Wednesday, December 21, 2016

BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) (Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review)

BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) 

Label: Scream Factory

Region Code: A
Duration: 98 Minutes
Rating: R
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround, English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo, English DTS-HD MA Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: (Disc 1) 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1), (Disc 2) 1080P HD Widescreen (1.78:1) 
Director: Bob Clark
Cast: Andrea Martin, Art Hindle, Doug McGrath, James Edmond, John Saxon, Keir Dullea, Lynne Griffin, Margot Kidder, Marian Waldman, Olivia Hussey


I remember watching the seminal holiday slasher Black Christmas alone on late night cable TV back in the late 80s or early 90s and it gave me the creeps, even though at the time I was way into gore and nudity in horror movies, something this classic doesn't deliver, but it does deliver loads of dread and holiday chills, not too mention it is one of the greatest slasher movies of all time. For years this movie was sort of a hidden gem for slasher fans, not much spoken of, but in recent years it has become a beloved Christmas-horror classic, one now rightfully remembered as coming years before John Carpenter's Halloween and it is still one of the most effective and chilling slashers of them all. Directed by the late Bob Clark who has two undisputed Christmas classics under his belt, this dread-filled slice of terror and the beloved family-film A Christmas Story, you know, the one with the kid Ralphie on his quest for a mythical Red Rider BB gun, not to mention the seminal teen-comedy Porky's!

The movie begins with an eerie POV shot of someone creepily stalking around outside the Phi Kappa Sigma sorority house, crawling up the side of the place on a trellis and making his way inside the house through an attic window. Inside the house a group of sorority sisters are drinking and enjoying a Christmas Party before Winter Break begins. During the celebration Jessica Bradford (Olivia Hussey, Stephen King's It) answers the phone to the sounds of a heavy-breathing obscene phone caller who has apparently called before, they refer to him as "the moaner" and listen in to his lunatic ramblings, the witty lush of the group Barb (Margot Kidder, Sisters) grabs the phone and eggs the caller on with her own brand of sailor-mouthed wit before hanging up on him in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile nice girl Clare (Lynne Griffin) heads upstairs to her bedroom to pack for Christmas break when she is distracted by the mewing sounds of what would seem to be the beloved house cat named Claude coming from within her closet. Entering the closet to find the feline she is attacked and suffocated with a sheet of plastic in a truly shocking and frightful scene, the killer carries her corpse to the attic and places it in a rocking chair in front of the attic window with the plastic still wrapped around face, its a frightening image and one we see throughout the film, it's chilling stuff. 


The next day Clare's uptight father arrives looking to take his sweet daughter home but oddly none of the sorority sisters know where she's gone to. Coming up empty handed they go to the campus police station where they are assured that she has probably just run off with her boyfriend for he weekend, which is of no comfort to her stuffy dad. This turns out not be the case, which we find out when her boyfriend Chris (Art Hindle, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) shows up at the police station confirming to Lt. Kenneth Fuller (John Saxon, A Nightmare on Elm Street). Soon after a young girl from town goes missing and is found murdered in a nearby park, at which point Lt. Fuller begins to suspect that the disappearance of the sorority sister might be connected. Once he finds out that the sorority house has been receiving strange phone calls he places a tap on the phone, which in the 70s seemed like quite a chore, according to the movie, there's  scene of someone from the phone company combing through a huge room full of vintage 70s electronics. 

The creepy phone calls persist through the next night and escalate in intensity, the lunatic caller's weird and unnerving profanity laced calls are nightmare fuel and are still one of the most terrifying things about the movie. Hissing things like "juicy cock" and "pretty pig cunt" that must have been shocking to theater goers in the 70's! We as viewers know that there's a lunatic in the attic, there's an intruder in the home, but we don't know who exactly, and the movie does throw a few possible suspects our way, Clare's boyfriend Chris seems like an alright guy, but Jessica's boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea, 2001: A Space Odyssey) is a bit of a high-strung weirdo, an aspiring pianist with a violent streak who is angered by Jessica's decision to terminate her pregnancy without his consent, and when the killer-crank caller references the abortion during a creepy call it certainly seems like he might be the guy. Like the vulgarity laced prank calls the abortion issue was still pretty taboo in the 70s, and must have been a head-turner, too. 


