Black Christmas (aka Silent Night, Evil Night)

Director: Bob Clark
Screenplay: Roy Moore
Stars: Olivia Hussey (Jessica Bradford), Keir Dullea (Peter Smythe), Margot Kidder (Barbie Coard), John Saxon (Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller), Marian Waldman (Mrs. Mac), Andrea Martin (Phyllis Carlson), James Edmond (Mr. Harrison), Douglas McGrath (Sergeant Nash), Art Hindle (Chris Hayden), Lynne Griffin (Clare Harrison), Michael Rapport (Patrick)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1974
Country: Canada
Black Christmas
It’s me, Billy.Has any director in recent memory had a stranger career trajectory than Bob Clark? This is, after all, a man who got started making innovative low-budget horror movies in the early 1970s, then graduated to studio-financed animal comedy with Porky’s (1982) and Porky’s II (1983) in the early 1980s, made a perennial Christmas classic in 1983’s beloved A Christmas Story, then settled into a series of increasingly formulaic and forgettable studio and made-for-TV movies before finally bottoming out on the atrocity that is Baby Geniuses (1999) and its 2004 sequel. And, if that weren’t weird enough, Clark appears to be coming full circle as he is currently in production on a remake of his first horror film, 1972’s Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.

Along with Children, Clark directed two other significant horror films in the early 1970s: Deathdream (a.k.a., Dead of Night, 1974) and Black Christmas (1974). Both films were part of a wave of gritty horror fare that followed in the wake of the cult success of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973). Like those films, Clark’s work betrayed a fierce intelligence and willingness to experiment both visually and thematically, virtues that are all-too-often lacking in the horror genre, where quickie knock-offs and inspid sequels are frequently the order of the day.

While the contemporary slasher movie is often traced back to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), it is really Clark’s Black Christmas that helped establish the fundamental elements of the genre. Given what the slasher movie became in the 1980s, this could sound like damning praise, but the wake of copycats shouldn’t take away from what Clark accomplished with a minimal budget and a simple idea.

Working from a screenplay by Canadian writer Roy Moore, who was inspired by a series of murders that had taken place in Montreal, Clark envisioned a murder-mystery in which you never see the killer. Granted, Alfred Hitchcock had done something similar in Psycho (1960), but where Hitch had used shadows and angles and fast cutting to obscure the true identity of his killer, Clark decided to rely almost entirely on the point-of-view shot, which at the time was relatively new and decidedly unsettling.

The story takes place during the Christmas holidays on an unnamed college campus. The few sisters of Pi Kappa Sig who are staying on campus begin receiving a series of increasingly graphic and disturbing phone calls, after which they fall victim to an unseen stalker who takes up residence in the attic of the sorority house. The main character is Jess (Olivia Hussey), who is inexplicably British, but more importantly, is pregnant by her driven musician boyfriend (Keir Dullea). While she wants to abort the baby, he wants to get married, which creates a rift between them that allows for the possibility that he might be the killer (Dullea, who was so purposefully bland in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 six years early, hits just the right notes of potentially homicidal jealousy). The narrative also works in several subplots, including the involvement of the distraught father (James Edmond) of the killer’s first victim and the attempts by the local police (headed by John Saxon’s Lieutenant Fuller) to trace the origin of the mysterious phone calls using some seriously antiquated methods that should make one appreciate the existence of Caller ID all the more.

Despite this monumentally simple set-up, Clark avoids some of the more obvious approaches to the material, relying instead on mystery and atmosphere to sell the horror, rather than graphic violence and nudity. In fact, Black Christmas is quite notable for its restraint, especially given the fact that Clark had successfully used graphic make-up special effects in his earlier horror outings (Deathdream featured early work by soon-to-be legendary FX master Tom Savini).

