Much has been made of Anchor Bayís endless re-releasing of key titles like Halloween or The Evil Dead. Is it ironic, then, that they are finally partnering with Canadian company Critical Mass to bring out possibly the only other film with more re-releases than Halloween, Black Christmas? The Bob Clark slasher template maker is now on its fourth official release, although most infuriating of all, it never seems to get more definitive Ė just definitely more different. I just first we should preface this review for the new Blu-ray disc with a little primer on whatís out there and why itís important.
Black Christmas first came out inconspicuously in Canada for its 25th anniversary in 1999. It has two very short interviews with John Saxon that are not on current editions. It remains relevant today, as well, because of the aspect ratio, which continues to remain on contestation. The 1999 release is open matte, and while some sequences, like the iconic ending, are more effective in full, many, like the group phone call, are victim to a creeping boom mic. A boom wouldnít have made it into the final cut, right? So out then came a new special edition from Critical Mass in 2002. This time the ratio was 1.66:1 non-anamorphic, and while the boom was gone, the end still wasnít quite right. What this release did have, though, was a multitude of stellar extras, including audio commentaries, interviews and a return to the original location. No matter how good the extras, though, the aspect ratio concerns still needed to be addressed.
Somerville House, this time a US outfit, decided to try and finally provide a definitive release. Their 2006 disc was 1.85:1 anamorphic, finally the aspect ratio of the North American cinemas it was made for, and it had a number of new extras including advertised lost scenes. Still, fans balked at the new yellow hue and the lack of extras from the original release.
Well, here we are in 2008, just in time for another Christmas season, and hereís yet another trip to Agnesí well. Within weeks of each other, both Anchor Bay (through Critical Mass) and Somerville House are releasing Blu-rays of this most celebrated of Christmas horror films. Are the extras the same? Have the colors been fixed? How about that new resolution? Letís unravel the bow on this yuletide classic and get some answers.
Itís the holiday season in Bedford as a group of sorority girls prepare to celebrate the festivities. Included in such revelry is drinking and socializing, as the sorority girls throw a little party. Unbeknownst to them however, lurks an uninvited guest. Neurotically creeping his way around the exterior of the sorority house, the unnamed prowler makes his way into the house through the upper window. Meanwhile, Jess (played by the gorgeous Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder), the outspoken drunk of the group, and the rest of the girls mingle in the living room.
Things take a blacker turn when the house begins receiving obscene phone calls from the intruder. After a series of high pitched shrills and squeals, the prowler then informs Barb that he is going to kill her. Still upset from the phone call, Clare (Lynne Griffin) goes upstairs to finish packing only to be suffocated by the psychotic intruder. While this happens, the compulsively drunken house mother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) provides some much needed comic relief as she searches for alcohol while the girls worry. Hours later, Clareís father and the rest of the girls are unable to find her, a search is called on by the police, led by Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon), but to little success.
As the search continues, so does the brutal and disturbing phone calls to the sorority house. Full of fright, the intelligent and wholesome Jess Bradford gets her phone tapped by the police to find the whereabouts of the killer. After numerous calls, the police finally determine that the calls are coming from inside the house (a plot point that would be stolen 5 years later in When A Stranger Calls). As if Jessí night could not get any worse, she must also deal with the fact that she is pregnant and that her aggressive boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) is angered over her desire to abort the baby.
Jess, now knowing that her friends have been slain and that a killer lurks within her house, must play a cat and mouse game in order to survive the austere night. Not exactly your typical perennial Christmas favorite, eh?
Itís easy to see the filmís connections to Halloween and superficially try to split hairs. They are both based around a holiday! They both use the first person perspective! They both have muffled phone calls! But after all these years, what makes the film stand out from the pack is precisely what it doesnít have in common with the other films in the slasher genre. Black Christmas is a masterpiece of subtlety. Itís quiet when most films are loud, itís funny when most films are scrambling for a jolt and itís ambiguous when other films start giving answers. Scares are never choreographed, but instead come out of a mounting fear that what is unfolding is not guided by any sense of convention or plot. Bob Clark stated that he never was a huge fan of movies before becoming a filmmaker, and it figures, because Black Christmas does not play out like a conventional film.
