“Black Christmas… if it doesn’t make your skin craw, it’s on too TIGHT!”
It’s actually quite surprising how well Bob Clark’s Black Christmas has aged, and the skill with which this important horror film helped establish the slasher genre. Shot for around $400,000, it differs significantly from the Italian giallo (Bay of Blood) and whodunit bodycount genres (Ten Little Indians) because the killer’s reasoning isn’t tied to some grand/grandly ridiculous scheme, nor a rabid need to eviscerate women, as in more contemporary serial killer movies; in Black, his victims are (with one exception) all women (middle aged as well as coed), but one could easily see him cutting up a boyfriend, had one lingered too long in the upper floor of the dorm where the women live and are quickly dispatched to Heaven over one night.
The comparisons to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) are inevitably, since that film’s release four years later really kick-started the slasher wave that had male predators with steely determination killing teens and coeds in grisly, creative ways, but perhaps the most attractive aspect of Black Christmas and Halloween is the strong effort with which Carpenter and Clark chose to create believable characters that are funny and natural in spite of the usual sexual cravings and lude behaviour.
They’re not sophisticated by any means – the dorm mother’s habit of hiding a mickey of booze throughout the house gets increasingly sillier – but both filmmakers knew that if your film was populated by over-sexed idiots, no one would care when they died, and there would be no resonance to any of the side dramas.
Stylistically, Halloween reflects all the visual ticks and fetishes of its director, but it’s also a slower-paced film, which Carpenter uses to set up shock sequences, and later contrast the tension that thickens in the final act; Black is much more brisk, which Clark seems to have chosen because the movie is mostly a series of deaths buffered by some exterior character scenes – peripheral material designed to open up the drama before we’re shuttered up with the women in that dorm of death again.
The cinematography is also first-rate and very inventive, including the decision to apply the killer’s POV, and keep any glimpses of the killer very murky; sometimes the flashes of his face resemble one of the two boyfriends, which makes us re-align our suspicions, particularly towards ‘tormented’ conservatory student Peter, played by Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey).
Like Halloween, Black Christmas doesn’t revel in violence and gore, but Clark does return to some disturbing images, particularly the immolated girl’s face (actress Lynne Griffin), frozen in death under a sheet of plastic, and used in pretty much all of the film’s iconic ad campaigns.
The murders are often fairly brief, but one death is particularly well-staged because of the beautiful visual and auditory edits that make up a great death montage. That sequence has a character killed with a glass unicorn, but each stage is intercut with the creepy, soulless faces of Christmas carollers who serenade Jessica (Olivia Hussey) at the front door. The edits and compositions are beautiful and startling, but it’s the sound work that makes the sequence because it’s a great blend of sacred words and harmonies sung as a gloomy death pall.
Carl Zittrer’s original score is mostly short bits of music concrete, and his disharmonious cues are contrasted with brief carols in the film, which provide short and secure aural moments before Zittrer hits us with another wave of chilling metallic sounds and weirdly recorded vocals.
The same attention towards crafting dramatically varied sounds appears in the killer’s phone calls to the girls. Clark and Zittrer spent 2-3 weeks recording voices (mostly Clark and then-unknown Nick Mancuso) and sharpened the words and edits so the telephone calls that initially sound prankish and juvenile evolve into the horrible ramblings of a schizophrenic madman.
The other major star of the film is the dorm house, a big old multi-level mansion with a wide staircase from which the killer can delicately peer down and sometimes step very close to the main floor undetected; and a huge attic where he hangs out with the cadavers he’s managed to drag up through a trap door. As photographed by Reg Morris and camera operator Bert Dunk, this is one home where you don’t want to be alone, day or night.
Black Christmas on DVD. Again?
Black Christmas has been released several times on disc by Critical Mass, beginning as an unmated, full frame 25th Anniversary Edition in 2000 (uhm, which is technically 21 years later) where the mic boom was apparently visible at the top of some shots. That edition was superceded by a Collector’s Edition in 2006.
