Thursday, 6 January 2011

Black Christmas

My final post for the Christmas holiday (which officially ends today!) and we go out with a classic. Bob Clark's 1974 film Black Christmas never quite gets a shout out in the roll call of Essential 70's Horror movies, despite its sheer brilliance, and its importance in the evolution of the genre, but more of that in a moment... It's Christmastime at a women's sorority house and celebrations are being routinely interrupted by a creepy prank phone caller. Initially shrugged off, the calls become increasingly crazed and obscene and one of the sorority sisters has gone missing, while the caller himself seems to be dangerously close...

As the title suggests, this not only turns the traditional Christmas film on its head but chops it clean off, a movie that can still generate some real scares nearly 40 years on. The abusive phone calls are genuinely shocking and disturbing (no doubt an influence on When A Stranger Calls) and while the violence may not wash the screen in red, it's suitably grim and ugly. I'm reluctant to reveal too much detail about the plot as the film quite brazenly refuses to tow the line of the traditional thriller but be warned about the deeply subversive ending, which will delight and infuriate in equal measure.

Nowadays it's de rigueur to discuss Halloween in the same breath as Black Christmas and while John Carpenter's film may be the archetype of the modern slasher film, Bob Clark's film is the archetype of the archetype. Halloween may well be a superior, more streamlined (and better behaved) horror film, but Black Christmas casts a long shadow over Carpenter's film. It's difficult to appreciate the achievement of the film after 30 years of slasher cinema, but the distorted point-of-view shots through the killer's eyes, the unsettling score (by the brilliant Carl Zittrer), the use of darkness and eerie empty spaces were ground-breaking in it's day, and John Carpenter wisely employed Bob Clark's great style when designing his own classic scare show.

Aided by the director's very fine screenplay, performances are strong throughout - the gorgeous Olivia Hussey as the long-suffering heroine, 2001's Kier Dullea, whose sensitive musician is somehow not quite right; John Saxon, playing the cop investigating the sinister goings-on (his lieutenant Fuller could have easily walked straight into A Nightmare on Elm Street), and best of all, Margot Kidder, fresh from de Palma's Sisters, playing a foul-mouted, boozed-up party girl and providing some crass humour to dispel some of the darker undercurrents in the film.

Black Christmas has had quite a complicated history on home video, as well as DVD where it was issued in differing transfers on both sides of the Atlantic. The film was released on Blu-Ray in 2008 courtesy of Critical Mass. This disc copped some heat for its underwhelming picture, but I must say that this is the best Black Christmas has ever looked, far superior to any previous release. The 1.78 image is sharp and relatively clean and copes very well with the film's copious amounts of dark photography. On the whole very watchable. The mono track is fine and robust - I've heard talk of the stereo track having minor sync problems so stick with the mono option. Finally, the extras from the previous special edition DVD have been ported over for the Blu-Ray. An ill-advised Black Christmas remake came and went in 2006.


  1. It is a great movie - well deserving of its ever growing reputation. I worked with Bob Clark - twice - and he was a terrific presence on set. Monumentally busy as all directors are, but always willing to chat a bit in those brief moments others are doing their bit - with the added bonus of crew members from the early movies (like Ken Goch, who had moved up to first assistant director on the movies I worked on but who had started down the ladder as far back as Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things and Deathdream) - so here I am asking both men about these movies - and they're telling great stories and helping each other remember details - a joyous time for this genre film buff.

    And while I still haven't watched it - reports indicate that remake may be worth a watch - going for more gore and nastiness on screen as one way to differ from the original...

  2. Craig, I love hearing those kind of stories about film makers. As much as I'd admire a genius like Fritz Lang, or to a lesser degree Otto Preminger, I'd never want to timewarp back to one of their sets, such were their fearsome tyrannical reputations. I'll take a no-bullshit, good guy like Bob Clark any day...