THE FILM 4/5
“What did you do, Billy?”
The college town of Bedford is receiving an unwelcome guest this Christmas. As the residents of sorority house Pi Kappa Sigma prepare for the festive season, a stranger begins to stalk the house. A series of obscene phone calls start to plague the residents of the sorority and it becomes clear that a psychopath is homing in on the sisters with dubious intentions. And though the police try to trace the calls, they discover that nothing is as it seems during this Black Christmas.
My first encounter with Black Christmas was under the wrong circumstances. After having gone through a slam-viewing of My Bloody Valentine, Don’t Open Till Christmas, and Happy Birthday to Me, I ventured into Black Christmas expecting more of the same — entertaining murder sequences, silly killer and character motivations, and that late ’70s/’80s sense of fun that seemed to be missing from more modern horror.
That didn’t happen.
As Black Christmas played on, I continued to anticipate schlock to hit the screen, but all this good kept getting in the way. Instead of exaggerated characters and head-fall-off murders, I kept getting subtle, eerie, and even disturbing scenes, one after the other — and, when mixed together, they were forming something…yeah, good. Great even. I expected coal and instead I got a bonafide present.
From the director of A Christmas Story and Porky’s comes an unlikely and effective horror film made by a director whom one would assume had spent his entire career working in the horror genre. But he was a director who worked in only two genres, horror and comedy, and that makes sense when you realize that the two are more alike than they are different — mostly because they both live and die by their sense of timing.
Black Christmas is more of an Agatha Christie mystery filtered through the sensibilities of a slasher than something more traditional (even though the slasher as a concept was still in its infancy at that time). The murders are there, of course, and they’re certainly grisly, but a lot of emphasis is made on the who of it all. Who is this person who continues to call and sexually harass the girls, saying the most awful things, but while also referring to himself in the third person as Billy? Added to that is an almost supernatural sense to his presence, in that Billy seems to be having entire conversations with more than one person on his end of the phone — so much that they manage to overlap each other Exorcist style.
Above all, Black Christmas is eerie across the board — from the opening titles set to “Silent Night” to the disturbing phone calls to the unsettling murder sequences. A dead girl with a bag tied to her face sitting unseen behind an attic window is still one of the eeriest images ever birthed from the genre, and this in a low budget slasher that recently turned 40 years old.
For years an urban legend about Black Christmas has circulated the net involving its much more famous slasher sister, Halloween. The legend suggests that Bob Clark and John Carpenter knew each other personally, and had even begun collaborating on a possible project together that Carpenter would write and Clark would direct — a Black Christmas sequel, which saw Billy escaping from a mental institution and wreaking havoc in a small suburban town. Allegedly this collaboration fell apart, yada yada yada, and then Carpenter made Halloween. Mind you, this legend wasn’t chatter on IMDB message boards, but was being perpetuated by Clark himself. Carpenter has gone on record for years refuting this story, stating that conversations with Clark in any kind of professional or collaborating manner never happened, even later describing Black Christmas as “how not to make a horror movie.”
While Halloween being Black Christmas 2 is a dubious claim to begin with, especially when you take into consideration that Carpenter was actually provided for the basic story details for Halloween by its eventual producer Irwin Yablans, the similarities between the two films can’t be dismissed. The unseen killer stalking a group of teenagers on a major holiday is enough to get us started, but even the films share a similar opening sequence — from the point of view of the killer, the audience, seeing through his eyes, creeps around a house looking through windows before entering, unseen, to commit a grisly murder. (The optimistic way to come away from all this second-guessing is that we’ve got not just one but two holiday-themed horror classics to enjoy over and over, so let’s maybe move on.)
Black Christmas isn’t obvious programming for the holiday season — not just because young people being picked off one by one seems like an odd choice for celebrating Santa’s coming — but because of the deeply disturbing undertones about the killer’s history which suggests familial physical and possibly sexual abuse, which has left him with a damaged psyche and severe issues with the opposite sex. But, subject matter aside, Black Christmas is a very well made and eerie little horror number with an undeniably wintry aesthetic. (Thanks, Canada!) During the Christmas season, some households put on Clark’s own 24 hours of A Christmas Story or throw in their DVDs of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (or Die Hard!), but for the more…adventurous of us, Black Christmas feels right at home.
