Somerville House // 1974 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // November 21st, 2008
If this film doesn't make your skin crawl...it's on too tight!
If you thought A Christmas Story was director Bob Clark's only yuletide classic, you have another think coming. Nine years before Clark brought us the adventures of Ralphie Parker and his colorful family, he delivered the greatest Christmas-themed horror flick ever made (granted, that's a niche achievement if ever there was one, but still). Black Christmas is a great cult film and one of the most influential horror movies of the 1970s.
At a small private college, things are winding down for the holiday break. Jessica Bradford (Olivia Hussey Romeo and Juliet ) is pregnant but has decided to have an abortion. Her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea, 2001: A Space Odyssey) doesn't take the news well. A music major, Peter fails a graded piano recital because of his argument with Jess. Meanwhile, Jess' sorority house begins receiving obscene phone calls. They are progressively more perverse and violent. Straight-laced Clare Harrison (Lynne Griffin, Strange Brew) is horrified by the calls, while wild child Barbie Coard (Margot Kidder, Superman) finds them humorous. The next day, when Clare's father comes to collect her for the holidays, she's nowhere to be found. Barbie files a police report, but local cop Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller (John Saxon, Enter the Dragon) is occupied with the case of a missing townie. When the local girl turns up dead, the sorority sisters lock themselves in their house as Lt. Fuller and his team attempt to trace the obscene phone calls that continue to terrify them.
Before Michael Meyers stalked teenage girls in John Carpenter's Halloween, before Sam Raimi thrilled us with point-of-view shots from the monster's perspective in The Evil Dead, there was Black Christmas. Bob Clark's cult classic is a taut little horror picture that paved the way for the slasher craze of the 1980s -- at least to the extent that John Carpenter loved the film and was inspired by it to make Halloween. But Black Christmas is a much better film than Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street or any of the countless lesser killer-stalks-teens flicks that inundated theaters in the '80s. In fact, it's even better than Halloween. Based on a water-tight and surprisingly intelligent script by Ray Moore, Black Christmas is a marvel of precise pacing, macabre atmosphere, suspense, and laughs.
As if that weren't enough, Clark and cinematographer Reginald H. Morris (Murder by Decree) shot the hell out of the picture. One of the movie's hallmarks is the many disturbing, vertiginous shots from the point-of-view of the foul-mouthed killer, who calls himself Billy. As groundbreaking as that stylistic flourish is, it's not all that Clark and Morris deliver on the visual front. Their handling of the sorority house is masterful. Low-angle, fish-eye shots combine with framing that captures characters in doorways, behind stairway banisters, and draped in shadows to produce a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere. In the hands of Clark and Morris, the girls' quaint, innocuous little home becomes a true house of horrors.
Bob Clark (who died tragically, along with his son, in an automobile accident in 2007) was the sort of old-school filmmaker that is nearly extinct these days. A solid technician, he also understood the ins and outs of the business; he knew how to finance low-budget pictures and turn a profit on them. His movies tend to have a gritty, lived-in look that's appealing to the eye (it's appealing to my eye, anyway). That's true of A Christmas Story and Porky's, and it's certainly true of Black Christmas. This 1080p transfer of the film sports plenty of grain (no, Virginia, that's not digital noise) that may put off viewers used to smooth and glossy modern big-budget Hollywood productions, but it shouldn't. Colors are muted but natural. Detail is reasonable -- probably as sharp as the source material allows. If there's a major problem with the transfer, it is a touch of black crush. Detail tends to be lost in shadow areas, but that may be a reality of the aged source materials and not a flaw in the digital transfer. Given the age of the film, its genre, and its production budget, the Blu-ray edition of Black Christmas looks quite good.
Dolby Digital 5.1 is a bland audio option for a high definition format, but the track here is a fine expansion of the original analog mono presentation of Carl Zittrer's memorably creepy score and sound design. A lossless audio codec may have offered an improvement over the 5.1 track, but probably only a minimal one. The original mono track is also included as well as a mono French dub.
All of the supplements from the 2006 Special Edition DVD are included on the Blu-ray. There are no BD-exclusive extras. In the process of creating the Dolby 5.1 mix of the Black Christmas soundtrack, Dan Duffy (administrator of the fansite, ItsMeBilly.com) unearthed alternate audio mixes for two scenes -- Billy's trellis climb at the beginning of the movie, and a beautifully executed panning shot at the end.
The 12 Days of Black Christmas (19:48) is a fine making-of featurette, narrated by John Saxon and peppered with interviews of actors Saxon, Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, Art Hindle, Doug McGrath, and Lynne Griffin. Unedited versions of the interviews with Kidder (22:30), Hussey (17:10), and Hindle (23:47) are also included on the disc. All three are personable and clearly proud of the movie's quality and cult status.
There's a Q&A from after a midnight screening of Black Christmas in Santa Monica in 2004. Bob Clark, John Saxon, and Carl Zittrer take questions from the audience. Clark's recollections are particularly vivid and interesting. The feature runs 20:19.
Finally, the disc contains English and French trailers for the film.
Black Christmas is a true horror classic that deserves to be more than a cult film. Fans weighing whether or not to upgrade their copies of the film to Blu-ray must ponder whether having a more celluloid-looking image is worth it even if that means a more intrusive patina of grain.
Don't tell what we did!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Somerville House
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Two Original Scenes with a New Vocal Soundtrack
* The 12 Days of Black Christmas
* Interviews with Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder
* Q&A with John Saxon, Bob Clark, and Carl Zittrer
* DVD Verdict interview with director Bob Clark