Bob Clark is the filmmaking equivalent of a pendulum. No other director in the history of the medium has had such an overwhelmingly wide margin between his successes and his failures. Beginning his career in exploitation (She-Man) and horror films (Deathdream, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things) he has made some undeniable classics (Murder by Decree, A Christmas Story) and some of the worst films of all time (Porky's, Rhinestone). It appears that for every good movie he makes like the Jack Lemmon vehicle Tribute from 1980 he coughs up a competing filmic phlegm ball like Baby Geniuses or Loose Canons. Frankly, us fright fans will take a truckload of oversexed '50s fools if it guarantees that Clark can make more masterpieces like Black Christmas. This 1974 suspense thriller officially ushered in the slasher film, rescuing it from the grindhouse and turning it over to the mainstream, where it would grow and flourish over the next 15 years. Never given enough credit over the years, thanks in part to his erratic reputation, this latest DVD release from Critical Mass, as well as an upcoming remake from the guys behind Final Destination, could mark Black Christmas' return to prominence. And believe it or not, the movie deserves all the accolades it can get. It's that good.
It's time for the Christmas holidays and the girls of Pi Kappa Sigma are preparing for the long holiday break. In between a party with their friends, packing up their things and putting on their alcoholic house mother, Mrs. Mac, the ladies can't wait to spread a little Yuletide cheer. But weird things start happening almost from the moment the evening's festivities end. An obscene phone caller keeps tormenting the co-eds, including the fragile Jessica Bradford, the bawdy Barbie Coard, and the nerdy Phyllis Carlson. When their friend Claire Harrison fails to meet her father for the trip home, the girls get suspicious. Then a local teen is found murdered in a nearby park. As the phone calls become more sinister, people start disappearing. Police Lt. Kenneth Fuller thinks that Jessica's troubled boyfriend, Peter Smythe might be involved, but there's no clear proof of his guilt. Indeed, the only thing that's certain is that someone has staked out the sorority house, and is seeking revenge for events that happened one Black Christmas, years before.
Like the missing link between Michael Findlay's Flesh Trilogy and John Carpenter's iconic Halloween, Black Christmas is a brilliant little thriller with a defiant, disturbing tone. Complex in its approach but simple in its purpose, this superb scarefest takes chances with the genre that many fright fans might not be prepared to appreciate at least, not at first. In the decades since Bob Clark's creative take on the systematic slaying of innocent victims at the hands of a crazed killer, lovers of splatter cinema expect certain stereotypical standards from their slaughter party an easily identifiable and action figure oriented murderer; a group of drunk, doped up and dimwitted sex fiends just asking to be sliced and diced; ineffective cops who can't quite believe a homicidal fiend is on the loose; and an ending which wraps everything up in a decent, if derivative, flashback-filled denouement. Thankfully, Black Christmas avoids each and every one of these crucial clichιs. This allows the film to function on its own, unhinged level of jaundiced genius, and instantly claim its place in the pantheon of classic horror efforts. Though its premise predates Jason, Michael and all things Freddy, it's hard to imagine that this film inspired anything but jealousy from those who would follow in its fascinating, fantastic footsteps.
Anyone whose ever doubted Bob Clark's ability behind the camera need look no further than this expertly executed film to witness one stellar directing job. Attempting a novel POV presentation for the actions of the killer, as well as carefully controlled compositions that keep the atmosphere off putting and menacing, the man behind the lens lets his creepshow imagination run wild here, and the results are resplendent. From the opening moments of the movie, when our unseen psychopath stakes out the sorority house, looking for a way in, to the finale which focuses on a ringing phone, the faceless fiend, and the slowly approaching salvation of the police, Clark commands respect for the manner in which he manipulates the audience. At the time, one senses that all his experimentation came off as unusual and rather disquieting, even for the more tolerant terror fan. Today, in light of all that's happened to horror since, Clark's decisively deceptive approach is a brazen breath of fresh air. Current macabre mavens apparently need reams of backstory and clear character motivation to explain away the eerie. Black Christmas offers up no such one-dimensional answers. Instead, it goes for layers of dread in its designs, picking up more and more fear factors as it moves along, threateningly, towards its ending.
