Black Christmas (1974)
By: Drexl on January 14, 2003  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Region 1, NTSC. 1.66:1 (Non-anamorphic). English DD 2.0, English mono, French mono. English Subtitles. Critical Mass (USA). 98 minutes
The Movie
Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon
Screenplay: Roy Moore Music: Carl Zittrer
Tagline: If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl...It's on too tight!
Country: Canada
AKA: 'Silent Night, Evil Night', 'Stranger In The House.'
Take one sorority house full of teenage girls, a special date on the calendar and one unidentified lunatic with a fondness for inventive deaths, and you could have the blueprint for pretty much any slasher film. Long before Jason and Michael Myers went on their respective rampages though, producer/director Bob Clark gave us a twist to the festive season with his 1974 slasher Black Christmas. After a previous (virtually) no-frills release, Critical Mass have seen fit to re-issue this cult favourite with a new widescreen transfer and a whole host of extra features. Is it just another by the numbers 'slice and dice' movie or is it something much more? Let's see..

The film is, as has already been mentioned, is set in a sorority house over the festive period. While the residents are enjoying a few drinks and having a bit of a party, we see an intruder breaking into the house and making themselves at home in the attic. Downstairs the telephone rings. One of the girls answers to discover that the caller is someone they have nicknamed 'The Moaner' who has been plaguing them with obscene 'phone calls. Actually, the calls are more than obscene, they are downright terrifying, consisting of foul language, piercing screams and incoherent ramblings in a variety of different voices. The person making these calls is quite obviously a complete basket case. Meanwhile, the uninvited guest in the attic has decided to explore more of the house, (cue creepy POV shots and heavy breathing), and start murdering the residents. The bodies are dragged up into the attic so the remaining girls are unaware that their numbers are gradually dwindling. As the phone calls are becoming increasingly distressing, the girls decide to contact the police for help,so sympathetic Lieutenant Fuller, played by John Saxon, puts a tap on the girls phone to try and trace the origin of the calls. All the while, the pile of corpses upstairs is steadily increasing..

You would certainly be forgiven for thinking that this all sounds fairly typical of the slasher subgenre, so what sets Black Christmas apart from other stalk and slash movies? Well, quite a lot actually. First up, and most importantly, the film is genuinely scary. The atmosphere is tense and nerve jangling throughout and the kill scenes are shot with style and skill. The film is packed with memorable scenes and shots, many of which will stick in the mind long after the film has finished. One scene in particular is one of the most effective I have seen in a horror movie ever - (and I'm not alone in thinking this because it was ripped off in a far inferior splatter movie a few years later). In fact, it's difficult to spot a wasted shot or unnecessary line of dialogue anywhere in the film as it's all very neatly put together. The direction is faultless, the photography is excellent, the script gives us believable characters (and a fun time trying to guess who the killer is) and the unusual music score really adds to the atmosphere. The performances in front of the camera are equally good, especially Kidder and Saxon. Kidder gets most of the funny lines, especially the amusing joke telephone number she gives to a dim-witted police officer, although the foul-mouthed Santa swearing in front of the children raised a few chuckles from me. Humour can often be misplaced in horror movies but in this film it provides a welcome breather from the tension.

All of this adds up to a true classic of the horror genre - scary (even on repeat viewings), hugely entertaining and superbly crafted.
Critical Mass' first release of Black Christmas was presented in an open matte transfer. This transfer on this special edition is matted to 1.66:1. The film certainly benefits from the reframing but, unfortunately, the disc is not 16:9 enhanced. As you would expect from a film nearly 30 years old, the transfer is not perfect. Grain is evident and some darker scenes are slightly lacking in detail, although it's nothing to bad. The print used is in decent condition though, with hardly any damage or flecks present and colour is as it should be. One thing worth mentioning is that there are occasions when parts of the picture 'wobble'. This happens a few times throughout the film and may distract some viewers. Overall though, it is an acceptable transfer and, until someone does a full restoration job, it's probably as good as we will get.
The audio is acceptable considering the films age. Dialogue is clear enough and there is hardly any background noise. The film would have benefited from a remixbut, unfortunately,it wasn't to be.
Extra Features
The first DVD release of Black Christmas was virtually bare-bones, but Critical Mass have taken the opportunity to cram this re-issue with extra features.

First up we have two commentary tracks, the first featuring director Bob Clark and the second featuring actors John Saxon and Keir Dullea. Clark's track is easily the most listenable of the two. He speaks about his thoughts on the making of the film, shooting techniques and points out a few subtle touches that viewers might have missed. There are a few short gaps but, on the whole, it is an interesting commentary which reminded me a lot, in style and content, of William Friedkin's commentary for The Exorcist. On the other track, Saxon and Dullea speak about how they became involved in the production, their own careers and the other cast members. The two actors were recorded separately and the track edited together. There are quite a few breaks but it's still worth a listen.

'Black Christmas Revisited' is a 36 minute feature interviewing most of the cast and crew involved in the making of the film, with Hussey and Kidder being the most notable absentees. All of the major shooting locations are revisited and all aspects of the production discussed. A neat and interesting documentary, although a little rough technically.

Two interviews follow - one with Bob Clark and the other with John Saxon. Both contain information that is already in the commentary tracks, but they are still well worth checking out. Also including is an episode of 'Dark Dreamers' television series with John Saxon. Saxon talks about his involvement in the horror/suspense genre including his experiences working with Clark, Bava and, outside of horror, Bruce Lee. This is a really interesting feature and I would certainly like to see more episodes from the series.

Still want more? OK. There are trailers, (English and French), TV/radio spots, a trailer for 'Murder By Decree' (also by Bob Clark), a stills gallery, animated menu screens and opening title sequences featuring the films two alternative titles. The cover is also reversible to allow a choice of cover art. Finally, the disc also contains the films screenplay, press book and two posters in PDF format for DVD-Rom owners, (click on 'Christmas' on the main menu.)
The Verdict
Black Christmas is a truly scary and unnerving movie that deserves a place in any horror fans collection, and a better example of the subgenre you will not find. Add to this a comprehensive selection of extra features and you have a disc that comes highly recommended. The audio/visual quality could be better but, considering the age of the film, this presentation is perfectly acceptable.

An essential purchase.
Movie Score
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