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Black Christmas (1974)

Koch Entertainment // R // November 11, 2008
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 9, 2008 | E-mail the Author
John Carpenter's
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Halloween may have marked the birth of the modern slasher, but the template that who knows how many other movies have lifted over the past three decades was actually defined four years earlier in Toronto. Bob Clark -- the director behind a very different holiday classic in A Christmas Story, not to mention Deathdream and Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things -- helmed a disturbing tale about a psychopath stalking the sisters of a sorority house near Christmastime, and all of the genre's mainstays are scattered around in here somewhere: camerawork that puts the audience in the killer's eyes, an unflinchingly ruthless murderer pitted against a strongwilled, resourceful young woman, a sense of isolation and claustrophobia as so much of the movie takes place in a single setting, and, of course, the backdrop of a holiday.

The sisters of Pi Kappa Sigma are being pestered by obscene phone calls...starting off with just heavy breathing before tearing off into rambling, graphic depictions of sex. It's kind of unnerving, sure, but the girls don't fret about it too much. After all, Christmas is right around the corner, and most of 'em 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 one of the sisters abruptly disappears before the last few stragglers in the house stumble out of bed the next morning. The cops blow 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.

'Course, no one's looking for Claire inside the house, where her lifeless corpse is still wrapped in plastic and bobbing back and forth on a rocking chair in the attic. The killer -- who mutters to himself that his name is Billy -- is still skulking around the sorority house too, picking off the rest of his prey one by one. On the menu...? A lush of a house mother (Marian Waldman), Pi Kappa Sig's other resident boozehound (Margot Kidder), a kinda mousy girl (Andrea Martin), a jaw-droppingly beautiful British import (Olivia Hussey) and her moody grad student lover (Keir Dullea), and Claire's current fling (Art Hindle).

Black Christmas
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not only set the template for the glut of slashers that'd flood theaters and video store shelves throughout the '80s, but it outclasses virtually all of them. Its script is sharp enough not to require stupid people to do stupid things just to keep the plot rolling along. The depraved killer aside, no one really behaves irrationally or makes any ridiculous missteps. As the girls are butchered, there's always such a logical explanation that there's no reason to fret about someone not being around; after all, it's the holidays, and everyone's planning on taking off anyway.

The only real exception is Olivia Hussey's Jess sticking around in the house when she knows she's in danger, but even that kinda makes sense, her being such a doggedly loyal friend and all. The girls are all pretty likeable -- these aren't the sort of grating, double-digit IQ spam-in-a-cabin you're just itching to see chopped up into bloody, fist-sized chunks -- and they're played by a pretty solid group of actors and actresses. There's more talent on display here than in most slashers, including Hussey (the lead in the definitive film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet), Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey), and genre legend John Saxon.

Bob Clark directed Black Christmas 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 on these shores and 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 even all these decades later. Another standout moment is the brilliant intercutting of one of sisters being stabbed again and again as a gaggle of elementary schoolers belt out Christmas carols outside.

While its
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pacing is a slower burn than the glut of slashers that'd follow in its wake -- Clark doesn't feel compelled to shoehorn in some sort of scare every few minutes like clockwork -- Black Christmas' jolts still hold up exceptionally well, never once feeling lazy or unearned. The body count may be lower than average, sure, and it's not especially graphic or gory. Still, the stalking and slashing is consistently intense, and the truly depraved phone calls are still unsettling and disturbing.

Black Christmas boasts one of the greatest -- not to mention the bleakest and most downbeat -- ending of any slasher movie I've managed to see, and I'm fascinated by Clark's insistence on maintaining the ambiguity that swirls around Billy. So many horror movies feel compelled to give their killers some sort of clear motivation...some sort of sympathy, even if they are unrelentingly brutal murderers...but there is no long, meandering backstory in Black Christmas. That's so much more unnerving than some sort of stock revenge story or childhood trauma -- that the killer has some twisted motive that only makes sense to him, assuming he's not just butchering these girls out of pure malevolence. Clark deliberately limits Billy to a fucked-up voice on the other end of the phone and a discolored eye gleaming in the shadows, and that's so much more ominous and disturbing than a maniac running around a house with a butcher knife.

