Review Date: December 25, 2002
Released by: Critical Mass
Release date: 12/3/2002
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: No
Before Halloween and before Friday the 13th, there was only one date that mattered to horror fans, and that was Black Christmas. Bob Clark's seminal cult classic has endured the test of time and has emerged to become one of the most celebrated cult horror films of all time, and for good reason! Critical Mass brought this classic out on DVD back in 1999, and its lack of extras left much to be desired. Thankfully, after three very long years, Critical Mass has given horror fans a Christmas present never to forget, a brand new Special Edition reissue of one of the greatest horror films of the past thirty years. So join me now as we open this DVD up a little before Christmas.
It’s 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, Clare’s 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 Jess’ 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?
This Canadian-made chiller still packs a punch nearly 30 years later. Although many of the plot points have since been exploited in later films, few have been able to do it with the same skill and execution as Black Christmas. The unrelenting, eerie mood of the film is set within the opening point-of-view shot of the killer prowling the house, and the movie maintains its sinister atmosphere throughout.
From the heavy breathing in the point-of-view shots, to the uncontrollable outbursts on the phone, the film’s killer remains one of cinema’s most frightening. Cast in shadows and hardly shown throughout, with no mention of his identity or motives, the killer becomes the physical manifestation of the viewer’s worst fears. Unlike Freddy and Jason who would eventually follow, the killer’s indeterminate identity makes him more frightening because he could be anyone. Without explanation, this mentally deranged and affected stalker manically murders and manipulates his victims, creating one of the scariest murderers to ever be captured on film.
Adding to the villain's hauntingly effective portrayal are the phone calls. Truly frightening and disturbing, most of them consist of incomprehensible noises and bantering about unknown people and events. The killer is clearly insane, and the phone calls serve as a window into his deranged mind. Listening to the killer's outbursts is an unsettling experience, but effective nonetheless, and is sure to stay with the viewer long after the film is over.
Not only is the villain of the film excellent, but so is the rest of the cast. Olivia Hussey of Romeo & Juliet fame, brings forth an irresistible wholesomeness that cannot be resisted. John Saxon is his usual reliable self, playing the film straight as an arrow, with a restrained sense of authority and concern. As Peter, Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) brings forth a resonance of unease and discomfort, bringing out the most of his underwritten role. And future Lois Lane, Margot Kidder adds some much needed comic relief to the film with her drunken ramblings and pompous charm. Unlike most of the shallow slasher movies of the 80’s, director Bob Clark takes the time to really flesh out the characters, adding depth and credibility to the characters and the actions of the story.
The film also benefits from fine technical work as well. The unnerving piano score keeps things off-putting and suspenseful but never overwhelms. The cinematography is also top-notch and carefully constructed. The ominous pans and lengthy takes heighten the looming intensity that is present throughout the film, waiting to burst like the killer, but never quite doing so. The point-of-view shots are done skillfully by using an extremely wide-angle lens to make the psycho’s presence more distorted and engulfing. The entire story has an unsettling quality to it, and through its rich production values the film comes across as even more upsetting and powerful.
Although not quite as refined as Halloween, the film is directed with extreme skill and creates a strong atmosphere throughout, and is undoubtedly one of the scariest movies to date. After Black Christmas, one will never approach the festive holiday with the same naivety and eagerness ever again. It may also make a person think twice about getting caller ID as well.
The original release was in 1.33:1 full frame, and there were many complaints about not presenting the film in its true theatrical aspect ratio. Critical Mass has answered these complaints with a newly done 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer. On the original DVD, the top portion of the film was ridden with open space and boom mics, and thankfully this widescreen transfer remedies these notable distractions. People on various discussion boards have complained that by matting the film, the viewer thus sees less of the film, but this is something I see as a blessing. The horror film, and especially one as mental and implied as Black Christmas, is one that relies on fear of the unknown. It is not what you see, its what you don't see. By tightening the composition of the frame, the movie appears all the more threatening and claustrophobic, which was certainly the intent of Bob Clark.
When Olivia Hussey gets those imposing phone calls, the tightness of the frame increases the tension; removing her of that freedom in the upper and lower portions of the frame she had on the original disc. The 1.66:1 ratio works perfectly for the film too, rather than the traditional 1.85:1 that would have cut off too much. This transfer finds just the right balance between showing too much and showing too little. There is unfortunately one hitch to this matting, and that is the famous final shot. As it pans out, vital information is lost at the top, somewhat lessening the effectiveness of the scene. Overall though, the matting does nothing but heighten the intensity and tautness of the film, and Critical Mass should be applauded for taking the time to address the aspect ratio concerns of the previous disc.
Quality wise, this transfer in this film is largely the same as the original disc. Colors appear slightly washed out, and grain is featured throughout the transfer. If you look at the included shots here, the second shot appears to be slightly better saturated, although it is largely unnoticeable on the television. Notice also in the first comparison shot that the boom microphone in the upper middle portion of the frame has been removed with the cropping. It is a shame Critical Mass never remastered this film in anamorphic widescreen, but still, the inclusion of the mattes makes this worth the upgrade, transfer wise.
The main track on this disc is identical to the previous disc, presented in English 2.0 stereo. It sounds fairly weak, lacking power, sharpness and directional movement. The audio is easily understandable, and for the most part clear, but it is still a victim of its 27-year-old age. Critical Mass has included the original mono mix as well as a French mono mix this time around, but it would have been nice if they could have remastered the film in 5.1.