The tone of the movie is creepy and dread-filled, the sorority house is a great setting and feels very Christmas-y, lots of xmas light, christmas carollers, wind and snow abound, this is a xmas movie that feels very xmas-y. True to form director Bob Clark manages to sneak in some humor throughout the movie, beginning with Barb's near constant parade of inappropriate comments, such as when she points out sarcastically that "you can't rape a towney" or when she gives the dim-witted keystone cop Sgt. Nash (Douglas McGrath, the gym teacher from Porky's) a phone number with the false exchange of FE for "felatio", which never fails to make me laugh. Also golden are the interactions between the sorority housemother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) with Clare's stuffy father, which is always good stuff, with her trying in vain to cover up the racy counter-culture posters on the bedroom walls. Ms. Mac is a just a hoot, a fun older woman who hides bottles of liquor in various hidden places, from the back of the toilet tank to inside of cleverly hollowed out books, she even rinses her mouth with whiskey after brushing her teeth, this broad might have a problem! 

As sometimes happens, the moments of humor serve to heighten the fear, this movie is a chiller through and through, as the killer continues to make the creepy phone calls, emerging from his hiding place within the house to claim more victim one by one until there remains only one, and only then does she realize with the help of the phone tap that the calls are actually coming from within the house! Sure, everyone seems to remember a similar scenario is When A Stranger Calls but this is the first movie to do the whole calls-are-coming-from-in-the-house thing. As frightful as this movie can be it is not a gore-classic, the terror comes through the use of shadow, dread and some chilling sound design, though a few of the kills are rather inspired. The suffocating of Clare with the plastic wrap at the beginning is frightening, the way her corpse is revisited throughout the movie is also eerily effective. The way poor Mrs. Mac goes out with an implied hood to the face is also just brutal, and another death by glass unicorn would not be out of place in an Argento classic. While the movie is not a river of blood the imagery and execution is blood curdling stuff, a few scenes of the killer's eye peering through the darkness are potent images. 


One of the strongest aspects of the movie is the ensemble cast, the sorority sisters are a fun bunch, they feel realistic, not too over-the-top, beginning with Margot Kidder as the acerbic lush Barb, I loved her. Then we have Jessica played by Olivia Hussey who turns out to be the final girl at a time before we really had the final girl formula of the 80s, she does good work throughout. Andrea Martin from the TV's SCTV  shows up as one of the more buttoned-down sisters, she doesn't do a whole lot or get a ton of screen time, but I love that you at least get a feel for these people before their numbers are up. Of course I have to mention one Mr. John Saxon (Tenebre) as the detective, this guy always classes up a picture! Black Christmas is a tense watch that does it without resorting to epic amounts of gore or nudity, but through the use of tone, shadow and crafty sound design, and it only gets better with age, and what an ending, the phone ringing over the closing credits, so chilling, so good! 

Audio/Video: At long last Black Christmas arrives on Blu-ray with significant upgrade to the image quality, which I appreciate as I've owned about as many versions of Black Christmas as I have Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2  -- which is A LOT! Scream Factory went back to the original negative for a new 2K scan and the results are pleasing when compared to both the Critical Mass and Anchor Bay Blu-rays. The movie is a low-budget 70s movie so it is never going to be pristine and crisp, but right away you will notice that the grain is better managed and more finely resolved than previous editions, black levels are deeper, details are richer, the skin tones are cooler and not so red, the colors are more natural looking, this is just a very pleasing transfer. Noteworthy, Scream Factory's new 2K scan presents the film in Bob Clark's preferred aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but for those who prefer the original framing you can find it on he second disc, however, this is the 2006 Critical Mass HD Master with the 1.78:1 framing and is not a new transfer, so it does not look nearly as good. Scream's aspect ratio does lose some lower and upper frame image, but it looks so good, I didn't mind the new framing at all, but I will say that I find their recent spate of multi-framing options a bit weird and possibly confusing, their release of Cronenberg's Dead Ringers also has two framing options. 


Audio on disc one includes three audio options along with the new 2K scan, we get English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo, DTS-HD MA Mono and DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround. Notably this is the first Blu-ray release to feature a mono track, which is great, but there's an issue, notably some hiss and harsh sounding s-words, which I found very distracting. The surround mix is okay but it's a classic case of an older movie sounding forced when opened up for a surround presentation. In an ideal world the mono track would be the way to go here, but I say stick with the stereo track on this release. The version of the film on the second disc comes with only a surround option. 

Extras on disc one include all the commentaries from previous DVD and Blu-ray editions, totaling three. We have one with Bob Clark, which is essential listening, and a second with John Saxon and Keir Dullea, which is alright. The third commentary is more of a novelty, a commentary with actor Nick Mancuso in character as "Billy" from the movie, which is all sort of nuts. Additionally there is thirty-minute interview with Bob Clark which can be listed to while viewing the film, in it Clark discusses the impact of the film and his legacy. I sort of wish we would have had a new commentary on the disc, something from Kim Newman or Stephen Thrower, someone from the outside looking in on the movie as a fan of horror, that would have been awesome, but I am just nitpicking here. 



