s on-her-knees pleading, Christine stands firm.

Later that night, while leaving work Christine is attacked by Ganush and the two women have a knock-down drag-out brawl that ends with the haggard old liver spot snatching a button off Christine’s coat and imbuing it with a curse. Christine is able to make out the word “Lamia” before passing out. The next day Christine and her boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long), have a chance encounter with Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a soothsayer who warns Christine that she has been beset upon by an evil spirit. Clay is skeptical but Christine hears his words and all but confirms them after seeing bizarre hallucinations and being attacked by the demon in her home. An attempt to appeal to Mrs. Ganush and have the curse lifted fails when Christine learns the old woman recently died. Rham Jas offers to have Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza) perform a séance to trap and kill the Lamia but, really, the only sure way to be rid of the curse is for Christine to “gift” the accursed object (her button) to another – and that person will befall the same horrific fate.

When I first caught this in theaters I remember my only real disappointment was not Raimi’s lack of excessive gore but that so much of it was done using CGI. While there are several visceral, completely disgusting gross-out gags that were achieved with practical effects other moments, such as when the anvil drops on Ganush’s head, look like SyFy-level computer work. The kind of ingenuity that would have been used to pull of these effects is a large part of why Raimi’s early work is so beloved. Maybe the lure and ease of CGI is just too great? A similar thing happened to Peter Jackson, too. At least the tangible moments here are uncomfortably nasty, like Ganush’s frequent “gumming” of Christine’s chin… and all the gross crap she spits into her mouth. There is a lot to love; enough to outweigh the few moments of mediocrity. It’s just slightly frustrating as a fan because it’s clear where improvements could have been made. Still, bad CGI isn’t the film’s biggest problem…

…it’s the acting. Alison Lohman seems like a very nice young woman and I have no desire to criticize her to death, but she doesn’t have any range. Her entire performance as Christine is monotonous and generally flat. Emotions come across as directions read off a page; nothing feels true. She isn’t bad enough to sink the entire film but it was glaring during this, my fourth or fifth time watching the film, where it became very apparent. Also, I usually like Long but he’s just kinda phoning it in here. The climax when he’s yelling out “Oh god!” on the train station platform is bad on a level only Ryan O’Neal could understand.

Christopher Young kills it, though. The man behind one of the greatest horror scores of all time, Hellraiser (1987), delivers with the goods. His main theme is reminiscent of “Danse Macabre” and the entire soundtrack vacillates between devilish strings and powerful, overwhelming compositions. The sound design was a highlight of this film (how often is that noticed enough to garner praise?) and Young’s score propels it to the fiery depths with glorious results.

Raimi has only done one picture since Drag Me to Hell, 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful, and although much talk has occurred about potential vehicles nothing is set in stone as of yet. Hopefully, once he does jump back into the fold it’s with something akin to this fiendish little gem and not another bloated CGI epic.

Universal’s previously issued Drag Me to Hell on Blu-ray, with both cuts of the film occupying a single BD-50 disc and sporting an outdated encode. Scream Factory’s release spreads those versions out onto two discs, with each getting its own BD-50. The 2.40:1 1080p image isn’t a major leap in picture quality over the last edition, but videophiles will pick up on the improved black levels, tighter contrast, and lack of obvious compression issues. The picture is clean, blemish-free, and nicely detailed with strong color saturation and a proficient reproduction of the theatrical experience.

As with the Universal disc, expect to find audio options in English DTS-HD Master Audio with both 2.0 and 5.1 surround sound tracks included. As mentioned, Young’s score soars in lossless, providing a tense, immersive experience for viewers. Rear speakers are used frequently, especially during scenes involving the Lamia, and viewers can expect to hear demonic noises and scattered sound effects from every corner of the room. Dialogue is never lost in all this chaos, though, and voices are always clear and easy to understand. Subtitles are available in English.

DISC ONE: Theatrical Cut

“Production Diaries: Behind-the-Scenes Footage and Interviews with Cast and Crew” – Occasionally “hosted” by Justin Long these offer up a glimpse into the production via fly-on-the-wall and on-set video.

“Vintage Interviews”, featuring additional chat time with Raimi, Lohman, and Long.

Two TV spots and a theatrical trailer are also included here.

DISC TWO: Unrated Cut

“To Hell and Back: An Interview with Actress Alison Lohman” – The actress sits down to look back on the film she made nearly ten years ago.

“Curses!: An Interview with Actress Lorna Raver” – This old lady is so adorable, talking about how she knew little of the project until she was fully committed and then learned it was such a horrific role.

“Hitting All the Right Notes: An Interview with Composer Christopher Young” – The man behind the brilliant score has plenty to say about his working relationship with Raimi, as well as how he wrote the outstanding soundtrack.

A still gallery can also be found here.

Back to (mostly) basics and dripping with the signature style fans had missed for so long, Raimi came back in a big way with “Drag Me to Hell”. Nearly ten years on the film still holds up just as well, although it is robbed of additional pathos due to wooden acting. Regardless, this is just what fans hoped to see Raimi pull off once again and he does not disappoint.

Special Features:

Disc One:

  • NEW HD master of the theatrical cut taken from the 2K digital intermediate
    Production Diaries – with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with co- writer/director Sam Raimi, actors Allison Lohman, Justin Long, David Paymer, Dileep Rao, Lorna Raver, special effects guru Greg Nicotero, director of photography Peter Deming, and more… (35 minutes)
  • Vintage interviews with director Sam Raimi and actors Alison Lohman and Justin Long (33 minutes)
  • TV Spots
  • Theatrical Trailer

Disc Two:

  • NEW HD master of the unrated cut taken from the 2K digital intermediate
  • NEW To Hell and Back – an interview with actress Alison Lohman (12 minutes)
  • NEW Curses! – an interview with actress Lorna Raver (16 minutes)
  • NEW Hitting All The Right Notes – an interview with composer Christopher Young (17 minutes)
  • Still Gallery
  • Drag Me to Hell
  • Special Features
4.0

Summary

Back to (mostly) basics and dripping with the signature style fans had missed for so long, Raimi came back in a big way with “Drag Me to Hell”. Nearly ten years on the film still holds up just as well, although it is robbed of additional pathos due to wooden acting. Regardless, this is just what fans hoped to see Raimi pull off once again and he does not disappoint.

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