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Black Christmas: Collector's Edition

Shout Factory // R // December 13, 2016
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted January 20, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

The colors, the calmness, and the celebration of Christmastime doesn't seem like the type of setting befitting a horror movie, but that's exactly why some filmmakers embrace the opportunity to disrupt the festivities with their own brand of terror. Roughly a decade before delighting us with his take on bespectacled Ralphie and his quest for a Red Ryder BB gun, director Bob Clark crafted a different sort of holiday movie with Black Christmas, which, in a peculiar sort of way, showed early on that his grasp on what makes the season special was pretty firm. Against a backdrop of carolers, vacation plans and domestic squabbles among college students, a relatively authentic and unostentatious representation of the holidays takes shape ... and gets suffocated by escalating tension that darkens the atmosphere. When it comes to holiday-themed horror flicks, this is among the very best -- some brave souls might say the very best -- a relentless, deliberately-constructed exercise in voyeuristic suspense that remains effective despite its dated crime-mystery mechanics.

Most of Black Christmas takes place in the halls of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, filled with mildly idiosyncratic but entirely genuine girls -- and their guys -- who are getting ready for the holidays. While our attention moves between Margot Kidder's sulking and boozy Barb, the sorority's preparations for a children's party, and the crossroads reached in the relationship between the heavily-accented Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her pianist boyfriend Peter (Kier Dullea), the loud sound of a phone ringing heralds the persistent harassment of a vulgar prank caller. That kind of thing is expected for a sorority's central line, but these are consistent calls full of perversion and violence, and they happen while we're watching an ominous figure loom outside the warm, decorated house. When one of the girls, Clare (Lynne Griffin) disappears, suspicions amongst them shift between whether she's just flown the coup with somebody other than her current beau (Art Hindle), or whether something more sinister has happened. In coordination with the police, led by genre staple John Saxon, the hunt begins.

Reginald H. Morris' camerawork in Black Christmas gets comfortable with the girls in the house through ordinary, enlivened close-ups and fluid movement between their conversations, creating a cozy and unassuming setting that strategically uses the trappings of the season for its atmosphere. Much like the way people really plow through the holidays, the film charts how these potential victims are handling their various schedules and conflicts, giving each of them well-defined personalities -- especially Margot Kidder's inebriated Barb and Olivia Hussey's decidedly self-focused Jess -- as the threat of their lives being extinguished inches closer and closer. Humor also comes and goes as director Clark familiarizes us with the layout of the house, notably around the treatment and alcoholic pursuits of the sorority girls' house mom, Ms. Mac, played with animation and gusto by Marian Waldman. Through an unhurried pace and with the point-of-view casually glancing over string lights and other decorations, Black Christmas primes the audience for its horror-movie inclinations with glimmers of festive authenticity, ready to be jolted out of that mood at any moment.

Starting from the very first swerving, voyeuristic shot, there's never any indication that we should, at any moment, get comfortable or be lured in by that kind of warmth, though, clearly there to be exploited and subverted by director Clark. With undulating cinematography and ominous music, that mood gets boldly interrupted by the perspective of the villain in Black Christmas, ever looming just out of the sisters' sight around -- and inside -- their sorority house, paired with the unnerving rattle of the old-school rotary phone and the nasty voice on the other end. The identity of this menace remains one of the film's closely-guarded secrets throughout, ever behind the first-person field of vision or lurking in the shadows as they start their haphazard infiltration of the place, resulting in this tense and breathless sensation in awaiting what they might do. Part of what makes this such an enduring classic of the genre is that, really, there's no predicting what this near-faceless delinquent can do, let alone what their motives or endgame are for doing so. The twisted outlook on their psychosis is both compelling and disquieting.

Often cited as a monumental catalyst for the rush of slashes movies to emerge in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the actual horror of Black Christmas revolves around a makeshift sort of covert killing that patiently awaits the right time to strike, adopting more cautious and cerebral pacing than what has come to be expected of the subgenre. Unlike the grotesque, blood-soaked displays in the larger-than-life imitators that came after it, the deaths here are orchestrated with practicality and steady tension in mind, where the killer opts for suffocation, novel weaponry, and the risky use of hiding spots above copious gore while racking up their body count. More than that, Black Christmas never buckles under the weight of its own logic, either, where the decisions made by the potential victims and the ways in which they're left isolated and vulnerable are all, for the most part, rational. Clark finds ways of provoking the senses in other ways, from the shrill phone-ringing to the unsettling strokes of piano keys, and the unyielding tension created around the reasonably smart victims is a testament to both careful sound design and bold visual flair.