Despite its age and lean budget, Black Christmas never feels campy, and only the inexorably '70s palette and soul-crushing hairstyles (one schlub looks more like Gene Shalit than anyone should) really date it. Not all of the movie's stabs at comedy have aged all that well either, but the payoff of a prank Barb plays on a dim-witted cop working the front desk still gets a laugh out of me, and Black Christmas' sense of humor is sharper than most slasher flicks.

Really, the only thing I'm not all that keen on in Black Christmas is the meandering attempts at tracing Billy's psychotic phone calls. A police procedural it's not, so much, and this does leave the movie dragging a bit in the middle. Other than that, though...? Even more than thirty years later, Black Christmas still ranks as one of the most intense, atmospheric, and effective entries in a genre it essentially created. Highly Recommended.

Video: Black Christmas is
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a gritty, rough-hewn horror flick about to ring in its thirty-fifth anniversary; if it looks slick in high-def, then something's wrong. The 1.78:1 image is soft, exceptionally grainy, and lightly speckled, and if I hadn't read that this was a 35mm shoot, I'd have assumed Black Christmas used whatever 16mm stock that Bob Clark and company could rustle up on the cheap. There's just enough of a boost in clarity and definition for me to be able to tell that this is a high-def disc, but I doubt slasher completists who've already shelled out for the last DVD special edition would find this upgrade compelling enough to fork over another twenty bucks.

Contrast tends to be kind of flat, and the movie sports a palette of dingy, distinctively '70s colors heavy on dull greens and orangish-browns. The heavy film grain leaves darker scenes looking kind of noisy rather than belting out deep, pure blacks, and brightness pulses slightly throughout some shots, as if the colors have aged unevenly from one frame to the next over the years. Really, though, that's exactly what I'd expect, and I'd bet that this Blu-ray disc is at least in the neighborhood of what Black Christmas ought to look like, barring someone unearthing a previously undiscovered internegative in a climate-controlled vault or shelling out a huge wad of money for a proper restoration.

This Blu-ray disc is encoded at an unusually low bitrate; Black Christmas takes up just 11.4 gigs, and that's really not much for a movie buzzing with a grainy texture that's notoriously tough to compress. (The rest of the space on this single layer disc goes to upconverting standard definition extras to 1080i, for some reason.) Even with that combination of challenging source material and a lower-than-average bitrate, I'll admit that the compression looks fine to my eyes. From my normal viewing distance, I can't pick out any blocking or other glaring hiccups, and the heavy film grain looks like...well, grain, not an overcompressed mess. I did notice definition wavering in certain objects during pans, such as the railing on the staircase and a picture frame upstairs. I couldn't tell at a glance if this is an issue with the encoding or just the buzzing of the heavy film grain. Either way, it's infrequent enough to shrug off.

When I popped the Blu-ray disc into my PC to snag the screengrabs scattered around this review, the grain did start to look a little more 'digital', but the texture never clumped together the way compression artifacts traditionally do. I don't think any of this will be much of a concern for viewers with smaller TVs or gorehounds who sit at a fair distance from their sets, but home theater nuts with front projection rigs or unusually large sets may walk away with a different opinion. It's also worth noting that the grainy texture of the movie hasn't been clumsily smeared away to try to ease the encoding.

Although Black Christmas could use more extensive remastering and might benefit from a beefier bitrate, I'd imagine that this Blu-ray disc at least somewhat closely represents how the movie looked during its original theatrical run. I caught this same master on HDNet Movies a couple of years back anyway, so I already knew what I was getting into, so just take this as fair warning that Black Christmas isn't -- and shouldn't be! -- some glossy, sparkling, reference quality Blu-ray disc. Keep your expectations in check.

Audio: Sorry, no lossless
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action this time around: Black Christmas ports over the same set of soundtracks as the last DVD release, including a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix (448Kbps) and the original mono (224Kbps). As remixes go, this one's pretty solid, teeming with a reasonably strong sense of atmosphere -- howling wind, a dog barking off in the distance, rattling sleigh bells, and Billy's depraved moaning -- along with some subtle but effective directionality, such as the killer skulking his way through the sorority house. The dialogue stems are dated but generally sound clean and clear enough, and quite a few of the effects are crisper and more full-bodied than I'd normally expect. Bass response tends to be modest, but a few moments pack a meaty low-frequency kick, particularly the pulsing heartbeat leading up to one skewering.