But there is more to this movie than just masterful mise-en-scene. The screenplay by Roy Moore makes it very clear that the person who is calling the frightened sorority gals gives these ladies good reason to be afraid. Sounding like transmissions from a planet of deranged demons, the auditory elements of Black Christmas are, by far, its most shocking aspect. Whenever the phone rings, and we see a character reaching for the receiver, the hairs on the back of our neck rise up in real alarm. Clark conditions us to be wary of these moments he stages them in such a way that they immediately sink into our subconscious, raising questions that get more and more sickening as the calls continue. Though some may cry foul when the point of origin is finally revealed (and in these days of cellphones, the disclosure lacks the shock value that '70s audiences felt), there is more to this movie than a sloppy 'when a stranger calls' set of circumstances. Instead, thanks to some powerhouse acting (John Saxon, Olivia Hussey Keir Dullea and Margot Kidder are all excellent) and a creative treatment of the subject matter, Black Christmas never grows tiring or turgid. Instead, this is the kind of experience that seeps into your cinematic soul and revives your faith in the oft-maligned medium. The only aspect of this film that's distressing is the lack of critical respect it gets. Like all great art, however, it takes time to appreciate true treasures. Black Christmas's moment has definitely arrived.
Visually, Black Christmas doesn't look too bad. Made on the cheap in the early part of the '70s, this Canadian quickie has a few standard source issues. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is specked with grain, especially in the moments where darkness and shadows are present. The amount of telltale gray is minimal, but still makes its cinephile-distressing presence known. Otherwise, the image is clean and crisp, with lots of determinable detail and sharp contrasts in Clark's excellently framed compositions.
As stated before, anyone who knows this film will admit it's not the visual, but the aural that's the most terrifying facet. Using a combination of voices (mostly that of actor Nick Mancuso) and a strange sound design that makes every one of those feared phone calls feel like a direct connection to Hell, the mix here is all important. Thankfully, Critical Mass decided to remaster the material into a sensational Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround presentation that's absolutely wonderful. The amount of spatial ambience is astounding, and the directional aspects really amplify the suspense. With a terrific tone poem score by Carl Zittrer and a near flawless overall presentation, the technical issues with this release are handled terrifically.
Previous DVD releases of this title have been paltry when it comes to added content. Thanks to the efforts of uberfan Dan Duffin, creator of the ItsMeBilly.com Black Christmas tribute website (click HERE it's absolutely amazing), this brand new disc if overloaded with inviting bonus features. First up is a documentary entitled "The 12 Days of Black Christmas". Featuring interview clips from Hussey, Kidder, Saxon, Art Hindle, Doug McGrath and Lynne Griffin, we get a good idea about the amount of work and dedication it took to realize Clark's goals. Of particular interest is cameraman Albert Dunk's description of realizing the POV shots. Black Christmas was reinventing the language of film with such an approach, and the revelation of how these shots were achieved makes for compelling cinematic history. As for the actors, they are all jovial and genuine, treating the project with respect and realism. Hussey and Kidder are also presented in separate full length interviews, and it is during these discussions that they turn a tad dismissive. Still, in the end, each values their work on the film and finds numerous ways to praise fellow cast and crewmembers.
Up until this point, Clark has been sadly absent. Even when a couple of newly discovered vocal soundtrack mixes are presented (along with accompanying scenes), he is nowhere to be found. Luckily, he makes an appearance during a Midnight Screening Q&A, brining Saxon and Zittrer along as well. Eager to entertain and quite the tease (he won't reveal much about Billy and Agnes those who know the film understand the reference but does hint that the remake will clarify some issues) he commands the microphone and the fans couldn't be happier. While a commentary would have been nice, anyone who has heard Clark speak about his films (this critic for one had to trudge through his amiable if average A Christmas Story track) won't complain. Indeed, what's really shocking is that Duffin and his partner in crime, William Alexander over at Critical Mass didn't do an alternate narrative themselves. Such obsessive fanboys would probably be very entertaining, considering that their insight into the film would be sharp and highly incisive. Still, overall, the extras here are excellent, and make this DVD a must-own for fright fans everywhere.
As 2006 comes crashing toward an end, this critic has come to the realization that he's only awarded five DVD Talk Collector's Series scores over the last 12 months. It's time to add number six to the register. Easily earning such a rating for how unbelievably good it is (in addition to the above-average bonus features) Black Christmas should be on every naughty macabre mavens wish list this year. Satan Claus, or perhaps Santa Claws, will be more than happy to make sure this slice of slick sickness makes it into your soiled stocking his holiday season. Honestly, in a year blessed with such substantial shockers as Hostel, Silent Hill and Saw III, Black Christmas puts these post-modern wannabes to shame. Bob Clark may be one inconsistent sucker, but when he first started out in the motion picture business, he hit a couple of substantial home runs. Along with Deathdream, this is '70s horror at its most inventive and eerie.