Available only in the U.S., the 2006 disc offered a matted non-anamorphic 1.77:1 transfer of the film, with decent sharpness and colours, but visible compression and grain. The audio mixes were the film’s original English and French mono, and a new English Dolby 2.0 Surround design.
Timed for the release of Dimension's 2006 remake, that transfer was replaced by a new DVD (distributed via Sommerville House/KOCH/Alliance-Atlantis) in 2007 with a matted anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, making better use of an increased bit rate.
To make room for English and French mono mixes and a new English Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, the dual commentary tracks on the 2006 DVD with director Bob Clark, and actors John Saxon and Keir Dullea, as well as several archival goodies and a lengthy featurette were dropped. It’s this transfer as well as the 2007 extras produced by Critical Mass that have been reissued in 2008 by new distribution partners Anchor Bay/Starz. [Note: for the sake of clarity, we’ll refer to this as the 2007 release, since the 2008 reissue uses the same 2007 master.]
A review of the 2007 release at DVD Verdict includes comments from Dan Duffin, who explained the new DVD is meant to compliment the still-in-print (as of this writing) 2006 release, so as to avoid duplicating any extras.
The 2007 transfer is not an unsupervised re-matted transfer. Each image has in fact been recomposed for 1.85:1, so there’s no worry about the framing literally being tightened, and the tips of heads periodically disappearing into matted blackness (a problem that actually affected the 1.77:1 matting). The images are also much sharper, the colours more balanced, and some of the murkiness/brightness that affected the prior transfer has been corrected, so in terms of image and sound quality, the 2007 release from Anchor Bay is the one to get.
The Extras: Featurettes, Interviews, and Commentary Tracks
Extras are a different matter, because the 2006 DVD contains more archival material and interviews, but their presentation isn’t the most organized.
“Black Christmas Revisited” (36:22) is an uneven attempt to intercut a tour of the elegant house in Rosedale, Toronto, conducted by co-stars Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin, with cast and crew interviews chronicling the film’s production.
There’s a cute and nostalgic quality to seeing Hindle and Griffin walk through specific areas (the attic, the front door, the stairwell) used in the film, but the kidding around and hamming up is at odds with the more serious tenor of the interview segments, which themselves have some seriously crude technical issues. (Some edits hack off a reply, the decision to conduct interviews outside in bright summer lighting also yields unwanted exterior noises, and dialogue from film clips obliterates some overlaid interview replies.)
The featurette includes a lot of important interviews, though: actors Hindle, Griffin, Keir Dullea and John Saxon (the last two editorially paired up for one of the DVD’s two feature film commentary tracks); camera operator Bert Dunk, art director Karen Bromley, director Clark, co-producer Gerry Arbeid, and executive producer Victor Solnicki. There’s also more material with composer Carl Zittrer than in “The 12 Days of Black Christmas,” the new featurette edited for the 2007 DVD which only retained segments from the Zittrer sessions, but focuses more on the music.
The older featurette contains more anecdotes and ephemera, but the 2007 featurette is less topically repetitive. The only issue is Dullea's absence among the new cast interviews, (although he actually provides more than enough material in the 2006 featurette and commentary track).
Director Clark was re-interviewed in 2007, as were camera operator Dunk, actors Hindle, Griffin, and Saxon (who also narrates the featurette) in separate tapings. Newly interviewed were actresses Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Doug McGrath. Oddly, the new featurette’s tighter focus and pacing significantly reduced the onscreen time of Hussey and Kidder – but there’s a reason the two barely appear.
Like the 2006 DVD, the 2007 edition includes some raw interview footage. John Saxon’s (12:50) rambling and Clark’s repetitive (24:59) Q&As are negligible additions on the older DVD, whereas Hussey, Kidder, and Hindle provide more self-reflection on their careers.
Where things become far more intriguing is when Kidder and Hindle present some important perspectives on the Canadian film industry, circa 1974. Clark covers his own lengthy association with Canada on both DVD releases, but Kidder’s the most frank and funny, and we get a fairly decent snapshot of the film as another catalyst within a young film industry that relied on American directors, tax shelter agreements, indie financing, and a cast of international stars mixed with local talent – a typical makeup of the higher profile productions of the seventies.