The nastiest hiccup is that the audio falls out of sync several times. The longest stretch starts when Mrs. Mac is ranting to the mirror about that damned cat, and it's a fraction of a second off for several scenes straight. Toggling back and forth between the 5.1 track and the original mono, only the remix seems to be out of sync here. However, when Jess fusses to Peter about wanting to have "a rational, adult conversation", the lines don't even come close to matching the lip movements in both tracks. I can only assume that's from some really lousy ADR work. Doing a bit of back and forth comparisons, the mono track as a whole seems to sound alright, although it's noticeably more shrill than the remix.

A French mono track rounds out the audio options, and no subtitle streams have been included.

Extras: Black Christmas carries over the same set of extras as the DVD special edition from a couple of years back. This means that the features from an even earlier special edition are still M.I.A.: a couple of audio commentaries, a documentary, a still gallery, the original pressbook, an early draft of the screenplay, TV and radio spots, and an episode of Dark Dreamers with John Saxon. It's kind of a drag that those all got the axe, but this Blu-ray disc does sport a pile of extras supervised by Dan Duffin, the webmaster of the fansite

Even though all of the extras were originally produced in standard definition -- the trailers even seem to be sourced from some dusty old videotape -- they've been upscaled to 1080i for this Blu-ray disc. That seems like kind of an inefficient use of space, but...whatever. Doesn't really matter.

  • 12 Days of Black Christmas (20 min.): 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 ominously strummed piano in its low-key score, the production design in the sorority house, and the movie's Canadian marketing campaign. Several of the cast members also briefly reflect back on the shoot all those decades ago. It's a decent retrospective, although I kind of would've liked to have seen it delve into more detail...a lot of these topics breeze by pretty quickly.
  • Midnight Q&A (20 min.): A Q&A session with director Bob Clark, John Saxon, and composer Carl Zittrer following a midnight screening a few years back fields 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
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    of recording the deranged phone calls, the influence a potential sequel may or may not have had on John Carpenter, ekeing 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. A few other questions are lobbed out too, and the whole thing is moderated by my hero and yours, cult cinema mainstay Marc Edward Heuck.
  • "Uncovered" sound scenes (3 min.): 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, including some additional dialogue from the party that opens the movie and can still be heard as the camera skulks around outside as well as Billy's voice being more clearly audible during that final, leering pan.
  • Olivia Hussey interview (17 min.): The Final Girl in Black Christmas briefly discusses what drew her to the role, laughing about her expanding waistline as the shoot drew on, the ambiguity behind who "Billy" really was, and noting what she was actually reacting to from the other end of the obscene phone calls as cameras were rolling. Hussey is polite and charming but tends to speak more in short, controlled bursts, and the interview seems to have kind of a tough time keeping a real flow of conversation going.
  • Art Hindle interview (24 min.): He may have one of the smallest roles in Black Christmas, but Art Hindle is so talkative and personable that he winds up with the longest extra on the entire disc. 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.
  • Margot Kidder interview (22 min.): The chat with Margot Kidder is really great too, although I was more sucked in by her personality and the portrait she paints of the fledgling Canadian film industry than her comments about Black Christmas in particular. Some of the highlights include Kidder's frantic hot-and-cold career in its early days, the playful tone on the Black Christmas set, and how completely convinced Olivia Hussey was that she was gonna snatch Paul McCartney away from his wife.
  • Trailers (8 min.): Trailers in English and French round out the extras, clocking in at four minutes a pop.
Conclusion: Black Christmas is a seminal slasher, carving out a template that countless other movies would go on to swipe, and it still holds up as a hell of a horror flick in its own right. Its gritty, rough-hewn photography doesn't exactly dazzle in high-def, and this is really kind of a modest upgrade over the DVD special edition from a couple of years back. Still, horror completists who've missed out on Black Christmas up to this point ought to give it a look on Blu-ray, especially since this high definition release is a couple of bucks less than the DVD on Amazon as I write this. Highly Recommended.

I'm Ashamed to Admit It, But...: I really dug the remake-in-name-only of Black Christmas too, but...y'know, don't tell anyone.
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