The first case in point Ė the killer. While other films have no doubt experimented with the first person, or deprivation of explanation or identification, none have done it with the experimental resolve done by Black Christmas. You know youíre in for trouble right from the start when the wide angel camera starts literally climbing up the porch lattice. The first person visuals are still incredibly enveloping and powerful, and those view shadowed glimpses of ďBillyĒ have all become iconic in themselves. Yet, Clark does not rely on mere anonymity for his scares, like lesser examples like The Strangers. The unknown is not necessarily scary in itself. Itís the potential chaos that can exist behind normalcy that is truly what drives humanityís fear of the dark. Bob Clark knows this, and he does what almost nobody else has been able to do by giving the unknown a character that is both abstract enough that it can never be empathized with, but material enough that it can be understood.
Billy, surely one of the greats of all cinema villains, is crazy like no other. We understand that heís disturbed, that heís done something to this ďAgnesĒ, and that heís several, several cards short of a full deck. Thatís it. Rather than rely on the usual conventions of having detectives spout exposition about an escaped convicts history, or the heroes stopping off at the library to look through news clippings, Bob Clark is much more clever to instead rely on the calamity of the present. Clark relies almost entirely on the sound design to develop character, and those from the hip touretteís telephone calls and infinitely more effective than any plot point could ever be. Like if The Exorcist read Freud aloud, the calls are so unkempt and spontaneously shocking that they evoke an absolute chaos. Again, itís not the unknown that is scary, but that the unknown can never be understood or reasoned with that truly gives Black Christmas its demented edge.
The killer in Black Christmas may often be eruptive and abrasive, but the film itself is all the better for remaining quiet. So often in the film we find ourselves in silence, the camera circling around the house trying desperately to find something of shape or reason. Chaos may be happening throughout in the shadows, but in the Canadian documentarian tradition that guides the film, all Black Christmas can do is quietly search for answers. That the film includes Doug ďFellatioĒ McGrath, star of Canadaís internationally acclaimed ode to verite realism, Goiní Down the Road only reinforces Clarkís commitment to subtlety. Jamie Lee Curtis became a scream queen in Halloween because of all of her high pitched histrionics, but contrary to popular belief, the heroine here is engrained in pleadingly problematic pregnant pauses.
Pregnant pause is probably the wrong term to use in a film that so actively prods the hot button issue of abortion, but even that needs to be noted. Thereís more than just storytelling thatís progressive with Black Christmas. The film is filled with strong women that tell the jokes and arenít merely the brunt of them. McGrathís famous fellatio scene retains its humor today not wholly because of the scenario, but because a powerful man of the law is being one-upped by a regular college girl. When they arenít telling jokes they are dealing with pretty serious subject matter for a film that would make the usual drive-in rounds. Even in todayís entertainment, it seems thereís never a show where a woman just gives a definitive stance on abortion. Itís usually always noncommittal in fear it will polarize its audience.
Clark cares about character though, and he always has. Heíd rather offend someone by giving his character a negative trait than bore them by having them trot the middle of the road. Even his jovial films like Porkyís or A Christmas Story are wall to wall with personalities, and itís because of his devotion to realistic characters that his films, and his characters, can so easily transition from comedy to horror or laughs to tears. It seems odd that a film as unsettling and terrifying as Black Christmas is so often very, very funny. Thatís the Bob Clark way, though, and a prime example of how, again, Black Christmas is a film that can never be duplicated.
Sure, many people say that most of the classics of cinema can never be duplicated, but thatís more or less hyperbole. Halloween is a masterpiece, but to say it hasnít been xeroxed more times than its shooting script is a fabrication. Itís been duplicated, just never as good. Psycho has been duplicated, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has been duplicated and Night of the Living Dead has been duplicated. Black Christmas, though, remains this teetering tightrope walk of calamity and calm foreboding that no film has ever come close to replicating. Of all the classics I own, Black Christmas is that one movie that is really just like nothing else before it or since. Even with all its re-releases over the years, I still feel as if Iím watching something new every time I pop it in. This was the first film I reviewed for the site back in 2001, and here I am again in 2008 still wondering why I havenít seen another like it. Undeniably one of a handful of unrivalled classics on the medium, Black Christmas is a gift whatever time of year you watch it.