In most aspects, the suspense in Black Christmas continues to withstand the test of time, from the warped obsessions of the killer to the disturbing methods in which they conceal their prey in the Pi Kappa Sigma's house. Thing is, the script also focuses upon the police procedural investigation that branches from its slasher pursuits, and the ways in which director Clark must rely on the mechanics of tracing and monitoring phone lines promptly dates the film. Thankfully, Clark's handling of the atmosphere -- the drama of scrambling between manual telephone machines and keeping the other person, the perverse and verbose "Billy", talking long enough to do so -- remains so electric and steadyhanded that it overcomes vintage elements and sluggish crime-solving, growing even more potent with the gutsy, haunting twist waiting at the end of the line. Slasher movies have changed so much that the subtleties and cunning in Black Christmas might even seem in contrast with the others, but that crisscrossing of the roots of that familiar formula with methodical psychological horror are what keep it looming at another level above the rest.

The Blu-ray:

A two-disc Blu-ray presentation of Black Christmas? That's something certainly worth decking the halls and celebrating over. Shout Factory have brought Bob Clark's seminal genre classic to the high-definition forum in a customary but well thought-out package from the label, offering reversible artwork that lets the owner choose from newly-commissioned artwork and another design sporting the classic, ominous poster artwork. A slipcover has been included with the original pressing that duplicated the new artwork, while the disc designs feature stills of Olivia Hussey on the phone and that mysterious eye. Unfortunately, this release of Black Christmas didn't go off without a hitch: a disc replacement program has been offered for an issue with the audio options, which I'll discuss later. To make sure you've got the correct disc, keep an eye out for the code at the very bottom of Disc One that reads: 17187-V2. It's worth the hassle.

Video and Audio:

Black Christmas has undergone several different stages of clarity, color saturation, and digital integrity over the years, so the announcement that Shout Factory would be striking a new 2K transfer from the negative for this genre classic was met with a lot of enthusiasm. The results are, largely, quite satisfying for this 1.85:1-framed, 16x9 remaster, with caveats. Shout leads off the transfer with a title card explaining that the film was intended to have a soft, textured look to it -- not unlike A Christmas Story -- but there's a surprising amount of purely gratifying sharpness considering that: the dark, small circles of a rotary phone; visible strands of hair and coarseness of garment fabric; filaments in string lights. Color saturation, especially in the Christmas lights and their effects on on nearby objects (especially Olivia Hussey's face during the caroling sequence), sees a marked improvement both in solidity and restraint, while the deep warmth of skin tones and rich colors in garments -- green sweaters, flower-pattern gowns, police-blue oxfords -- are exquisitely stable. As has become customary for Shout, some debris and print damage can be spotted, but the digital stability of the transfer, the refined film appearance, and the overall cleanliness of the print certainly strike a firmer chord. Barring a few flaws, this is pretty terrific.

Now, the audio. Three different options are available here: 5.1 and 2.0 Master Audio tracks that feature enhanced sound effects, musical strength, and general balance, and the original mono track also in a Master Audio presentation. The first two tracks are technically rather sound, with smooth and discernible dialogue that doesn't undercut the age and sound effects of plastic ruffling and phones ringing that exhibit tremendous clarity, while the eerie music rings true and spreads across the surround channels with no problems. Thing is, the added and embellished effects and musical cues don't naturally jibe with the other vintage elements, making them stick out like sore thumbs. For those who don't mind the additions, these are solid sonic presentations with strong separation respective of their surround capabilities, though understandably some purists haven't taken to the alterations so kindly.

Thus, the inclusion of the original mono soundtrack for Black Christmas was also met with plenty of enthusiasm ... enthusiasm that, at first, deflated a bit upon hearing the general state of the track itself. In its original iteration, the Master Audio presentation of this track exhibited what seemed like a rather hands-off approach to handling the film's sonic age, somewhat understandable considering the resistance to the previously-mentioned altered tracks. Alas, along with the age also came an insistent and harsh hiss, which alternated between tolerable to, in a few sequences, quite raspy; discerning what "Billy" was saying over the phone was a chore. Thankfully, in short order, Shout Factory have fixed the audio issue and offered a disc exchange program, and the new presentation is a big, if still flawed improvement. The hiss still lingers, but it's far more tempered and peacefully lingering in the background than the original track, only truly having difficulties during sequences with potent piano key strokes. The effects, dialogue, and stillness in the track all wear their vintage on its sleeve, shifting in pitch and mid-range clarity throughout, but this has turned from a merely functional track to an inviting one. English SDH subs are available.

Special Features:

In the States, Black Christmas hadn't seen a release with any of the previously produced Audio Commentaries up until this point, though fans could easily import Canada's Critical Mass release to obtain a pair of scholarly commentaries and the recent Season's Grieving Anchor Bay release for the novelty track featuring the film's psychotic killer, Billy, in-character by actor Nick Mancuso. Ever diligent in compiling a comprehensive slate of extras for their releases, Shout Factory have bundled together all three of these commentary tracks and dropped them onto Disc One, underneath the Setup section for audio. The two in-depth "actual" commentaries feature a few interesting anecdotes from director Bob Clark and from actors John Saxon and Kier Dullea; however, there are wide, stiff swaths during the commentary with Clark that, while it's wonderful to hear the man speak about the film, feature cobbled-together discussions that prove to be a sluggish listen. The new-ish novelty track with Billy is, well, about what one would expect, though admittedly less enthusiastic than the film's voice over the phone. There's also a nearly thirty-minute Audio Interview with Bob Clark included that was recorded during one of the film's earlier DVD re-releases, which offers a few distinct insights on the relatively timeless aspects of the film and the process of deciding to allow a remake.