On the 2006 DVD, Saxon also appears in an episode (19:27) of Dark Dreamers, a straightforward Q&A session with host/writer Stanley Wiater. The series format expands on Wiater’s book, Dark Dreamers: Facing the Masters of Fear, and while Saxon isn’t really a master within the horror genre, the pair’s conversations hovers around recognizing a potentially unique horror script, working with director Mario Bava, and an anecdote from appearing in Antonio Margheriti’s Apocalypse domani / Cannibal Apocalypse (1980).
(Interviews for the series were apparently taped between 2000-2001, and while the series was intended for a TV broadcast, it seems to be making its first major appearance on DVD in a 4-disc set.)
Unique to the 2007 DVD is a Q&A session with Clark, Saxon, and Zittrer at a December 2004 Nuart screening of Black Christmas, although the most intriguing comments center around actor Edmund O’Brien (replaced by Saxon due to serious health issues), and Clark’s rather genial comments on the proposed 2006 remake (which ultimately evolved into a major stinker).
The dual commentary tracks could’ve been edited down into one, and squeezed onto the 2007 DVD simply because a) Clark’s track – which isn’t well recorded, repeats info in the taped interviews; and b) the Dullea and Saxon track is a melange of comments apparently taken from the taped interviews as well as watching the film, and there are chunky gaps of silence and banal observations.
That’s essentially the problem with the 2006 DVD: the information is too loose and repetitive, whereas the newer DVD trims down the information into something more concise, albeit lacking some of the interviews exclusive to the older DVD.
Also unique to the 2006 DVD are two sets of full frame (1.33:1) alternate main titles, “Silent Night Evil Night” (1:20) and the absurdly convoluted “Stranger in the House or Black Christmas – Silent Night, Evil Night” (1:24), partially excerpted in the 2007 making-of featurette.
There’s also the full frame French (“Noel Tragique”) and matted 1.78:1 English trailers, each running well over 4 mins. Both pretty much reflect the film’s own music and sound effects design of calm sounds harshly counter-pointed by screams, wails, phone rings, etc., but the middle section goes through the main plot points and revelations, as well as chief kills. The most striking segment is the opening third, which unfolds like a brutal giallo trailer, and the closing pull-back, with a narrator mimicking James Mason.
Closing out the marketing goodies are four TV spots (:60, :30, and :10 sec. spots from 1974, and a :30 sec. DVD spot from 2001), as well as a :60 and :10 radio spots from 1974. The TV spots are variations of elements from the theatrical trailer’s money shots with narration, whereas the audio spots are set against a slo-mo shot of suffocated Clare (Griffin) in the rocking chair – the film’s most striking image that’s also seen in the poster and stills gallery (21 images).
The 2007 DVD contains rather minor archival extras: alternate audio mixes of two scenes that basically offer clearer bits of off-screen dialogue that were never really missed in the first place.
Inevitably there’s going to be another special edition of Black Christmas, and while the film is well represented on a new Blu-Ray DVD, the next HD release should (read: must) be the final word, in terms of assembling things new and old.
Ardent fans would prefer the inclusion of every extra from the 2006 and 2007 editions, and that’s a no-brainer, but there are some new ideas that would improve things without resorting to crafting a short featurette that’s mere padding, just to sell a new DVD edition.
Create a new a new commentary track from existing interviews (there’s more than enough material to draw from) which would finally take all that info and create a fluid, lively, non-repetitive narrative); add an isolated score track or score gallery in the menu system; include a portrait of composer Zittrer; an original featurette on the Canadian film industry using Black Christmas as an example of the kind of productions active in the early seventies (the easy way out is to re-edit Hindle, Kidder, and Clark’s comments into a featurette); and a multimedia tour of the film’s locations: say a map of Toronto, where each film location can be toured via stills or video.
Sounds like a worthy game plan, eh?
Black Christmas was reissued in 2008 alongside Clark's other fine thriller, the Sherlock Homes classic Murder by Decree (1979).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan