Because the slasher genre has been played out for about, oh, twenty years now, it's easy to forget that once upon a time its conventions where shocking and scary. No film bears this out more than 'Black Christmas,' an effective 1974 Canadian thriller that has all but been trampled over in the history books by those rushing to praise John Carpenter's 'Halloween' as the first official slasher movie. But it's actually 'Black Christmas' that cemented many of the hallmarks of the genre first, and despite seeming utterly predictable on the surface (scantily-clad sorority girls, a chilly dark house, a long knife, roving shots of the killer's POV...) the film manages to remain undeniably tense and scary nearly thirty-five years after it was first released.
The plot will feel oddly familiar even if you've never seen the film. It's Christmas Eve, and the girls of Pi Kappa Sigma are preparing for the holiday vacation. Despite being pranked by an ominous phone caller, the girls (among them a young Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin) remain blissfully unaware that a killer has entered their midst. One by one, girls begin to disappear, and the campus is soon gripped in panic. With little help from the ineffectual authorities (including future 'Nightmare on Elm Street' vet John Saxon), the killer begins to close in on the Final Girl, Jessica Bradford (Olivia Hussey), whose unhinged boyfriend (Keir Dullea) may or may not be the most likely suspect. Needless to say, the film climaxes with a game of cat-and-mouse between Jessica and her unseen pursuer...
The unusual tonal shifts of 'Black Christmas' at first seem atypical for a slasher film. It's loaded with broad, vulgar comedy straight out of a teen sex comedy, but also has an austere and languid pacing that feels like a European art film, and is topped-off with fervent bursts of visceral drive-in violence. Then you realize the film was directed by the late Bob Clark. One of the most uneven directors of recent Hollywood, Clark veered from cheap exploitation in the '70s ('Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things,' 'Deathdream') to tacky-but-successful teen comedy (the 'Porky's' series) in the '80s to bland family films ('Baby Geniuses') in the '90s, and somehow dropped the perennial classic 'A Christmas Story' somewhere in-between. 'Black Christmas' is reminiscent (or, rather, foreshadows) all of these films, yet rather than the elements clashing it somehow all fits together to create a cohesive, unsettling experience.
'Black Christmas' works because its atmosphere is so cold and relentless it overrides the broader aspects of its comedy and horror. Certainly, there have been funnier horror films before, and bloodier ones, and more suspenseful ones. But Clark never rushes, so by the film's nail-biting climax we're so wound up in anticipation that a single shot of an eyeball in a doorway is enough to send us jumping out of our seats. Unlike so many horror films today that dole out a dozen jump-cuts in the first ten minutes that we are quickly anesthetized to them, 'Black Christmas' is so stingy with its scares that it earns each and every one of them. Though there's nothing as classic as, say, the shark jumping out of the water in 'Jaws,' the cumulative effect is the same. 'Black Christmas' is the rare horror film whose signature scares remain memorable long after the end credits roll.
'Black Christmas' is still a low-budget film, and it is occasionally hampered by that fact. The photography, while rich, is dulled by grainy film stock and now-worn source elements, which make the film seem cheaper than it is. The soundtrack is also pretty horrible, and at times it seems as if the film has been dubbed when it hasn't. But despite these deficiencies, Clark makes the most of his limited means and locations, and the film is tightly constructed with no loose narrative ends. (Refreshingly, Clark also doesnt delve deep into the killer's motives and identity, realizing that that which we don't understand is always scarier.) The acting is also well above par, particularly the hysterical Kidder, and the initially-collected Hussey whose growing panic truly unnerves. 'Black Christmas' is a true sleeper of the horror genre, and no self-respecting slasher film fan should miss it.
'Black Christmas' has been released and re-released on video so many times that I long ago lost count. This first-ever high-def version looks to be minted from the same master used for the most recent Critical Mass DVD edition. Sadly, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1) is only mediocre. Granted, 'Black Christmas' isn't a high-profile enough title to receive a top-tier restoration, but the results are what they are -- this transfer just doesn't look so hot.
The main culprit is a worn, faded print. The source suffers from some of the worst black levels I've seen on a Blu-ray yet. There is noticeable wear and tear, and heavy grain throughout. Colors look pale and dried out, with some nice, deeper shades of crimson and brown but little else that sparkles (aside from all those Christmas lights). Fleshtones appear far too red. The image is quite soft throughout, which varies even further as the film's photography is hampered by its low budget. There is little depth or fine texture to the image. The encode is as clean as could be expected, with no major artifacts such as banding or macroblocking. That I'm giving 'Black Christmas' even two stars for video is out of appreciation for the limited nature of the material.
Koch presents 'Black Christmas' in its original English 1.0 Mono (192kbps) and a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround remix (448kbps). As with the video, the audio is dragged down by very poor source material.
Fidelity and dynamic range is quite limited. High-end in particular sounds shrill and grating, especially louder passages and the minimal score. Dialogue is stronger than on past DVD versions, as it's at least intelligible and not drowned out by the rest of the mix. Surround use is next to non-existent, with only some minor ambiance but nothing in the way of truly discrete effects. 'Black Christmas' certainly sounds better on Blu-ray than it has in the past, but that isn't really great praise.
Critical Mass produced a nice batch of retrospective supplements for its DVD of 'Black Christmas,' and most of those elements are re-purposed here. However, there was another DVD version released by MVD in 2001, which included a wealth of material including audio commentaries and more. None of that material has been carried over, so this is far from the definitive 'Black Christmas,' if still a decent package of extras. (Though the video material was clearly shot 4:3 and for standard-def, it is upconverted here to 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 video. As with the main feature, I could find no subtitle options for the extras.)
'Black Christmas' is a true horror sleeper. A precursor to the far more famous 'Halloween,' it may be just as influential (if relatively unknown.) This one is well worth seeing for fans of the genre. As a Blu-ray release, however, 'Black Christmas' comes up a bit short. The video and audio don't benefit much from the upgrade to high-def, and the extras (if fairly substantial) will be familiar to those who already own the DVD. 'Black Christmas' is still worth a rent because of its cult appeal, but this Blu-ray probably only warrants a purchase if you haven't yet picked it up on DVD.