The Hunt for the Definitive Black Christmas (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Black Christmas is a pretty great Christmas horror classic (I'm talking about the original, of course, not the 2006 remake). In fact, while Silent Night, Deadly Night may be the most popular of them, and Gremlins the most mainstream; I think I'd say Black Christmas is the quintessential Christmas horror flick. A smart, quality, built-to-last holiday scare that's had a long-lasting effect on the genre. Yes, this is the original "we've traced the calls; they're coming from inside the house" movie (When a Stranger Calls ripped it off from here). And it's an amusingly dark coincidence that it's directed by the same man - Bob Clark - who made one of the world's most beloved family-friendly holiday films shortly after, A Christmas Story. So, I guess it's not surprising, then, that there are a whole bunch of Black Christmas releases out there. Like a lot.
First hearing about it, Black Christmas probably sounds like a pretty generic slasher film: a mysterious killer comes out at night to stalk and stab girls living in a sorority house. But two facts should set it apart pretty quick. One, this film is from 1974, and so predating the slasher as an established genre by a good number of years (Scream Factory are releasing two important slasher precursors this winter; this and The House That Screamed), so it's not compelled to follow any of its formulas, and any slasher-like ideas it has are all fresher here. And more importantly, two, this film is smartly written, as well as being well directed and performed, which is what every film needs to be in order to rise above its contemporaries. There's nothing wrong with being a slasher, or a western, rom-com, sex farce, or any other typically dismissed genre of film so long as you've got a demonstrably good film. And that's Black Christmas: a well-crafted mystery with a strong cast including Olivia Hussey, John Saxon, Margot Kidder, 2001's Keir Dullea, Doug McGrath, SCTV's Andrea Martin, Art Hindle and a not very famous but definitely memorable Marian Waldman as the house mother.
So, like I said, there are a whole bunch of Black Christmas discs.  It first came out as a 25th Anniversary edition DVD from Critical Mass.  It was fullscreen and only had an interview with John Saxon, and that was it.  So there was room to grow.  Critical Mass's second go, the 2002 Collector's Edition DVD from Canada, was widescreen and had a bunch of great extras.  Unfortunately it was non-anamorphic and looked pretty grubby; but it became a sought after collectors' item for a long time anyway, after it went OOP with a bunch of great exclusive extras, including a commentary by Bob Clark.  In 2006, Critical Mass released it in the US with their Special Edition, which was anamorphic widescreen and had a bunch of all new extras, but none of the old ones.  In 2008 Critical Mass brought their special edition to blu-ray from Somerville House, but it caught a lot of flack.  Some other labels have released it on blu in other regions - including Cinema Cult in Australia, Happinet in Japan, Anchor Bay in Canada and Capelight in Germany - but they're all taken from the same master.  So for all the Black Christmas releases we've already got, fans keep asking for a new one.  And this December, we've got Scream Factory raising their hand to accept the challenge... can they finally deliver the Black Christmas blu-ray the people have been clamoring for?
1. CM 2001 US DVD, 2. CM 2002 Canadian DVD, 3. CM 2006 DVD,
4. CM 2008 blu, 5. SF 2016 blu disc 2, 6. SF 2016 blu disc 1.
Hoo-boy, there's a lot to go through here! Let's just start at the beginning.  The original US DVD wasn't so bad for 2001.  It was fullscreen, but at least it was open matte.  I mean, it's not too good.  It's soft and interlaced; but in 2001, they would've just about gotten away with fans only asking for OAR.  And in 2002, they gave that a shot, giving is a slightly widescreen 1.63:1, but it's non-anamorphic, still interlaced and managing to look debatably worse than the previous edition.  The 2006 DVD brings us to our most common transfer, 1.78:1 and looking alright for DVD except it's interlaced, too.  The 2008 blu, then, brings that transfer to HD, and thankfully corrects the interlacing problem; but it didn't blow up too pretty.  Apparently, the negatives are damaged.  It was an upgrade from the DVD, but nobody was really impressed.  And as I said, all the other blus used the same transfer.  The Capelight blu from Germany, not pictured here, made a slight adjustment, starting from an identical transfer, but then slightly cropping the image on all four sides in order to fix some juddering the other blus had.  Whether the loss of visual information for the steadier image was a worthwhile trade-off is entirely subjective; but hopefully Scream Factory's new blu means we won't have to think about any of these past editions anymore anyway.  Yes?
Well, being warned by Scream Factory to manage our expectations in their spec announcements doesn't fill one with confidence.  But they've done a whole new 2k scan of the negative, plus included Critical Mass's older master with no DNR or other effects on the second disc (yes, this is a 2 blu-ray set), so what we get here is probably the best we're ever going to get.  And... it looks a little better.  The CM transfer on disc 2 is 1.78:1 and looks pretty flat, color-wise, like the previous editions.  The new 2k scan is more colorful and matted to 1.85:1.  Grain looks more natural than it did on the previous blus, and as you can see in the first set of shots, they cleaned up some flecks and noise.  This is no great revelation, and not very far removed from what we've had all along, which maybe got more criticism than it ever deserved.  But that said, when picking a winner, it goes to Scream's new 2k transfer.
A more important reason to select or double-dip for Scream Factory may be the audio.  Many of the other blu-rays have only included a 5.1 mix that makes a lot of changes, replacing one sound effect with another.  I picked one scene at random (when the house mother discovers the body upstairs), just to see if I'd "land" on a noticeable difference and yes immediately, the music sting was very different.  They do still have that 5.1 mix if you want it, though; and they've got a third track - a stereo mix with the newer sounds from the 5.1 - to boot.  Scream Factory has also provided English subtitles, which the Anchor Bay blu has as well, but few of the others did.

