Writer/director Bob Clark is probably best known to movie audiences as the writer/director of Porky’s (1982) and as the director of A Christmas Story (1983), for which he also wrote the screenplay with Jean Shepherd. Despite these forays into teenage sex comedy’s and sweet Christmas classics, Clark got his start in the movie business making horror films. His first film of that ilk, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), was a mix of humor and graphic horror.
Released in 1974, Clark produced and directed Black Christmas. Written by Roy Moore, the film was largely based on a series of real-life murders in Montreal, Quebec around Christmas time. Made for a budget of $700K Canadian, the film has developed a large cult following in the years since its theatrical release, and is largely considered “an influential precursor to the modern slasher genre.
For such a low budget film, quite a few notable names pop up. among them John Saxon (who would later appear in another slasher flick, Nightmare on Elm Street), Olivia Hussey (who was much sexier in Romeo and Juliet), and Margot Kidder (who looks more like a house mother than sorority girl, and plays such a lush that it’s hard to imagine her playing clean-cut Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve just four years later, but then she is an actress).
The sisters of Pi Kappa Sigma are being pestered by obscene phone calls. At first it’s just heavy breathing, but then the mystery caller starts going off into rambling, graphic depictions of sex. It’s kind of unnerving, but the girls don’t worry about it too much. Christmas is right around the corner, and most of them are out the door for the holidays as it is. The calls become more frequent and more intense after a goodbye party at the sorority house and Claire (Lynne Griffin) suddenly disappears before the last few stragglers in the house stumble out of bed the next morning. The cops dismiss it off at first, but when Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) starts to connect Claire’s disappearance with the depraved phone calls, a full-blown search party starts scouring the town.
The premise is simple. The phone calls continue, people disappear and the police get involved, and try to figure out who’s behind it all. The problem is, almost everyone is a potential suspect. Jess (Olivia Hussey) has a boyfriend with seriously violent tendencies. He makes threats to her if she goes ahead and aborts their baby. Barbie (Margot Kidder) is a raving alcoholic who shows disdain for almost everyone. Then there’s Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), a closet drinker who comes and goes like a tenant and does nothing to care for the girls she’s supposed to be house-mothering. Other boyfriends and would-be boyfriends also lurk around strangely rather than simply knock on the door and go off on dates, as they would in any other sorority house. No, everything here is covered in the same sort of gauze that hangs all over their Christmas tree (I mean, what is that all about?).
The murder of the first girl is bound to put a knot in your stomach. The problem is, from there, things get formulaic. The pacing and even the music is such, that you can pretty much tell when each of the subsequent victims is a goner. However, Roy Moore managed to write a script that delays the finding of the bodies so that there’s a gap between what the characters (and possible victims) know and what the audience knows. For some horror neophytes this ploy may create enough suspense to keep them on the edge of their seats. For those who like to be totally surprised by all the events in a horror movie, this one won’t pass the test.
Despite its flaws, Black Christmas deserves a place in any horror fans movie collection. Bob Clark directed the film with a remarkably keen visual eye. The extensive use of P.O.V. shots–seeing the murders from the killer’s perspective–may have been old hat in giallo thrillers, but it was a novel approach in America films that would later become a fixture in slasher movies. The lifeless body wrapped in plastic, creaking away on a rocking chair, is as enduring and iconic as any image in any horror movie nearly four decades after its release; for that, Black Christmas deserves some measure of the cult status it has achieved.
Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio because it presented that way in U.S. theaters, Scream Factory has provided new 2K transfer of the original negative. It’s safe to say this 1080p release is a huge improvement over the previous 2008 Blu-ray release. Black Christmas is never going to look pristine, but a lot of print damage has been taken care of. Depth has been increased, improving what was once a dull, lifeless image. While background images lack some detail, close-ups shine. Black levels are deep and more grain appears in the darker scenes. Unlike the previous Blu-ray release, no crushing is in evidence. Colors are strong and show off a varied palette. There is no bleeding to speak off and reds, golds and yellows are particularly memorable. Skin tones appear natural and consistent throughout. Heavy grain, occasional streaks and some instances of print damage crop up here, but even so, this Scream Factory release represents a commendable step up from the previous Blu-ray.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Audio track is the same one available on the previous Blu-ray. Also, available is the original mono track for the purists out there. The 5.1 track offers a little thump during the scares and music cues, but it won’t blow anyone over. The track is very front heavy, but some ambient sounds move to the rears. Dialogue is clear and concise throughout.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Director Bob Clark: While Clark tool the movie seriously, he shows a real sense of humor about things in this largely scene specific commentary. He shares information about the production, anecdotes from the set and more.
