Eclectic DVD presents
Black Christmas: Anniversary Edition (1974)
"What do you want? Why are you doing this?"- Jess (Olivia Hussey)
Stars: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea
Other Stars: John Saxon, Andrea Martin, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin
Director: Bob Clark
MPAA Rating: R for (language and minor horror violence)
Run Time: 01h:37m:38s
Release Date: 2001-11-06
DVD ReviewJust about everyone is familiar with John Carpenter's Halloween (1978); few will doubt its place as one of the big genre-busters that put slasher movies on the mainstream map. Very few, though, are even aware of the Bob Clark-directed Black Christmas (1974), and that is one of those unfortunate gaps in collective consciousness that tend to make me, avid horror film fan that I am, aggravated beyond belief. To be honest, Black Christmas has more in common with Hitchcock's Psycho than it does any of the sub-par slasher films. While Clark achieved seasonal fame as the man behind the annual classic A Christmas Story, it was this 1974 foray into the then relatively ignored genre of the deranged killer that gave us a genuinely creepy film, here released on disc by Ecelectic DVD in a special anniversary edition.
It's the start of Christmas break at a small college in the snow-covered Norman Rockwell-ish town of Bedford. Inside one of the sorority houses an impromptu party is wrapping up, the night before the girls head home for the holidays. At the same time, outside, a lumbering, heavy-breathing figure approaches the sorority house, lurks in the shadows, peers in the windows, climbs some lattice-work to an attic window, and slinks inside. Clark stages that entire shot using the point-of-view of the intruder, a technique that Carpenter would handily employ years later in Halloween, as would countless other imitators. Here, it is effective in its simplicity, and quickly introduces an element of unknown danger that only the audience is aware of. Clark, and cinematographer Reg Morris, implement some stylish camera work throughout that provides some wonderfully eerie visuals, to say nothing of the overall gothically spooky sorority house itself.
Sure, it might be Christmas, but Clark wastes no time in setting up the premise, and the dark tone is established almost immediately. The girls, it seems, have been plagued by an obscene phone-caller, whom they at first playfully dub "The Moaner," that is until the calls become disturbingly more graphic in nature. Hard-drinking Barb (Margot Kidder) gets a charge out of goading the caller until he ends with a grim "I'm going to kill you." Meek and mild Clare (Lynne Griffin) retreats to her room, only to encounter the killer, who proceeds to stash her in the attic after suffocating her in a plastic dry cleaning bag. It was that image of Clare, with the plastic bag still around her head, propped in a rocking chair, that served as the original poster art for Black Christmas in 1974.
Kidder's Barb appears to be the main character during the early part of the story; she's tough, outspoken and seemingly unafraid of anything. It soon becomes clear, though, that the serious, deep-in-thought Jess (an absolutely stunning Olivia Hussey) is to be the focus of the film. Hussey, who could teach Jamie Lee Curtis's Laurie Strode a thing or two about how to handle herself in a dangerous situation, does not at any point in Black Christmas run, stumble and fall while being pursued by the killer (so often a trademark of the heroine in films like this).
As with most deranged killer films, the supporting cast generally serve as hapless victims, and that situation is no different here. The sorority girls are a diverse lot, and aside from an enjoyable turn by Kidder, include a pre-SCTV Andrea Martin as the nerdy Phyl. It is rather weird to see Martin in a straight role, but she does a fine job with the material, looking properly concerned and frightened when needed. B-movie vet John Saxon plays a police lieutenant, and here he keeps his tendency to ham it up to a minimum. The oddest bit of casting is 2001: A Space Odyssey's Keir Dullea as the hot-tempered musician boyfriend of Jess; even with his shaggy hair, Dullea comes across as too old (he was almost 38 at the time Black Christmas was made) to be believable in this role
For my money, though, the most disturbing moments center around the actual phone calls from the killer, who speaks in a variety of voices, assorted screams and guttural sounds. There is a hint of Mercedes McCambridge's demonic voice from The Exorcist (released a year earlier) in these psychotic rants, and they are quite nerve-wracking to listen to. As the film unfolds, and the calls continue, the killer's babble reveals gradually more information to make it possible to piece together fragments of an even more frightening story.
The slasher genre is incestuous, full of films that are hollow retreads of one another, with originality often collapsing under the weight of excessive and often unnecessary gore. As the level of onscreen blood increased, and the violence escalated exponentially, these films became nothing more than shallow exercises in (generally weak) effects designed to stack as many dead teenagers like mangled cordwood in the space of 89 minutes in the hopes of creating a studio franchise. It is satisfying to watch a film like Black Christmas, which is decidedly goreless, achieve a level of suspense and tension without having to resort to gallons of blood or severed limbs to do it.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||no|
Image Transfer Review: Presented in 1.33:1 full-frame, the image transfer for this anniversary edition is pretty good, considering its age. A few specks here and there, but otherwise a generally clean print without too many glaring flaws. The colors are warm, and don't suffer from appearing overly faded as a good number of early 1970s films do. Black levels are a little weak, which render some of the external night shots a tad muddy, but those moments are infrequent. I imagine this will be as good of a release as we are going to get for Black Christmas, so enjoy it.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: A serviceable mono track, devoid of any real fidelity problems, is the sole option. Dialogue has an occasional crackle to it, most notable during louder passages, but for the most part it is pretty clean and hiss-free.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
Extras Review: For a so-called anniversary edition, there isn't much here to do cartwheels about. A segment entitled Interview With John Saxon: 25 Years Later consists of two clips (one running 02m:11s, the other a quick :59s) of the actor offering generalized remembrances about working on Black Christmas. Most of his comments center around how it wasn't until he was older and "more mature" that the impact of Clark's film really sunk in. Filmographies on Dullea, Kidder, Hussey, Martin and Saxon, along with a theatrical trailer and a meager 13 chapters, are the only other extras.
Here's a disc where I would have loved to hear a Clark/Hussey/Saxon commentary.
Extras Grade: D+
Final CommentsDespite it's advancing age (27+ years), this is still one spooky experience; easily one of the better of the genre. Black Christmas remains a creepy and chilling film, and one that might make you want to sleep with one eye open. And don't even think about answering the phone.
Rich Rosell 2002-04-02