Update 12/4/16:  I neglected to point out that the mono track has some unfortunate distortion, breaking up on the "s" sounds in much of the dialogue.  Some scenes aren't too bad and just feel a little rough; but at other points it's very noticeable and downright unpleasant.  This issue's all the more frustrating since I just went back to check it against the lossy 2008 blu and older DVDs, and none of them have this problem.  Now, seeing as how the mono is the strongly preferred way to view this film, and a substantial selling point for Scream Factory's new edition over the blus from every other region, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them offering replacement discs in the near future.  In the meantime, however, I'd still recommend viewing the film with the mono as-is rather than the 5.1, as the other mixes take those creative liberties.  I'd rather have this mono track than none at all.

Update 12/15/16: Replacement program is now on!  😀
Update 1/10/17:  The replacement disc has landed! As you can see in the photo above, the disc looks virtually identical to the initial pressing, but has a "-V2" at the end of the catalog number along the outer edge to distinguish it. The corrected audio track is a DTS-HD with the mono in 2.0, not a lossy version like the old blu-ray.  You can still hear hints of the audio cracks in this version, for example around 7:40 and 9:20 the loudest vocal peaks and hard S's still scratch a bit, but it's a vast improvement over the distortion heard on the original disc, and a very welcome improvement from Shout.
And this doesn't even count the three and a half audio commentaries on disc 1!
And jeez, I could write an entire set of encyclopedias on all the Black Christmas special features.  So I'll try to just cover everything in brief.  First of all, it comes in a slipcover, features reversible art and if you pre-order direct from Shout, it comes with an 18" x 24" poster[right].  But the important stuff is on the discs themselves.  Now, like I said, the Canadian blu used to be hard to get because it had a bunch of exclusive extras, now they've almost all been ported over to Scream's blu.  So has all the stuff from Critical Mass's blu-ray, and all the new extras Anchor Bay created for their "Seasons Grievings" blu.  That's a lot of frickin' stuff!  And, naturally, they've come up with a few new, original features, too.  Here, let me break it all down:
  • Audio commentary with Bob Clark from the Canadian DVD
  • Audio commentary with John Saxon and Keir Dullea from the US blu
  • Audio commentary with Nick Mancuso in character as Billy from the Anchor Bay blu (honestly, you can give this one a miss)
  • Audio interview with Bob Clark from the US blu (phone interview which only plays over the first half of the movie)
  • Black Christmas Legacy - documentary from the Anchor Bay blu
  • 40th Anniversary Panel At Fan Expo 2014 - from the Anchor Bay blu
  • On Screen! - featurette from an old Australian DVD put out by Road Show
  • 12 Days Of Black Christmas - featurette from the US blu
  • Black Christmas Revisited - featurette from the Canadian DVD and US blu
  • On-camera interviews with Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder - from the US blu
  • On-camera interview with Bob Clark - from the Canadian DVD
  • On-camera interview with John Saxon - the only extra from the 25th Anniversary DVD (and carried over to the Canadian DVD); only 3 minutes long
  • Midnight Screening Q&A With Bob Clark, John Saxon and Carl Zittrer - from the US blu
  • On-camera interview with Art Hindle - all new!
  • On-camera interview with Lynne Griffin - all new!
  • Deleted scenes - from multiple releases
  • Alternate credits - from multiple releases
  • Trailers
  • TV & radio spots
  •  Photo gallery
...So that leaves nothing exclusive on any other blu-ray release.  Everything from the original Critical Mass blu and the Seasons Grievings blu?  All here.  Almost all of the content from the old DVDs is here, too, but there are couple of exceptions.  The Canadian DVD had an episode of a Canadian television series called Dark Dreamers that focused on an interview with John Saxon, where he talks about his whole career.  That was not ported over, though you'll notice the Scream blu has a lot of Saxon's input in the other features.  There was also a UK DVD from Tartan that had an 8-minute featurette called And All Through the House, which toured the original shooting location and is not on here.  So if you've got either of those DVDs, you might want to keep them.  But honestly, the amount of special features included in Shout's collection is so vast and comprehensive, it'll be a feat just to watch everything they've got.  You won't need more; they also tour the original shooting location on the Scream disc.  I mean, the Dark Dreamers thing is kinda cool if you're interested in the rest of Saxon's career outside of Black Christmas, but for this movie, I can't really imagine wanting any more material than everything here.  It's overkill, and I love it.
So throw out your Critical Mass blu-rays.  Even if you prefer that older transfer, Scream's included it, too.  Throw out your Anchor Bay blu-rays; all their new content has been ported over along with everyone else's content and all new stuff.  Throw away most of your old DVDs, and really, don't bother tracking down those last couple featurettes unless you're just collecting for collecting's sake.  Scream Factory has the best transfer, the best audio options, and by far the best and most comprehensive special features.  Scream warned us to manage our expectations, but unless someone unearths some rare film elements and mounts an extensive restoration, I can't imagine anyone topping this release.  Certainly, as it stands, it is our definitive edition; Scream Factory has done it.

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