Black Christmas Review
Bob Clark’s highly influential Black Christmas (1974) not only inspired John Carpenter’s classic Halloween a few years later but, along with Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, prompted a huge surge in slasher films from the early eighties onwards. As the sorority house/summer camp horrors became two a penny, it seemed the raison d'être was just to deliver a succession of gruesome sequences, often provided by the likes of make-up whizz Tom Savini (The Burning, Friday 13th, Rosemary’s Killer et al). With a few exceptions, the performances were usually dire and any real suspense negligible. By contrast, Black Christmas holds up more than 40 years later after all those imitators, thanks to some well-drawn characters and spine-tingling moments that eschew the need for graphic gore, instead often just using the power of suggestion.
Black Christmas is set in a sorority house with the film opening as the residents enjoy a festive celebration before the holidays. As the party is underway, a prowler slips unnoticed into the house and takes up residence in the attic. That same person starts plaguing the sorority sisters with a series of obscene phone calls, with them nicknaming him “The Moaner”. One of the girls, Clare Harrison (Lynne Griffin), later disappears and, unbeknown to the others, has been murdered by the stranger. Claire’s body is disturbingly concealed in the attic with her head covered by a polythene bag.
The other sisters, Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder) and Phyl (Andrea Martin) search desperately for their friend. Clare’s father (James Edmond) then arrives at the house and grows increasingly concerned for his daughter’s whereabouts too. There’s some ineffective help from the local police, headed by Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), who take an age to make any progress. You may wonder why they don’t conduct a thorough search of the house first – even Claude the resident cat seems to be one step ahead of everyone else in locating the body. The terrifying phone calls persist, with the killer sounding increasingly unhinged as the film progresses, hidden away in the loft space and lying in wait for his next victim.
For a film made on a miniscule budget, Black Christmas benefits from an exceptionally talented cast. Hussey, who wowed critics in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet several years earlier, is terrific in the role of Jess. There is more depth of character in this than you would normally expect from a little indie horror flick. This is demonstrated when we see Jess, learning she is pregnant, then going through a difficult period with her musician boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea – star of 2001). He is having doubts about his career, wants her to have the baby and for them to get married. Jess on the other hand insists upon an abortion - she still has other aspirations and is not ready to settle down. They argue, his irrational behaviour starts to put suspicion in her mind – could he be the mysterious caller? Genre favourite Saxon, who was cast at the eleventh hour, is dependable as always playing the determined cop.
A pre-Superman Kidder – impressive in De Palma’s earlier Sisters, is hilarious as the foul-mouthed Barb, whether it’s dispensing a caustic comeback to the offensive caller or her drunken outburst about turtles. For a dark film, there is a surprising amount of irreverent humour running throughout. For example, the brash house mother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) has a drink problem, and there’s an amusing running gag showing her retrieving the tipple from all manner of places – including the toilet cistern. There’s banter too in the police station – with the cops laughing uncontrollably at one point due to their colleague’s stupidity at believing some of Barb’s baloney. Watch closely for some humorous posters on the girl’s bedroom wall – including the cheeky “Express Thy Self”.
The distorted phone voice of “Billy” the killer – whether wailing or hissing obscenities down the line are highly unnerving (Nick Mancuso predominately provided the voice). Watch too for an excellent early example of prowling POV camera work by Reginald Morris, without the use of Steadicam, which would later become the norm. This combined with Carl Zittrer’s atmospheric music really creates a feeling of dread. There is in fact very little blood shown onscreen, the murders are swift and sometimes even suggested off-camera. Whether it’s simply the loft hatch rising, an eyeball peering menacingly through a crack in the door or an ominous shadow, Black Christmas still delivers some highly effective scares
Black Christmas makes it UK debut on Blu-ray from 101 Films, in a dual-format release. The film has had a chequered history over the years in terms of releases, having appeared several times before on Blu-ray elsewhere around the world, although these editions have been blighted with various issues that have frustrated fans. Past bugbears included hissy audio, disappointing picture quality and lax subtitling that doesn’t closely follow the onscreen dialogue. The most recent release of Black Christmas in the US was a double disc (region A locked) special edition from Shout Factory, which appeared during 2016 and was received more favourably.
The new UK disc from 101 Films in 1080p preserves the original 1.85:1 ratio. It’s worth mentioning that earlier releases of Black Christmas in HD have exhibited quite a coarse grain structure. This edition doesn’t seem to have had any over-zealous DNR applied, so there’s still a degree of filmic grain present and in certain scenes it is more noticeable than others. The image is free from significant damage such as specks and scratches. Colours remain bright throughout, skin tones look natural and there’s an appreciable amount of extra detail in the image here over earlier DVD editions.
There are two audio options, LPCM 2.0 or 5.1. For a movie that relies heavily on its atmospheric sound mix, I’m pleased to report that there are no significant issues with the audio such as background hiss. The dialogue is crystal clear throughout, though I did note just a brief instance when it was slightly out of synch. Regrettably there are no subtitles with this edition, which is a real let down.
This new UK release ports over two interviews produced by Shout Factory in 2016, together with other extras that first appeared on an older edition from Anchor Bay (Canada) in 2014. There are no commentary tracks with this release, unlike the recent US disc which boasted several. Although this edition doesn’t include all the extras present on the US Shout Factory disc, it is still a commendable effort:
Film & Furs: Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle (26:11) – The actor (who plays Clare’s boyfriend) reflects on making the film in Toronto. Hindle reveals that he now spends his time mentoring film students in Canada. Amusingly he rates the effectiveness of a horror film by how often it makes his wife jump. He also mentions that famous hefty fur coat that he wears during this film - and in other roles too, out of necessity it seems because the location was so cold.
Victims & Virgins: Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin (26:35) – Griffin is full of amusing anecdotes. We learn for instance that a cat named Claude was the biggest diva on set. It apparently proved useful too that Griffin was a competent swimmer, able to hold her breath for long periods. This is because for the role of Clare she had the misfortune of playing dead for hours with a plastic bag stuck over her head. There was further indignity when she was sprayed with catnip to encourage Claude to lick her face on cue – and she still couldn’t move a muscle. What a trooper!
Black Christmas Legacy (40:22) – A fascinating documentary with input from cast and crew members, together with critics and other directors who admire the movie. There is also an archive interview with director Bob Clark - also known for the comedy Porkys, who was tragically killed in a car accident during 2007 which also claimed the life of his young son.
Original TV and Radio spots (3:09) – Don’t you just love those grave voiceovers for old 1970s/80s trailers?
40th Anniversary Reunion Panel: Fan Expo Canada (18:02) – stars Lynne Griffin, Art Hindle and John Saxon answer questions from enthusiastic Canadian fans. Griffin and Hindle are on top form, though veteran Saxon seems a little vague. They are also joined by actor Nick Mancuso, who provided the creepy phone voice of Billy - apparently whilst standing on his head.
Poster – A fold out poster of the subtle new artwork depicting a blood covered bauble reflecting a shadowy figure.
Reversible Sleeve – A choice of the new artwork or an alternate older design showing Clare’s body in a rocking chair surrounded by a Christmas wreath, accompanied by that iconic tagline: “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl…it’s on too tight!”
Art Cards – Four art cards depicting scenes from the film (Sainsbury’s limited edition only)
Black Christmas is available in a dual-format release from 101 Films on 20th November 2017