The relentless use of point-of-view shots gives the film a queasy tension that is underscored by a first-rate score by Carl Zittrer (who also mixed the creepy phone calls) and punctuated by a few well-timed fragmentary glimpses of the killer (the pièce de résistance is a creepy view of the killer’s eye looking through a cracked door). Clark and cinematographer Reginald H. Morris (who shot most of Clark’s subsequent films) also supply a series of memorable images and compositions, including the now-iconic shot of the first victim, her face still wrapped in the plastic that suffocated her, rocking silently in the attic. They also give us an abstract, artsy murder sequence in which the stabbing of Margot Kidder, fresh off of Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock-inspired Sisters (1973), with a glass unicorn statue is violently intercut with close-ups of Christmas carolers. This deliberately abstract montage reminds us of how much Black Christmas has in common with European art films, particularly its refusal to satisfy the audience with easy answers at the end. In fact, the film leaves its conclusion deliberately vague, offering one answer to the mystery that is quickly undermined with more questions.

Viewed today, Black Christmas is an easy film to overlook if only because so much it now plays like cliché--from its sorority house setting, to its incompetent police officers, to its use of a well-worn urban legend to provide a twisty shock. However, this is largely because so many lesser movies have trod so clumsily in its footsteps over the past three decades. It is by no means a masterpiece of the horror genre, but what it does it does extremely well, and, for better or worse, it became the primal scene from which so many other stalk-and-slash thrillers were born.

Black Christmas Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 Monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 2.0 Monaural
  • SubtitlesNone
  • “The 12 Days of Black Christmas” featurette
  • Two newly discovered original scenes with a new vocal soundtrack
  • Interview with Olivia Hussey
  • Interview with Margot Kidder
  • Interview with Art Hindle
  • Midnight screening Q&A with John Saxon, Bob Clark, and Carl Zittrer
  • Distributor Somerville House
    Release DateDecember 5, 2006

    Black Christmas has been released on DVD several times before, but there have always been issues with the transfer. Eclectic’s 2001 25th Anniversary Edition presented the film in an open-matte transfer that revealed boom mikes and did no justice to the film’s excellent compositions. Critical Mass’s 2002 Collector’s Edition (available in Canada) matted the film at 1.66:1, but the transfer was nonanamorphic. Thus, the fact that the transfer on Somerville House’s new Special Edition DVD is in anamorphic widescreen alone makes it worth picking it up. There may be some quibbling about the aspect ratio since it was originally shown in 1.85:1, but this transfer opens it up a bit to fill the full 1.78:1 screen (probably as a compromise between 1.85:1 and 1.66:1). At any rate, the new transfer is excellent, nicely reflecting the grainy, low-budget look of the film. Shots are somewhat murky and the overall look of the film is a bit soft, but this is surely how it originally looked in theaters back in the ’70s. The print used for the transfer looks to have been in excellent shape because there are virtually no signs of dirt or age anywhere. The original monaural soundtrack has been given a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround upgrade, but with limited effectiveness. The musical score is opened up nicely, but the use of the surround channels to isolate various sound effects often comes across as forced. Luckily, the original monaural soundtrack is also included for purists.
    Unfortunately, the supplements that appeared on previous DVD incarnations of Black Christmas--most notably the audio commentaries--do not appear on this new Special Edition. However, this new edition was overseen by Dan Duffin, who is a longtime fan of the movie and founder of an impressive web site dedicted to the film, Duffin wrote and directed “The 12 Days of Black Christmas,” a 20-minute retrospective featurette that is narrated by John Saxon and relies almost entirely on new interviews with stars Olivia Hussey, Art Lindle, Lynne Griffin, Doug McGrath, and Margot Kidder; art director Karen Bromley; camera operator Bert Dunk (the man who shot all the killer POV footage); and composer and sound mixer Carl Zittrer (whose interview looks like it was shot several years ago). The full interviews of Hussey, Kidder, and Hindle are also available separately, running an average of a little over 20 minutes each. Finally, there is 20 minutes of video footage of a Q&A session with John Saxon, Bob Clark, and Carl Zittrer after a screening of the film in Santa Monica, California, in 2004. Since there are hard-core fans asking the questions, it’s definitely worth watching for those curious about the film’s history and its various unanswered questions (Clark even offers his own take on who Billy and Agnes are).

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Somerville House

    Overall Rating: (3)

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