Judge Bryan Pope's skin is on too tight, so he uses Noxema Deep Cleansing Cream Plus Moisturizers.
Agnes, it's Billy. Don't tell what we did.
Few directors have the distinction of having not one, but two Christmas classics under their belts. Not so with Bob Clark, the man who gave us Porky's (ugh) and Baby Geniuses (double ugh), but also Murder By Decree and the great A Christmas Story. His adaptation of Jean Shepherd's work may be what gets mentioned on his epitaph someday, but let's not dismiss his other holiday keeper. Black Christmas—also known as Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger in the House—is equally as sly, but 10 times more wicked.
On the eve of Glen Morgan's all-star remake, Somerville House and Critical Mass have given Black Christmas the special edition treatment. Again, actually. This is the third outing for Clark's cozy little chiller, and the second release, marketed as the "Collector's Edition," was a spiffy package to begin with. So is this new edition worth the triple dip, or will it be just another lump of coal in your stocking?
Facts of the Case
'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, a creature was stirring…
Christmas carols become screams of terror as a psychopath menaces the college town of Bedford during the holiday break. And as the girls of Pi Kappa Sig receive ever-more-threatening telephone calls, they begin to realize that danger lurks closer than they ever could have imagined…and that their old house has secrets of its own hiding in the darkest corners.
At what point does a thriller turn into a full-fledged horror movie? This isn't a rhetorical question. I ask because I honestly don't know. Whatever the answer is, I do think Black Christmas stays juuuuust this side of the line. The film's fans—and they are legion—cry foul anytime someone suggests that it was that other seasonal slasher classic that set the late '70s/early '80s slasher period into motion. After all, this film centered its action around a national holiday and used the killer POV camerawork four years before Halloween, right? Perhaps. But I say let John Carpenter have the honor of being the horror film trailblazer.
Now hear me out. Despite Black Christmas' obvious influence, the two films couldn't be more different. Carpenter's film is a sleek, muscular exercise in pure terror, a model of efficient storytelling that is interested in its characters only as servants of a relentless narrative. Black Christmas, on the other hand, gets off to a whiz-bang start (the first and most startling of "Billy's" infamous phone calls arrives within five minutes after the opening credits), but then settles into a dreary, deliberately paced story that doesn't really kick in until the last half hour. In the meantime, we listen in on the girls as they arrange holiday plans around families and boyfriends, organize Christmas parties for orphans, and deal with more urgent issues like alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies, and a mysteriously absent sorority sister.
But Clark makes it clear early on that we're not the only ones privy to all this. He and screenwriter Roy Moore have paid attention to Alfred Hitchcock's oft-quoted definition of suspense (the bomb under the table, etc.), and after an establishing shot of a shadowy figure climbing the trellis to the attic window, Clark's camera meanders among the story's half dozen or so characters, occasionally reminding us of the unwanted stranger waiting upstairs. And that's why the movie works.
Black Christmas is stark, atmospheric, and packed with enough chilly scenes of winter to have you reaching for the nearest blanket. People scurry through the frosty air in their scarves and wool caps, while living rooms glow with the warmth of Christmas tree lights. Carl Zittrer's piano score is sparse and eerily effective, and "Silent Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" serve more as a requiem than a harbinger of good tidings. The latter figures in an especially memorable sequence—one of the film's best—involving a choir and a glass unicorn.
In fact, it's Zittrer's entire sound design that packs the most punch. Even the film's detractors admit that "Billy's" telephone calls—each one a scary blend of human voices and animal sounds, and each one just as profane as the next—set Black Christmas apart from its imitators. But that's not even the point. What they fail to acknowledge is Clark's genius in revealing so much and yet so little about the movie's killer. For years, fans have speculated about the true identity of "Billy" and his "sister, Agnes." Myself, I think the screenplay purposely leaves that question open-ended. In doing so, the film becomes a sort of study on the nature of madness, and that makes Clark's thriller work on an entirely new level.
On the other hand, this could also be just another example of the film's strange sense of humor, which is in full throttle throughout (remember, this is the film with the hilariously over-the-top tagline, "If this film doesn't make your skin crawl, it's on too tight!"). Some of the jokes work (fellatio in the police station, Mrs. Mac's liquor storage); others don't (a turtle story that not even Margot Kidder can save, a run-in with two bumbling members of a search party). And then there's the movie's most grim running joke: Dozens of comings and goings at the Pi Kappa Sig house, yet nobody notices the corpse staring down from the attic window.
Clark's direction is controlled and masterful, his film short on blood and long on red herrings. It's a smart, neatly structured thriller that establishes rules and doesn't cheat. Even its sneaky ending holds up (and it's blatantly clear who the killer is not, so don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise).
