All through the house, a killer is stirring on BLACK CHRISTMAS, given a definitive special edition two-disc Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory.
The girls of Pi Kappa Sigma are getting ready to go on vacation for the winter break when they start receiving a series of obscene phone calls. Brash Barb (Margot Kidder, 92 IN THE SHADE) gives back as good as she gets, mousey Phyl (Andrea Martin, CANNIBAL GIRLS) thinks the calls are entertaining, and Jess (Olivia Hussey, TURKEY SHOOT) has her own problems with an unwanted pregnancy by temperamental music student Peter (Keir Dullea, Kubrick's 2001). When good girl Claire Harrison (Lynne Griffin, STRANGE BREW) retires early but fails to meet up with her father (James Edmond, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS) the next day, we know that she has been suffocated and stashed in the attic but the police – as personified by dullard desk sergeant Nash (Doug McGrath, PALE RIDERS) – do not take the concerns of her father, her sorority sisters, or boyfriend Chris (Art Hindle, THE BROOD) seriously until a neighborhood child also disappears. While a police and volunteer search of the neighborhood and surrounding areas lead by Lt. Fuller (John Saxon, TENEBRAE) goes on outside and housemother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman, WHEN MICHAEL CALLS) has gone "out of town", the remaining girls are tormented by increasingly disturbing obscene calls, unaware of just how near the real danger is to them.
A riff on the "have you checked the children" babysitter urban legend – treated more faithfully in the opening of WHEN A STRANGER CALLS – with a holiday spin, the Canadian-made BLACK CHRISTMAS was the literally chilly progenitor of the distinctly "American" – the film was helmed by CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS director Bob Clark – brand of body count films that morphed into the slasher cycle of the 1980s. While certainly not the first genre film to utilize various elements like the killer POV, threatening phone calls, and the stalking of beautiful college girls, Clark's film did seem coalesce these and certain stylistic flourishes into what appears to be the first of its kind. More so than the ways it precedes and anticipates the likes of HALLOWEEN south of the border and MY BLOODY VALENTINE there up north, BLACK CHRISTMAS is memorably for its suspense, performances, and characterizations. We miss those who are killed because they are more than just the genre types into which the would be dumbed down in later years. We also know the twist involving the phone calls – truly disturbing aural set-pieces that hint at a backstory so unimaginable – but it does not fail to ratchet up the suspense once the final girl learns of it, and the surprise ending eschews a jump for disquiet. From the future director of PORKY'S, the film's sense of humor is organic and never distracts from the film's drama for all the memorable bits about fellatio (as a "new exchange"), mating turtles, and Santa's "Ho, ho, ho, shit!"
Released theatrically and then on VHS and laserdisc by Warner Bros., the film's rights eventually reverted and an unmatted edition featuring an interview with Saxon was released in Canada in 2001 by Critical Mass and then ported over by Eclectic (later MVD) for a stateside release. These versions were quickly replaced with a Critical Mass special edition in Canada (but easily found stateside) featuring a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer with dual commentary tracks from Clark and separately recorded Dullea and Saxon along with a Clark interview and a longer Saxon one as well as alternate title sequences and mono and stereo English tracks along with a French dub. When Critical Mass did an anamorphic 1.78:1 upgrade stateside, they dropped the commentaries in favor of a 5.1 remix, two "Uncovered" sound scenes with a new vocal track, a new featurette, interviews with Hussey, Hindle, Kidder, and a Q&A featurette with Saxon, Clark, and Zittrer. This package was carried over to an underwhelming Blu-ray with lossy audio and a low bitrate encode in 2008. In 2015, Anchor Bay's Canadian arm tried to improve on things by combining the older HD master with all of the aforementioned extras as well as a couple new ones including a commentary by "Billy."
Scream Factory's Blu-ray combines the bulk of the older extras with a handful of new ones as well as a new 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen encode from a new 2K scan of the original negative on the first disc and the older master on a second disc with 1.78:1 framing and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Whereas the older transfer had greyish blacks and more noise than grain, the newer one sports deeper blacks, more vibrant colors, and crisper detail (the use of split diopter in a background/foreground set-up is more evident than in earlier transfers). Audio options for the newer transfer include a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 downmix of Critical Mass' surround remix as well as the original mono track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The mono track has proven problematic for early recipients of the disc, with some buzzy background noise and hiss evident in the dialogue. Scream has decided to offer a replacement edition utilizing the mono track from the Critical Mass edition (whether this means they will be replacing the DTS-HD track with the lossy Dolby Digital track or a lossless encode of the source of that track remains to be clarified). Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.