There was a mild stink made when Somervilleís recent Blu-ray was found to be only 11.9 GB when the average film is usually double that in high definition. Well, sorry to say, but Anchor Bayís disc is exactly the same. What does this mean? Well, considering the high grain nature of the film (the naturalistic, minimal lighting necessitated faster, grainer film stocks) it is very tough to compress static portions of the frame. Granular imperfections are always dancing, and with a smaller bitrate like the one that is used here, those bits of grain turn into even more distracting bits of digital noise and artifacts. So as a result, this 1080p 1.78:1 MPEG-4 AVC transfer is much messier than it should be. Detail also suffers, with all of Olivia Husseyís extreme close-ups looking flat because of the high compression.
Thatís the bad news. The good news, though, is that the colors here look much better than they have ever looked on any previous release. The overly yellow saturation of the previous Somerville benchmark has thankfully been corrected here, and like with the new Halloween Blu-ray, this is no doubt the most accurate and visually appealing way to see the film. The colors really pop, and considering the colorful Christmas theme, they get more than their fair share to throughout the runtime. The added resolution, even in its compressed state, still really makes a difference too. Textures on all those checked seventies clothing, depth on all those wide angle shots and the writing in all those books the headmaster hides her booze suddenly all come out with new life with the increased sharpness and larger image. Were it not for that distracting noise, this would be a beautiful transfer. Itís very clean, with only little white dots slightly showing throughout.
Since I never was able to review the Somerville disc (blame that on Canadian customs), Iíll just add that their 1.78:1 framing here is without a doubt the final word on how the film should look. All the key scenes are without the problems from the previous ratios (too much head room, visible booms or cropped characters) and all the wide-angle action has an increased power the wider it gets. Iíve taken a few shots of the problematic scenes for comparison, but itís clear Ė this is the ratio to see the film. If youíve been holding on to your other discs purely for their ratio, then itís time you give them out as Christmas presents. Black Christmas looks great in widescreen, and even with the grain and bitrate issues here on Blu-ray, HD is still very kind to this classic.
This disc, like the Somerville Blu-ray, retains all the audio tracks from the previous Somerville disc. The tracks are English Dolby Digital 5.1, English mono and French monoÖhow Canadian of them. The 5.1 track is alright. There are actually a few bits of Billy coming from speakers other than center, although itís pretty few and far between. Since the film is one that relies on subtlety though, any surround showmanship would no doubt deflate the effectiveness of the original sound mix. The things that matter Ė the hiss and crackle evident in films of this age have been effectively removed while still retaining a semblance of depth to the sound. Itís still fairly flat, but rememberÖ1974.
Okay, so the film is only 11.9 GB and a single layer Blu-ray disc holds 25 GB, so we should be in for some serious supplements, right? Right? ErrÖwrong. Despite all the unused space on the disc, the extras that fans have been clamoring for from the second Critical Mass disc are sadly missing. That means we donít get the two commentaries, one with the late Bob Clark and the other with John Saxon and Keir Dullea, the stellar half-hour retrospective documentary, the alternate title sequences (although they can be briefly glimpsed in the new documentary), the Dark Dreamers television episode with Saxon and a bunch of interviews with cast members like Keir Dullea. Itís a wonder why it wasnít brought over, since Critical Mass is again responsible for this new Anchor Bay DVD. That said, the extras here still are no slouch.
Whatís included are all the extras from the Somerville House DVD. That includes a twenty minute glimpse at the history of the film, narrated by John Saxon. It finally has Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey, who were absent from previous releases, and includes again Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin (Claire), Doug McGrath and John Saxon. Itís a little fluffy and for fans of the film it doesnít really have anything not already learned on the previous special edition, but itís still a good sort of primer for the film itself. Then there are unabridged interviews with Hindle, Kidder and Hussey. Each of their segments runs around fifteen minutes a pop, and while their better bits already make it into the previous featurette, they still have some nice candid confessions. Kidder is the most fun, very liberal in spouting off against anything and everything, from conservative church groups to her own sex with the director antics on Sisters. Itís nice to finally here from Hussey, too, who contrary to popular belief is actually quite happy with the finished product. She still hasnít seen Halloween, though.