Loading up Disc Two for Black Christmas and seeing the docket of extras available -- fifteen different items! -- reminds one of why Shout Factory deserves the accolades that they receive. For starters, they've offer a second HD presentation of Black Christmas, the 2006 Critical Mass Version (HD) before the new 2K scan and remastering, which, of course, mostly stands as a novelty and reference point for the terrific new transfer. Shout Factory have produced a few new extras of their own: Film and Furs (26:11, 16x9 HD) spends a lengthy amount of time chatting with Art Hindle, who delves deeper into the Canadian roots of the film, his attachment to Bob Clark, and about that fur coat; and Victims and Virgins (26:53, 16x9 HD) shifts the focus to Lynne Griffin, who talks a bit about breathing for prolonged periods under that plastic bag, dealing with her mother post-release and attending conventions, and a little about the themes of abortion in the film.

The rest of the extras have appeared in other editions of Black Christmas, in one form or another, though several of ‘em are relatively new. The Black Christmas Legacy (40:22, 16x9 HD) retrospective, which was crafted for the recent Anchor Bay release in Canada, features new interviews from a robust number of members from the cast, as well as from critics/journalists, composer Carl Zittrer, and archival interviews featuring Bob Clark, John Saxon, and others. They really address its legacy, why it's left a lasting impression with its tone and progressive dramatic inclinations, as well as the authenticity of the characters. It's a bit too congratulatory across its 40-minute span, but it successfully unpacks some of the rationale behind why this has become such an enduring classic. Also from that release is a 40th Anniversary Reunion Panel (18:02, 16x9 HD), which features Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin discussing the film again, beginning to overlap with their newly-recorded interviews, but also includes John Saxon and Nick Mancuso as they all offer anecdotes about the film and about Bob Clark.

Shifting to extra pulled from other releases, On Screen! Black Christmas (48:41, 4x3) meticulously, and with personality, progresses through the story of the film's conception, featuring interviews with Canadian horror-film journalists alongside director Bob Clark and other cast/crew members (some of which will look familiar in the earlier extras); 12 Days of Black Christmas (19:48, 16x9 HD), which comes from the Critical Mass release, features John Saxon telling the story of the film's conception alongside cast interviews ... though the repetition of those stories will start to wear on marathon viewers at this point. It also features a few pages from the original states of the script and some decent archival photos. Black Christmas Revisited (36:25, 4x3 SD) offers more of the same retrospective type of material, but it features a few fresh faces and is framed by Lynne Griffin and Art Hindle spending time in the actual house where the film was shot.

If you don't want to watch interviews intercut within the other extras, Shout's got that covered too, including the raw Archival Interviews (1:41:30, 4x3 SD) with Olivia Hussey, Art Hindle, Margot Kidder, Bob Clark, and John Saxon that were used for the aforementioned supplements. They've also included a Midnight Screening Q&A (20:21, 16x9 SD) featuring Bob Clark, John Saxon, and Carl Zittrer that features a lot of repeat stories, but also includes a few neat touches about Saxon's experiences and Zittrer's tactics for the sound. Rounding things out is a pair of Scenes With a New Soundtrack (3:04, 4x3), one of which furthers a certain interpretation of the film, a pair of Theatrical Trailers (8:16, 4x3 SD), some original TV Spots (3:09, 4x3 SD), an Alternative Title Sequence (2:47, 4x3) featuring the film's other titles, and a Photo Gallery (4:33, HD).

Final Thoughts:

Yeah, Black Christmas always manages to make my skin crawl, and it's because of how Bob Clark sidesteps the gore and body-count excesses that have come to hallmark the later, more exaggerated installments in the slasher genre. Instead, the film plays with the early version of that template within the space of a tight psychological horror film, tapping into numerous novelty ideas -- a film where you never see the villain; urban legends about dangerous prank callers; setting the murderous rampage around the most joyous holiday of the year -- while also achieving the right caliber of genuineness to the characters that keeps one locked into the atmosphere. The kills aren't grandiose, or for the most part bloody at all, but they all possess their own kind of inclusive, situation-aware impact, while director Clark pieces together brilliant usage of cinematography and sound design to heighten the senses around the enigmatic first-person perspective of the concealed killer. The police procedural elements stumble and meander a bit in the modern era, but Clark's well-crafted emphasis on raw, unyielding suspense and sensory provocation around those elements still makes it all work exceptionally well. Black Christmas is an influential genre classic that'll remain as such for a long time, and Shout Factory have done a great job in presenting a new 2K restoration that aims to keep it around even longer. After the disc recall that corrected the hissing, sporadically distorted original mono, the audiovisual quality and the cornucopia of gathered-together extras across many different releases earns a very, very High Recommendation.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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