Frankly, here is where the disc truly shines. This disc is bursting at the seams with supplements, with enough content to last you through the entire Christmas break! First off, we have not one, but two commentary tracks, the first of which is one by Director Bob Clark. He is a genuinely kind and literate man, and hearing him comment on the various scenes in Black Christmas is a real treat. He goes into how the film was progressive in its presentation of women and abortion in the 1970's, as well as revealing how the housemother character was based on his alcoholic aunt. There are a few dry spells here and there, but for the most part Clark is very vocal throughout this track and a joy to listen to. The recording of his commentary sounds a bit thin and distant, but nothing to toss your cookies over.
The second track is one featuring actors John Saxon and Keir Dullea. Both participants were recorded at different times and simply edited together. Saxon dominates the track though, talking in bits about his involvement and his interpretation of the themes and presentation of the film. He also mentions how he will be checking out the various internet websites with pages dedicated to Black Christmas (you can rest assured where he will be checking out first!). Dullea comes in at around the 24 minute mark, and he admits right off the bat that he doesn't really remember much about the production. Still though, he has plenty to say, including his memories of Art Hindle (who played Chris) being a smart ass! The Clark commentary is the better one, but this one is still definitely worth the listen.
Next up is the brand new documentary "Black Christmas Revisited", which runs a lengthy 36 minutes, and features recollections by several members of the cast and crew. Notable omissions are the gorgeous Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin, but the rest of the crew presents themselves with such life and enthusiasm that one wont even notice. Chris and Claire in the film (Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin) take the viewer back to the same sorority house in the film, and spend plenty of time reminiscing about the production.
In the documentary's high point, Lynne Griffin gives the viewer an in depth demonstration of how she was able to do the bag scenes in the attic, complete with split screens! The other participants are interviewed and talk about creating the visual look of Black Christmas, as well as their opinions of the film and its success on home video years later. Everyone interviewed can't say enough good things about the film, and their enthusiasm makes this a fantastic behind the scenes look into one of the classic films of the 70's.
Also included are three unabridged interviews, one with Bob Clark, and two with John Saxon. Some of their interviews here have been spliced into the commentaries or featured in the documentary, but there is still enough new material that makes them worth the look. The third interview was done for a Canadian show called "Dark Dreamers" and it features Saxon talking about his involvement in various horror films. Saxon is such a well-spoken and perceptive individual, and his anecdotes on Mario Bava, Black Christmas, Enter The Dragon and even Cannibal Apocalypse are very insightful. His talk about Cannibal Apocalypse is particularly interesting, as he expresses his hatred for the visual exploitation of the film's gore. The Clark interview runs 25 minutes, while the two Saxon ones run 13 and 20 minutes.
There is a gallery of promotional material also included on the disc. There are two radio spots, six TV spots, a French and an English trailer and two alternative openings. The ads are fairly revealing, so they should be seen after viewing the film, but they are very effective in setting up the ambience of the film. The alternative openings are just the same opening for the original film but with title cards reading either "Stranger in the House" or "Silent Night Evil Night". Also included is a still gallery with 50-odd shots of the press kit, various posters and cover art used to promote Black Christmas. A trailer for another Bob Clark shocker coming to DVD from Critical Mass, the Sherlock Holmes shocker Murder by Decree, is also included to round out the content accessible by menus.
Proving that Critical Mass REALLY cares about the fans, there is also some top-notch DVD-ROM content. Included in Adobe Acrobat files are the film's original press kit, high-quality scans of some of the posters, and most substantially, Black Christmas' original screenplay in its entirety, titled "Stop Me!" The script is, to quote the statement on the last page "damn good". It presents a combination of handwritten and typed pages and spans a very lengthy 161 pages.
The creepily animated menus should also be signaled out, they are skillfully animated and really compliment the tone of the film. Last, but certainly not least, is the reversible cover art included as well. The new artwork is nice, but the real treat is the other cover featuring the original one sheet artwork. Kudos to Critical Mass for giving buyers the option of choosing their cover of preference.
Critical Mass has really raised the bar here when it comes to supplemental content on DVD. They have gone to great lengths to bring back all the principals involved in the shooting, as well as reviving some of the historical artifacts that helped to make and distribute the film. This seems to have been a true labor of love for Critical Mass, and their effort will be very much appreciated by all horror fans this Christmas.
Black Christmas is an absolute masterpiece when it comes to the horror film, done with a style and craft unmatched by nearly every film to follow in its wake. The newly matted video is a welcome addition, but its lack of anamorphic enhancement is a let down. The sound and video are culled from the same masters used for the original disc, but are still serviceable. What makes this disc a must have are the plethora of supplements included on the disc. Two commentaries, a documentary, interviews, the original script and oodles of love give this disc tons of replay value. So toss a log on the fire and sit back with arguably the best horror DVD of the year, the taut and terrific Black Christmas!
Movie - A
Image Quality - B-
Sound - C
Supplements - A
- Running Time - 1 hour, 38 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Stereo
- English Mono
- French Mono
- English Subtitles
- Commentary with Director Bob Clark
- Commentary with actors John Saxon and Keir Dullea.
- "Black Christmas Revisited" Documentary
- Interviews with Bob Clark and John Saxon
- Dark Dreamers episode with John Saxon
- TV and Radio spots
- Alternate openings
- Picture and poster gallery
- Animated menus
- Complete original script (DVD-ROM only)
- Press kit and Posters in high quality (DVD-ROM only)
- Reversible cover artwork.