THE PICTURE 4/5
I’m not going to get into the litany of other releases and the all-over-the-place picture quality history that could be found on them. Previous versions were cropped, in the wrong aspect ratio, or flat out terrible looking. Other reviewers have done a fine job charting that history if you really want to know. All you need to know from me is that this release is the best Black Christmas has ever looked. But take that with a modicum of salt, because Black Christmas isn’t a very pretty production to begin with. Low budget and not particularly cared for over the years only adds to the film itself being dark and dour, taking place mostly at night in dim interiors. This is a very grainy picture — so much that the film opens with a disclaimer from Shout acknowledging this. But, some film sources can’t be helped, and they can’t be cleaned up so much that they don’t resemble their original incarnations anymore. Instinct is to give this a 3.5, but I’m throwing on an extra half point because of the muddled picture history this release has had, and also because you get two different viewing options with which to view the film.
THE SOUND 4/5
Three different audio options are provided for your pleasure, but the recommended one is the original theatrical mono track. Obviously those wanting to make use of their home theaters will lean toward the 5.1, and as long as you’re not a purist, then that way also works. But the 5.1 DTS, and the 2.0 from which it was created, offers an experience that’s different as originally intended. Alternate sound effects (or sometimes missing) and issues with dialogue are present on both. The mono track, however, is the go-to track. (Having said that, early pressings of the disc featured poorly rendered mono audio, and Shout! Factory are currently in the midst of a disc exchange program.)
THE SUPPLEMENTS 5/5
It’s a given that this new edition of Black Christmas is the release to own. Not only does it manage to contain almost all previously available supplements from the numerous other past releases, but Shout! has commissioned a small number of their own to add to the mix.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Audio Commentary With Director Bob Clark
- Audio Commentary With Actors John Saxon And Keir Dullea
- Audio Commentary With Billy (Actor Nick Mancuso)
- Audio Interview With Director Bob Clark
- NEW Film And Furs – Remembering Black Christmas With Art Hindle
- NEW Victims And Virgins – Remembering Black Christmas With Lynne Griffin
- Black Christmas Legacy
- 40th Anniversary Panel At FanExpo 2014 Featuring John Saxon, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin & Nick Mancuso
- On Screen!: Black Christmas Featurette
- 12 Days Of Black Christmas Featurette
- Black Christmas Revisited Featurette
- Archival Interviews With Olivia Hussey, Art Hindle, Margot Kidder, Bob Clark, & John Saxon
- Midnight Screening Q&A With Bob Clark, John Saxon And Carl Zittrer
- Two Scenes With A New Vocal Soundtrack
- Original Theatrical Trailers (English And French)
- Original TV And Radio Spots
- Alternative Title Sequences
- Still Gallery
Cinephiles and genre buffs who enjoy counter-programming come the holiday probably have a whole list of Christmas-themed horror that gets frequent yearly play. For me, Black Christmas is one that gets a heavy rotation in my house during those yuletide months. (Because yes, in America, Christmas lasts from end of October to mid-January.) And it’s not just because Black Christmas is holiday-themed, but because it’s a tremendous and sometimes overlooked horror classic that never loses its ability to unnerve. How a static shot of a house set to a traditional recording of a choir singing “Silent Night” can be effortlessly eerie is — much like the unseen killer — a complete mystery, but Bob Clark managed to fill Black Christmas with little moments like this, giving it an undeniable ability to set its audience at unease. This is the best release of Black Christmas so far — don’t miss it.
Shout!/Scream Factory, LLC is a diversified multi-platform media company devoted to producing, uncovering, preserving and revitalizing the very best of pop culture. Shout! Factory’s DVD and Blu-Ray™ offerings serve up feature films, classic and contemporary TV series, animation, live music and comedy specials in lavish packages crammed with extras.