Onto the second disc Scream Factory carry-over nearly all the extras from the previous Blu-ray and DVD releases, I think there might be one interview missing. They go the extras mile and add two brand new interviews which are exclusive for this release, one with actor Art Hindle and a second with actress Lynne Griffin totalling nearly an hour. The vintage stuff is nothing to sneeze at either, we have the awesome 40-min Black Christmas Legacy doc which was on the Canadian Anchor Bay Season's Grievings Edition, plus over four more hours of vintage interviews, Q/A, trailers, radio spots, galleries, alternate title sequences and two scenes with new vocal tracks - this thing is massive. 


This release also features a sleeve of reversible artwork with the original one sheet artwork and a new illustration by artist Joel Robinson, which is good, but if I am being honest here the Season's Grievings Edition Blu-ray artwork from artist Gary Pullin blows this one away, I might have to keep that version just for the artwork, the collector's booklet and cool slipcover, otherwise the Scream Factory version is the new definitive version of this holiday slasher classic. The only real dig I have on this release is the condition of the mono audio track, but when stacked up against the superior image quality and sheer amount of cool extras I do think that I can live with it. 

Update! It turns out that Scream Factory are offering a replacement program to address the mono audio issues on disc one of this release: Here's the statement from Scream Factory and the info: 


"We will be offering a replacement (Disc 1 only) of our Blu-ray release of BLACK CHRISTMAS which will include the original mono audio track as it was presented on prior releases of the film on DVD and Blu-ray.


Instructions to receive this replacement disc are as follows:


Send an email to our customer service department @ info@shoutfactory.com 

Please include “BLACK CHRISTMAS REPLACEMENT PROGRAM” in the subject line. Please provide your first and last name and the mailing address in which you would like the disc sent to. No other copy is needed. Must provide proof of purchase (photo of receipt or online order will do) in the body of the email.

You will not receive a shipment confirmation. Also, please note that due to the high volume of inquires we will not be able to respond to each email personally.


Replacement discs are expected to ship in January 2017 and as soon as we receive them. No tracking numbers will be assigned.


We’d like to also take this time to address the fans that brought this to our attention and explain more in detail as to why our mono audio track for Black Christmas sounded so rough. Unfortunately, we were not able to find a mag track, only an optical track, which is not an ideal source for this kind of work. However, based on earlier customer feedback who hoped for lossless mono audio, we decided to include the mono audio track with minimal processing and compression. The was a decision made with the best of intentions and the hope of providing the most authentic film presentation, but the hissy sibilance of the optical track proved to be too extreme and took away from the viewing experience. We’re sorry for the frustration it may have caused. We have explored all options to correct the problem that fit within our resources and have concluded that the best solution was to use the mono audio track originally released on the Critical Mass DVD.


Much thanks for your patience and continued support. And we look forward to bringing you more great retro films in 2017. 


Customer Service

Shout! Factory
2034 Armacost Ave., 1st Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90025

info@shoutfactory.com"


Special Features:


DISC 1:

- NEW 2016 2K scan of the negative (1.85:1) – DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
- Audio Commentary with director Bob Clark
- Audio Commentary with actors John Saxon and Keir Dullea
- Audio Commentary with Billy (actor Nick Mancuso)
- Audio interview with director Bob Clark

DISC 2:

- 2006 Critical Mass HD Master (1.78:1) – DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- NEW Film and Furs – Remembering Black Christmas with Art Hindle (26 Min) 
- NEW Victims and Virgins – Remembering Black Christmas with Lynne Griffin (27 min) 
- Black Christmas Legacy (40 min)  
- 40th Anniversary Panel at FanExpo 2014 featuring John Saxon, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin and Nick Mancuso (18 min)  
- On Screen!: Black Christmas featurette (49 min) 
- 12 Days of Black Christmas featurette (20 min) 
- Black Christmas Revisited featurette (36 min) 
- Archival Interviews with Olivia Hussey (17 min), Art Hindle (23 Min), Margot Kidder (23 Min), Bob Clark (25 min), and John Saxon (13 min)
- Midnight Screening Q&A with Bob Clark, John Saxon and Carl Zittrer (21 mins) 
- Two scenes with a new vocal soundtrack (3 min) 
- Original Theatrical Trailers (English and French)(9 min) 
- Original TV and Radio Spots (3 min) 
- Alternative Title Sequences (3 min) 
- Still Gallery (5 min) (55 Images) 

Black Christmas (1974) has simply never looked better on Blu-ray, this is the definitive version of the movie, aside from the unfortunate mono track on disc one, but I am pleased to see that Scream Factory have stepped-up and are addressing the audio issues with a replacement program for disc one. So buy this with confidence, this is the version you've been waiting for, this is the version of Bob Clark "other" Christmas classic has long deserved. 5/5


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