The Yuletide horror film has become, by and large, a comedy of clichés— with the exception of recent and off-beat comic thrillers like Rare Exports and Krampus, the idea of a maniac — often dressed like Santa Claus himself — knocking off teenagers, college students and hapless dolts on Christmas Day has been done to death. From Silent Night, Deadly Night to Santa’s Slay, we’ve seen any number of savage Santas delivering coal with axes, hatchets and saws. Travel back forty-two (!) years, however, and you’ll find the granddaddy of all Christmas horror stories— the still-scary and extremely effective Black Christmas.
Remade to ill effect in 2006, the original Black Christmas is a creepy cousin to John Carpenter’s later Halloween, pioneering many of the same stalker-esque camera tricks and being bold enough never to fully answer many of the narrative questions it brings up regarding mysterious killer “Billy.” Watching Black Christmas is a bit like sitting through a Jean-Luc Godard film in the years following the rise of MTV, which often ran videos which utilized the same nonlinear editing and off-kilter stylistic techniques; you really have to force yourself at times to understand that what might seem clichéd now was actually ground-breaking then— including the aforementioned killer-POV shots, the frightening phone calls that turn out to be from within the sorority house where most of the action takes place and the lack of resolution as to whom the killer really is.
The story is deceptively simple, with a group of sorority sisters at an unnamed university (obviously filmed in Toronto despite the presence of an American flag at the police station) finding themselves harassed by a mysterious caller who’s delivering lewd messages which grow increasingly more manic and deranged. Olivia Hussey, fresh off her star role in Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo & Juliet, Margot Kidder and a very young Andrea Martin star as three of the sorority sisters targeted by the killer who, unbeknownst to them, has already murdered virginal Clare (Lynne Griffin) by suffocating her with a bag and leaving her corpse in the window of the upstairs attic. More a mystery-thriller than an outright slasher film — there’s little gore to be found — director Bob Clark (later known for comedies like A Christmas Story and Porky’s) plays up the suspense by keeping us unsure just what the killer’s motives are and setting up a conflict between Hussey and tormented pianist boyfriend Keir Dullea where we’re left wondering if he’s the one targeting the women. Most of the film takes place in and around the sorority house, a ramshackle mansion tended to by Mrs. MacHenry (a broadly comic Marian Waldman), which is such a sprawling building that it becomes a character itself. Unseen killer Billy — voiced by Canadian character actor Nick Mancuso, in his first role — grows bolder and crazier as the film goes on and the phone calls he makes — all multiple voices, grunts, screams and horrible sound FX — are as unsettling as anything as you’ll find in a film from that era— or, frankly, any era.
Scream Factory has loaded the two-disc Blu-Ray of Black Christmas with a number of special features, not the least of which is the new 2K restoration of the film itself, which, compared to an earlier encode provided on the second disc, is much more naturalistic looking, with richer, accurate-looking colors and an abundance of film grain. The 5.1 track is mixed well, with the surrounds giving you a good sense of the atmospheric house, but apparently there are issues with the original mono track, which is filled with hiss and sibilance (an exchange program is apparently in the works). The first disc contains three separate commentaries — an informative one from a previous DVD release with the late Bob Clark (killed in 2007 along with his son by a drunk-driver), one with actors Keir Dullea and John Saxon and a third with Nick Mancuso; there’s also a 26-minute audio-only archival interview with Clark. The second disc is packed with enough documentaries, featurettes and interviews to fill any Santa’s sleigh, including two new interviews with actors Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin — both of whom are very personable and both surprised and elated by the longevity of the film — and a number of older pieces (particularly the 40 minute “Black Christmas Legacy” and the hour-long episode of the Canadian TV show “On Screen!”) from the previous Canadian Anchor Bay Blu-Ray and other DVD editions of the film. There’s some overlap between interviews and, while it’s a shame that there’s no interview with Andrea Martin (who curiously played the house-mother in the 2006 remake), the supplements here — detailing every aspect of the production, including the awkward replacement of Edmund O’Brien by John Saxon in the detective role when the veteran actor, suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, was unable to handle the part — will satisfy completist fans of the film. Alternate title sequences (using the film’s first American title, Silent Night, Evil Night), stills and trailers round out the package. Scary, funny and — unlike too many of these bloody holiday films — one that feels real, Black Christmas is definitely a frightening gift deserving of a place under the tree this year.