Thereís also another twenty minute extra, this time a Q&A with John Saxon, Bob Clark and composer Carl Zittner [sic]. Filmed after a screening of the film, the three answer questions from fans with a good bit of laughs and particulars. Saxon explains how he was almost never cast, Zittrer talks about how they did the piano scene with Dullea, and Clark talks about all sorts of things from the identification of Billy to his influences. These sort of extras are always my favorite, and this one is no disappointment.
A few odds and ends round off this release, including the hyperboles that are the ďrecently uncovered original scenesĒ. What they are, really, are two takes from the film, but with slightly different audio stems. The first is Billy climbing outside, where now you can hear what the people inside are talking about. Itís filler, so who cares? The second is a very short alteration of Billy talking while the camera pans around the second floor, but you still canít really make out what heís saying. The French and English trailers that have been on every other release are also included.
The pop-up Blu-ray menu is pretty blasť, but the opening menu screen is a fairly striking image. As far as packaging goes, the Anchor Bay disc looks much, much better than the Somerville disc, which uses their uninspired art from their previous DVD. The Anchor Bay disc has a taught rendering of a Christmas tree in blood, with the original poster image contained inside. Simple and effective. It should be noted that the advertised set of ď4 Black Christmas cards and envelopesĒ is not included on this release as stated. Perhaps this is exclusive only to the Anchor Bay DVD?
Although it may have inspired Halloween, Black Christmas remains so effective today because it is still so much more different than Carpenterís film and all the imitations it spawned. The killer is no doubt the most fascinatingly ambiguous character in all of horror, and his crazy phone calls, and the subtle way Bob Clark captures his insanity, is still wholly unnerving. The Blu-ray image looks good, but is marred by a low bitrate and the inherent grain in the original master of the film. The sound is the same quality work that was featured on Somervilleís previous DVD. The extras, unfortunately, are also only from the Somerville DVD, so that means fans will have to still hang on to Critical Massís packed 2002 edition to retain all the meat regarding Black Christmas. The film has been released four times now, but Iím afraid itís going to need another release before it can explicitly be called definitive. Still, for fans of the film, Christmas has come early and in high definition. Coal to you if you donít like this Canadian Christmas classic.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Seeing as how I never bought the original Somerville House disc, I'll still pick this up. Surely, if you sit back from your TV (like such is the case with upscaled DVDs) the image will appear more crisp due to the fact that you're not like 3 feet from your TV screen. Still, quite disappointing that the film is only 11.9 GB. (They never really can seem to get this film right, can they?)
I'm surprised nothing was carried over from Critical Mass' earlier 2002 edition, seeing as how Anchor Bay collborated with Critical Mass to release this disc. Strange, but you can't win 'em all.
I recently picked up the 2002 release used for $10 and while I don't have Blu Ray yet, it looks like that version is the one to stick with!
Well, for extras you need to have that disc, but for the film itself (which is the most important) the Somerville disc or this Blu-ray is definitely the way to go.
I can find the somerville disc on a lot of websites, but this disc seems to be non-existent to buy or pre-order. Anyone know where I can find it or am I just a moron?
No, you're just a moron. ;)
The relatively small disc size makes me wonder if the movie and special features were originally designed/compressed for a single layer HD-DVD.
I am enjoy this movie very much from over the year. I think is betters over all than Hallooween because is maybe stronger scripts but Halloween is more efective in atmospherics Black Christmas is more built up toward in the conclusion. I am original to buy dvd from 1999 with full screen version and I am like that one for the best version. I am happy with this but is only thing is it look like the quality like I am watch a tv show some grain and exetras. I am not to much for the blurays yet for this time because I am find many movies are more better with quality on original dvd and is only difference is more sharpness in blurays. New movies are good for the blurays but older movie when I see and compared is big disapointed on bluray.
I went to pick up my Black Christmas blu-ray and was suprised to find it was a release from critical mass not anchor bay and had the same white 'screaming face' cover the 2006 CM DVD had not the new ' red X-mas tree' design. Whats the story? Are there actually 2 releases already?
EDIT: Nevermind, just re-read the review.
I didn't own this on SD-DVD and believe it or not, I'd never seen this flick before so I picked it up. It looks terrible but that's fine. Another thing i noticed is that the left hand side of the frame appears to be darker in some of the shadowy scenes. Anyone else notice this. It might be on the right as well but the left is where I continually noticed it. At fist I thought it was just a camera effect they were using at the first if the movie but the darkness continues throughout the film.
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