Black Christmas (1974) (Blu-ray)
Starring 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.
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.
“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.
- 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
- 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