I remember the first time I saw the Canadian horror classic Black Christmas. I was probably about twelve years old, around 1980, and was watching late night television on a Saturday night at home in Toronto. I was talking to my buddy Paul on the phone when Saturday Night Live was ending, so the time must have been around one in the morning. We had both been watching the same thing and were talking about how shit SNL had become without the original cast. Neither of us had turned our TVs off and we could hear we were both watching the same late-night movie - Black Christmas.
Remember, in those olden days, we didn't have video machines and film classifications were legally enforced in Ontario - if a film was 18 cert, and you were (or rather looked) under 18, there was no way you'd get to see it. So those 1970s horror films like I Spit On Your Grave, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fulci's Zombie and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (all films I remember having theatrical release in the 70s in Toronto) held so much degenerate promise for a young cinephile like myself.
"This supposed to be any good?" Paul asked me over the phone. "Yeah," I replied, excited about getting to see one of those films which the government of Ontario said might be harmful to my health. "'S'posed to be really good." What did I know? I just knew that this was an 18 cert horror film. And that was all I really needed to know about it.
The two of us, Paul and I, sat on the phone for the next two hours utterly shit-scared. "No, don't go in there!" we'd shout at the TV together. "No! Wake up! The killer is right there!" and of course "They killed Lois Lane!!" Since that night, and for the following 24 years, Black Christmas has been one of my all-time favourite horror films. While I might have to watch certain films repeatedly for research, and usually they are horror films, this is one of those movies that I watch repeated and almost exclusively for pleasure. Saying a particular film is 'scary', particularly to horror fans, is like waving a red flag; one person's 'scariest movie ever' is another person's snooze-fest. So let me stick my neck out and say that despite being 30 years old, Black Christmas remains, for me, one of the scariest movies ever made.
As should be obvious from what I've already said, I still absolutely adore this film. Thirty years old and it still manages to creep audiences out. I mentioned to a class recently that I was reviewing this, and while the non-horror fans in the room had never heard of the film, those who were fans not only knew the film, but even the most jaded amongst them appreciated it. One particularly cynical student of mine even said out loud, "Black Christmas? That's one scary arsed movie!" So it's not just me who still gets scared by the film. There is barely any gore in the film - on the audio commentary by director Bob Clark, he denies that there is any, but admits to being proved wrong as those very subtle shots are shown. All the effectiveness is brought out through suspense and character building - the two biggest criticisms that most horror films lack. The acting is also remarkably good for this kind of movie: the film's main stars Keir Dullea and Olivia Hussey are appropriately wooden, but sympathetic, and are ably supported by a great collection of up-and-coming Canadian actors like Art Hindle (The Brood), Andrea Martin (pre-SCTV), Lynn Griffin, Les Carlson (who appeared in Cronenberg's Videodrome, as well as the Ormsby-Gillin Ed Gein inspired exploitation classic Deranged) and the soon-to-be Lois Lane, Margot Kidder. The cast is rounded off by the ubiquitous John Saxon as the detective investigating these co-ed disappearances (Saxon was a last minute replacement for the originally cast Edmund O'Brien - something I didn't know until this Tartan release).
Black Christmas in many respects is the true father of the slasher film. Some say TCM, but I would argue this is the true progenitor. The plot is basic, an escaped psycho-killer has somehow managed to get himself inside a sorority house and is one-by-one killing the girls as they prepare to leave for the Xmas holidays. In many respects this film operates like the classic urban myth about the babysitter and the man upstairs, as BC's killer taunts the girls with some of the most obscene phone calls in cinema history. Even in the 'edited for television' version Paul and I first watched two and a half decades ago, we got the gist of just how disturbing and unsettling those calls were. And watching the film today, these obscene phone calls still manage to be truly creepy. Perhaps it is evidence to the film's ability to maintain its suspense that even in its heavily edited form, it still works as a horror film. Elsewhere, I've written about Black Christmas and its use of urban legend/urban myth storytelling, but here I just want to focus on the recently released Tartan Terror DVD release.
A few years ago, I bought the North American DVD release - celebrating the film's 25th anniversary. This was a full-screen version of a mediocre copy, with no audio commentary and a really dubious 'making-of' documentary which was little more than ten minutes of John Saxon's memories of making this movie. Despite the obvious drawbacks to this earlier release, I still had a DVD copy of one of my all-time favourite horror pictures. And I was a happy chicken.
That earlier DVD is now deservedly rotting in the bottom of a box somewhere, because this recent Tartan Terror DVD release absolutely rocks! Firstly, we have a pristine widescreen original ratio print with great Dolby sound. That in itself is reason to sing about this disc. Next there is a really informative half hour documentary on the making of the film hosted by Lynn Griffin and Art Hindle filmed in the house that was used 30 years earlier as the sorority house. This little making of doc offers rare insight into the making of the film, including how Griffin was able to sit so still in the attic wrapped in dry cleaners plastic. It was this documentary which told me about the original casting of O'Brien - and the story is told with absolute respect for this now-dead legend.
The DVD also features a DVD commentary by director Bob Clark. Now I'm usually pretty resistant to DVD commentaries - in most cases, I really question their validity as 'extra value' to a disc. But Clark's commentary is a rarity; a director's commentary which is truly informative about the filmmaking process. In places, Clark talks about how he composed specific shots, which I grant you, I'd dismissed as routine when watching the film, but which the director successfully defends as deliberate and subtle compositions which underline the films various themes. Throughout this commentary, Bob Clark comes across as an honest and committed filmmaker; he goes out of his way to note that Black Christmas never cheats the audience in telling its story. Interestingly, in light of my own paper on the film mentioned previously, there are no references to this film being based on an urban legend. Clark does however relate how a young and upcoming filmmaker came to him and said he wanted to do a sequel to the film, and that Clark told this wannabe that he should set it ten years or so in the future, when the killer has been released from an insane asylum and should take place in the autumn. He even told this young filmmaker that he should call his film 'Halloween'…. Bullshit, or not, it is a great story! I was also unaware that at the time, this was the most expensive Canadian film made to date. I don't normally find DVD extras all that informative - surely the film itself should tell us most of what we need to know about a picture. But the Tartan Terror DVD release of Black Christmas not only gives us new information about this unsung classic of the genre, but I came away from this disc feeling like I'd actually had my viewing of the film enhanced.
Of course, a good DVD copy of Black Christmas is a must-have for any collector of 70s horror cinema. But Tartan's release make this a must-have for any serious film collector.
Review by Mikel J. Koven
|Released by Tartan Terror|
|Rated 18 - Region 0 PAL|
|Running time 98 minutes|
|Ratio - Anamorphic Widescreen Presentation|
|Audio - Audio 5.1 Dolby Surround|
|Extras - Commentary by Bob Clark, 'Black Christmas Revisited' documentary, Alternative opening sequences, original theatrical, TV and radio trailers, and the ubiquitous Tartan Terror trailer reel.|