Clark is working on a tight budget, but he gets tremendous mileage out of that now-famous house, full of staircases, darkened rooms, and enough nooks and crannies to hide 12 days worth of Christmas gifts, or something more sinister. He also draws effective, thoughtful performances from an eclectic cast, including Olivia Hussey (the story's not-so-virginal heroine, a rarity in this genre), Kidder, Andrea Martin (exuding tenderness in a pre-SCTV dramatic role), and Keir Dullea (galaxies away from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and creepy to boot). Reliable John Saxon is also on hand as—what else?—a police detective, and he gives the role sufficient gravitas.
So watch A Christmas Story with the kiddos, shuffle them off to bed, then snuggle down with this nasty little number and a nice glass of eggnog. Just be sure you lock the doors and windows first. And check the attic.
According to überfan and www.itsmebilly.com creator Dan Duffin, this edition finally gets the film's technical specs right. He said Clark and cinematographer Reginald Morris intended Black Christmas to be shown in 1.85:1 matte. Critical Mass' first release was accidentally transferred from the negative open matte. The result was a full screen presentation. The next release, Critical Mass' Collector's Edition, came closer to the intended aspect ratio with a 1.77:1 nonanamorphic transfer. For this latest release, Duffin said the film was retransferred from the original negatives into hi-def and given a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that was approved by cameraman Bert Dunk. The result? A transfer that easily surpasses those from the previous two editions. Colors are much more vivid, details more defined. The film still contains some noticeable debris, but, on the whole, it has been scrubbed clean.
The package includes the original mono soundtrack (English and French) for purists, and a souped-up 5.1 surround mix that provides a slightly more full-bodied listening experience. The surround had some nice effects and is cleaner than the audio from the two previous editions. Still, I fall into the purist camp, so I preferred the very nice mono track. Alas, subtitles are not included. Bah, humbug.
When it comes to bonus material for cult film DVDs, who knows better what fans want than the fans themselves? That's what Critical Mass' William Alexander thought, so he brought in Duffin, who was given free reign and one week in Toronto this past September to put together the best disc he could. What Duffin came up with is two hours of Christmas goodies fans will be delighted to unwrap.
First up is "The 12 Days of Black Christmas," a well-produced, 20-minute retrospective narrated by Saxon and featuring remarks from most of the cast. Duffin was successful in securing both Hussey and Kidder for the program (both were conspicuously absent from the previous edition). The only notable omission here is Andrea Martin, and she is sorely missed.
As good as the featurette is, what really decked my halls—and made this package soar above the previous edition—were the three lengthy cast interviews. The remarks from Hussey, Kidder, and Art Hindle that were used in the featurette were taken from more extensive interviews, and those full interviews are included as a separate bonus feature. Hussey's interview runs 17 minutes, and she is lovely and a delight, eager to answer the couple of dozen questions hurled her way. For a woman who claims not to be a fan of the genre, she is obviously proud of Black Christmas.
Kidder is also proud, but also surprised at the new life the movie has found on home video. Her 22-minute interview is the most entertaining of the bunch, benefiting from Kidder's trademark humor and frankness. She dishes on everything from trying to get beautiful young superstar Hussey to come out of her shell, to sleeping with director Brian De Palma while working on Sisters, to the politics of being an actor in Canada.
Hindle's interview (24 minutes) is the least focused of the three, but it's no less fun. Though he had a minor role in the film, Hindle has always been a champion of Black Christmas, and he looks back on the shoot fondly and with an impish sense of humor.
Also included is the 20-minute "Midnight Screening Q&A" with Clark, Zittrer, and Saxon. The three field questions from a roomful of adoring fans, resulting in a special feature with some meat on its bones. Most notably, Clark officially puts to bed rumors about whether John Carpenter stole the idea for Halloween from Clark (short answer: absolutely not).
Finally, Duffin unearthed audio tracks for two scenes. Their inclusion here is appreciated, but they are brief and don't add much to the viewing experience, so they will likely be of interest only as a curiosity to hardcore fans.
The Collector's Edition included two commentary tracks (one featuring Clark, the other Saxon and Dullea) and an amusingly bizarre documentary that was much less polished than the one provided here. While all three would have marked this disc as the last word on Black Christmas, none are included. I asked Duffin why they chose not to salvage at least the commentaries for this edition. He explains:
"We did have the rights to use the commentary tracks, but we were trying to put a new one together for this release so as not to duplicate any information for fans who had already purchased the first releases. Also, the bit rate we transferred the film at is so high, that once we added the two hours of brand new extra features to the disc, there was very little room left for anything at all."
Given the budget constraints, Duffin's reason is understandable, and he has still turned out an entertaining, information-packed disc. Now, if only it included the film's original poster art on the cover.
Black Christmas fans finally have the picture and sound quality they've been clamoring for, and the extras here are quite fine (despite the omission of the previous edition's commentaries). While a definitive edition of this little cult fave still eludes us, pairing this disc with Critical Mass' Collector's Edition puts you as close to one as you're likely to get.
This fan-produced tribute to Bob Clark's creepy holiday classic is a quality package. Not guilty. Now have yourself a scary little Christmas.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Somerville House
• "The 12 Days of Black Christmas"
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