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Black Christmas (1974)

Somerville House
Blu-ray Disc Released: 11/11/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 11/12/2008

When the slasher cycle of horror films took off in the late 1970s, many of the films were tide to holidays. The obvious source for this trend was John Carpenter's classic Halloween. However, four years before Halloween, another film featuring a popular holiday and a killer on the loose had been released. Black Christmas hit theaters in 1974 and didn't make much of a splash. But, over the years, the film gained cult status and many see it as the first holiday slasher film. The movie has just been released on Blu-ray Disc for the first time.

Black Christmas takes place on a college campus (presumably in Canada, where the movie was filmed) on the eve of Christmas break. Following an end of semester party in their sorority house, Jessica (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder), Clare (Lynne Griffin), and Phyllis (Andrea Martin), are the only ones left in the house, along with house mother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman). The girls have been receiving obscene phone calls, but they assume that it's just some pervert. However, Jessica begins to become worried when the calls change in tone -- they go from being lurid to simply being creepy. When Clare's father (James Edmond) comes to pick her up for the holidays, she's nowhere to be found. Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) gets involved in the case, and he begins to suspect that the phone calls and Clare's disappearance may be related. Little does anyone know that a stranger has entered the sorority house and that he's hiding in the attic. The stranger isn't there to deliver Christmas goodies. The only thing that he's brought with him is death.

Before we begin to explore Black Christmas, we should look at what was happening behind the camera. The movie was directed by Bob Clark, who at that time had two low-budget horror films to his credit, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things and Deathdream. He would eventually go on to make Porky's and A Christmas Story. (How's that for a career?) Somehow, this low-budget Canadian film was able to attract quite a cast (for that time). Olivia Hussey was famous for Romeo and Juliet. Keir Dullea, who plays Jessica's boyfriend, was known worldwide for 2001: A Space Odyssey. John Saxon had just come off of Enter The Dragon and Margot Kidder had starred in Brian De Palma's Sisters. (Andrea Martin was an unknown at the time and it would be a few more years until she hit SCTV.) Clark must have had some vision to be able to get this kind of talent.

And if Black Christmas can be acknowledged for anything, it's its vision. The movie employs shots from the killer's point-of-view whenever he is on the prowl. This use of P.O.V. (as it's known) would become a staple of the genre and most would assume that it was Carpenter's idea. But, Black Christmas used it first and the film is very ambitious in this regard, especially when we watch the killer climb a trellis. And while the movie may seem somewhat tame by today's standards, Black Christmas doesn't pull any punches with its violence. Two of the murders are very well-staged and the plastic-bag imagery (you'll know what I'm talking about) is very morbid and creepy. Much of the film is set at night, and Clark isn't afraid to let the screen be somewhat dark -- something else which may have influenced Carpenter.

While Black Christmas is clearly an influential film in its visual style and ideas, the movie isn't perfect. There are definitely issues with pacing and story here. The first murder takes place very quickly, but it takes a long time for something else to happen. What is ostensibly a slasher movie becomes more like a drama and a procedural, as we watch the characters go about their lives and Fuller investigate the disappearance. While the dramatic moments are necessary so that we may get to know the characters and get some ideas about suspects, too many of these scenes are strung together, dampening the suspense. There is also odd moments of attempted levity in the film's mid-section. While Clark would go on to be best known for comedies, the jokes here seem really out of place.

SPOILER WARNING! And then we have the primary story itself. I don't want to give too much away here, but the overriding plot in Black Christmas is simply too vague. While some people like this aspect of the film, it will leave many viewers unsatisfied. The movie leaves us with more questions than answers. This is unfortunate, as the film teeters on the edge of being very good. In addition, multiple viewings of the film will reveal plot-holes, or situations which the characters should have questioned. The murders are well-staged, the phone calls are very creepy, but the sense of "What the hell just happened?" does not make for a satisfying experience. END SPOILERS

It seems that with every re-release, a new audience discovers Black Christmas. Despite the slow pacing and a questionable plot, the movie serves as a nice transition piece between the gialli which were coming out of Italy at the time and the slasher films which would overtake America. If those unfamiliar with the film can make their way through the movie's problems, they will no doubt see why fans consider the movie to be so influential. If nothing else, see this instead of the awful remake which tries too hard to explain the backstory and forgets to be scary.

Black Christmas says "It's me, Billy." on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Somerville House and Critical Mass. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 15 Mbps. I'm old enough to remember when CDs were first introduced (God, I'm old...) and the consumer warning at that time was that the digital clarity could reveal all of the problems with older recordings. Well, the same could be said for Blu-ray Disc, as Black Christmas looks everyday its 34 years of age. The image is sharp, but there is a palpable sheen of grain on the image throughout the film. The picture contains defects from the source material, such as black and white dots. The colors look good in some scenes, and washed out in others. The image is somewhat dark and often one side of the screen will be darker than the other...but not in any way which looks like it was part of the original film. The image is quite flat and doesn't contain the sort of detail which we've become accustomed to with Blu-ray. This transfer isn't much of an improvement over DVD. The Disc contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 448 kbps. (As opposed to the 640 kbps which most DD 5.1 tracks run on Blu-ray.) The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects, but there is some noticeable hissing here. The stereo effects are OK and the ringing phone produces some surround effects. There is one scene in the final act where the subwoofer comes to life. Otherwise, most of the audio comes from the center channel.

The Black Christmas Blu-ray Disc contains a few extras. "12 Days of Black Christmas" (20 minutes) is a making-of featurette which is narrated by John Saxon. It contains behind-the-scene stills and comments from Saxon, Hussey, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin, Doug McGrath, Margot Kidder, Art Director Karen Bromley, Camera Operator Bert Dunk, and Composer Carl Zittrer. The piece explores the story, the actors, the look of the film, the music, the phone voice, and the film's release. "Midnight Q & A" (20 minutes) takes us to a screening of the film in Santa Monica, CA in December 2004. Here, Zittrer, Saxon, and Clark take questions from the audience. Of course, the first question is "Who are Billy and Agnes?", and Clark offers a vague answer to this. The Disc contains extended interviews with Olivia Hussey (17 minutes), Art Hindle (24 minutes), and Margot Kidder (23 minutes). These are full versions of the snippets seen in "12 Days of Black Christmas", and the actors reminisce about their experiences on the film. (It's difficult to hear the interviewer at times.) While preparing the 5.1 mix, sounds not used in the final film were discovered and we get two examples in "'Uncovered' Sound Scenes". The extras are rounded out with the English and Frech TRAILERS for the film. (These are the same trailer, but the second one is dubbed in French.)

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long