Clark appears on a commentary track ported from the earlier DVDs in which he gets off to a rocky start narrating the onscreen action before realizing it, at which point he switches over to a mix of trivia and anecdote. Among other things, he reveals that he had Gilda Radner in mind for Martin's part and that his grandmother posed for the obscene poster in Claire's room. He discusses his desire to create more realistic college students who are more astute and less foolish than those seen in American films (including the sort who would populate the slasher genre in later years), noting that the girls do not sensibly hang up on the killer's obscene phone calls because they are entertaining. He discusses how the calls were constructed out of input from at least five actors – including Nick Mancuso (DEATH SHIP) – while Clark himself doubled as the killer's silhouette in some shots. He also speaks highly of the contributions of DP Reg Morris (A NAME FOR EVIL) and camera operator Albert J. Dunk (THE INCUBUS) who climbed the house' trellis with a shoulder-mounted camera for the POV scenes. Saxon and Dullea are separately recorded for a second track – also ported over from the earlier DVD edition – in which Saxon discusses his strong reactions to the film's undercurrent of anguish after seeing it for the first time while also recalling stories from the shoot like the ten minute debate over the pronunciation of "fellatio", while Dullea recalls that he met few of the cast because all of his scenes were either with Hussey or alone. The "Billy" track is fitfully interesting although never comes close to being as disturbing as the phone calls. New to the set is a twenty-six minute archival radio interview with Clark presented as a seventh audio track which looks back on the cult success of BLACK CHRISTMAS and draws parallels with the making of his more family-oriented A CHRISTMAS STORY.
In their goal to include virtually every extra ever produced for the film, there is plenty of overlap and redundancy in BLACK CHRISTMAS' commentaries and featurettes, but it does save one the trouble of either holding onto earlier editions or having to track them down. The new interview with Hindle "Film and Furs" (26:11) is just one of the places where you will hear him recall auditioning for Clark by reading for Dullea's role and getting to play the part in rehearsals with Hussey. "Victims and Virgins" (26:35) is the latest extra in which Griffin recalls the challenges of acting dead with a bag over her face while Clark hurled cat "Claude" at her from off-camera. "Black Christmas Legacy" (40:22) from the Anchor Bay Blu-ray is a collection of interviews and archival clips featuring Griffin, Hindle, Mancuso, Kidder, Hussey, composer Carl Zittrer (PROM NIGHT), Clark, journalist Bruce Kirkland, critic Richard Crouse, Fangoria's Chris Alexander, Rue Morgue's Dave Alexander, artist Gary Pullin, and MY BLOODY VALENTINE director George Mihalka discussing the influence of the film on the slasher genre. Two Q&A segments are also included with "40th Anniversary Panel at FanExpo 2014" (18:02) featuring Saxon, Hindle, Griffin, and Mancuso, and a "Midnight Screening Q&A" (20:21) with Clark, Saxon and Zittrer.
Outside of the commentaries, the TV episode "On Screen!: BLACK CHRISTMAS" (48:41) is one of the more interesting rehashings of BLACK CHRISTMAS anecdotes and trivia utilizing archival interviews along with additional remarks from casting director Karen Hazzard (SUSPECT) that lead to discussion about Bette Davis passing on the role of Mrs. Mac and the casting of Waldman, as well as the original casting of Edmond O'Brien (D.O.A.) as Fuller before it was discovered he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. "12 Days of BLACK CHRISTMAS" (19:48) is a Critical Mass DVD featurette narrated by Saxon discussing Roy Moore's original script and its basis in a Canadian true crime, as well as the ways that Clark reshaped it into a project initially called STOP ME, and how it eventually became BLACK CHRISTMAS, through to the shooting of the film. In "BLACK CHRISTMAS Revisited" (36:25), Hindle's and Griffin's revisit to the location house is intercut with archival comments from the usual suspects, along with producers Gerry Arbeid (CURTAINS) & Victor Solnicki (THE BROOD) about Hussey's belief in the film's future success after consulting a psychic, and art director Karen Bromley (RITUALS) on the central sorority house location.
A series of archival interviews with Hussey, Hindle, Kidder, Clark, and Saxon are compiled into a single one-hundred-and-one minute featurette which expand upon the clips seen in several of the other featurettes. Although most of these interviews were mined for the significant information elsewhere, Kidder's interview features some interesting background on her experiences in Canadian film before heading to Hollywood, giving up acting for a short period during which she learned editing with Robert Altman, and the atmosphere on the film in which she and Martin were the jokers while Hussey was more reserved. She and the offscreen interviewer also have some fun discussing the "fellatio" scene and her death scene. In preparing the 5.1 remix, Critical Mass stumbled upon alternate mixes of two scenes (3:04) including the opening trellis climb in which the dialogue from inside the house was clearly audible, and the final pan in which Billy's voice was louder. Disc two also includes a still gallery, two alternative title sequences (2:47) – the first as SILENT NIGHT, EVIL NIGHT and the second as STRANGER IN THE HOUSE (with both AKA titles underneath in smaller lettering) – English and French (UN NOEL TRAGIQUE) theatrical trailers (8:16), and a selection of TV and Radio Spots (3:09) from Warner's run. The cover is reversible and a slipcover is also included. (Eric Cotenas)
BACK TO REVIEWS