- Audio Commentary with Actors John Saxon and Keir Dullea: Recorded separately and edited together, the actors discuss the film and their differing approaches to the material.
- Audio Commentary by Actor Nick Mancuso as “Billy”: Somewhat interesting at first, it gets old quickly.
- 2006 Critical Mass Version (HD, 1:38:05) Framed in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this one uses the 2008 Blu-ray transfer.
- Film and Furs: Remembering Black Christmas (HD, 26:11) He chats about auditioning with a stack of Keir Dullea’s lines and even standing in for Dullea for a couple of weeks during Olivia Hussey’s rehearsals, lobbing out one suggestion to Bob Clark that left him pelted by a barrage of hockey pucks, how this movie led to him setting up shop in Los Angeles, and how he still has that amazing coat hanging up in his closet.
- Victims and Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas (HD, 26:35) Actress Lynne Griffin discusses her experiences working on the film.
- Black Christmas Legacy (HD, 40:22) A look back at the film, mixing new and archival interviews with actors Nick Mancuso, Lynne Griffin, Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, composer Carl Zitrer and director Bob Clark. Current journalists and fans also chime in with their thoughts on the film.
- 40th Anniversary Panel at FanExpo 2014 (HD, 18:02) Recorded at 2014’s Canada Fan Expo, Lynne Griffin, Art Hindle, John Saxon and Nick Mancuso discuss the film.
- On Screen! Black Christmas (SD, 48:41) In this vintage featurette, cast and crew, as well as others involved in the Canadian film industry are interviewed regarding Black Christmas and its legacy.
- 12 Days of Black Christmas (SD, 19:48) Narrated by John Saxon, this retrospective tackles the real-life rash of murders that inspired the story, how the P.O.V. shots of the killer were executed, hammering out the collage of voices behind the twisted phone calls, the musical score, the production design in the sorority house, and the movie’s Canadian marketing campaign. Several of the cast members also briefly reflect on the shoot.
- Black Christmas Revisited (SD, 36:25) A retrospective piece feature Lynne Griffin and Art Hindle touring shooting locations on the films 25th There are also interviews with various cast and crew.
- Archival Interviews (SD, 1:41:30) Featuring Olivia Hussey, Art Hindle, Margot Kidder, Bob Clark and John Saxon. These are the full takes from interviews used in the other featurettes from previous releases.
- Midnight Screening Q&A (SD, 20:21) A Q&A session with director Bob Clark, John Saxon, and composer Carl Zittrer following a midnight screening in 2004. They field a bunch of questions: What the relationship is between Billy and this Agnes that he’s raving about over the phone, the mishap with an ailing Edmond O’Brien that dropped John Saxon in front of the camera as originally intended, the weeks-long process of recording the deranged phone calls, the influence a potential sequel may or may not have had on John Carpenter, creating so many of the movie’s sounds by manipulating recordings of a piano being trashed, and how long one of the actresses was stuck with plastic wrapped around her face.
- Two Scenes with a New Soundtrack (SD, 3:04) Alternate soundtracks for a couple of scenes were unearthed while piecing together the disc’s 5.1 remix, and they’re offered here over the original footage.
- Theatrical Trailers: English and French (SD, 8:16)
- Original TV & Radio Spots (SD, 3:09)
- Alternative Title Sequences (SD, 2:47) “Silent Night, Evil Night” and “Stranger In The House”
- Photo Gallery (HD, 4:33) Posters, lobby cards, articles and a few promo shots.