Home Video Hovel: Black Christmas, by David Bax

15 Jun

It’s pretty much impossible to pinpoint any singular origin of the slasher movie as a genre or subgenre. Its anatomy has been assembled from very nearly the beginning of cinema. It seems, though, that the formula as we now define it (or as Randy defined it more than twenty years ago in Scream) was crystallized by John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978. So there’s a delightful cognitive friction to watching Bob Clark’s Black Christmas now; so much of it seems to fit slasher expectations yet, without the firm blueprint, surprises still abound.

It’s the beginning of Winter break at a small college and a handful of sorority members (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin among them) have yet to leave the house for the holidays. It seems they should have decamped a day or two sooner because suddenly a psychopath starts murdering them one by one. Now they’ll have to team up with a detective (John Saxon) to stop the killer before they’re all dead.

Many of the tropes we associate with slasher movies are present but with a freshness that keeps them exciting and terrifying. The killer, for instance, stalks his victims in POV shots accompanied by the sound of his own frenzied breathing. We’ve seen it a million times since (and a few before) but here it’s vital as opposed to compulsory. Even more impressively (and this is only the mildest of spoilers), Black Christmas features a utilization of “The calls are coming from inside the house” a full five years before When a Stranger Calls (though it’s still not the first).

Most exciting, though, are the ways in which Black Christmas subverts expectations. Against all odds, this grisly story of a man gutting and strangling young women manages to avoid exploitation. Not only do the students remain clothed, each of the main characters are clearly defined individuals with their own personalities and value systems. And it doesn’t even stop there. In a number of ways, the film is actually about women’s issues, including the threat of a fragile male who’s been rejected and even a major subplot about abortion. Black Christmas is a film that’s as respectful and compassionate as it is scary. And it borders on the sex-positive, to boot; I mean, the virgin dies first!

Shout! Factory’s 2K transfer is presented in 1.85, with the previous 1.78 transfer available on the second disc. It’s wonderfully tactile and grainy, with a separation of colors that benefits a movie that takes place in dark rooms and attics but with Christmas lights in all the windows. Audio is available in 5.1, 2.0 stereo and 2.0 mono.

The many, many special features (most of them pre-existing) include multiple commentaries with Clark, Saxon, actor Keir Dullea, actor Nick Mancuso; an audio interview with Clark; two new “Remembering Black Christmas” featurettes; a 2014 FanExpo panel with Saxon, Mancuso, actor Art Hindle and actor Lynne Griffin; three existing featurettes; interviews with Hussey, Hindle, Kidder, Clark and Saxon; a Q&A with Clark, Saxon and score composer Carl Zittrer; alternate titles sequences; and more.

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