[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
“The Film Funding Corporation Limited in association with Vision IV” has produced a serviceable-enough Canadian low-budget shocker in Black Christmas and pitched it at the end-of-year trade. Unless I’ve missed some subtle subtext, the tie to Christmas is tenuous: an establishing shot of wassail seen through the windows of Gothic-looking Hart House, University of Toronto (decked out with Christmas lights and disguised as a sorority house in the college town of “Bedford”), and an advertising campaign built around a Christmas wreath gift-labeled “Season’s Greeting’s” and enclosing a still of a polyethylene-wrapped corpse propped in a rockingchair. One question about this campaign teases my mind more persistently than any puzzle propounded by the film itself. Did the merchandiser who dreamed it up personally place the apostrophe before that plural s in “Greetings,” as unselfconsciously as if he were scrawling the words on a wrapped Christmas gift in the sanctity of his own home; or could FCC Ltd./Vision IV in fact be trying to hip us, via their use of this endemic seasonal illiteracy (see also: Greetings from the Smith’s, The Smith’s Live Here, etc.) to their extraordinary concern in BlackChristmas for the exact social detail?
Bunny Lake Is Missing (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – In the late 1950s and early 1960s, no American director melded classic Hollywood style and cool modern European elegance better than producer/director Otto Preminger. His handsome films are celebrations of introspection and stylistic remove and his best work defined not by heroes and villains but complex, flawed, achingly sympathetic characters. On the surface, this 1965 mystery is no more than a smartly done, intelligently written thriller but Preminger’s fierce cinematic intelligence guides a fluid camera that effortlessly tracks, glides, and reframes characters as they shift through scenes, shifting our perspective along the way.
Carol Lynley is an American single mother who has just moved to London with her brother (Keir Dullea) and her young daughter Bunny, who we never actually see before she suddenly goes missing. Laurence Olivier delivers one of his best performances as a police inspector full of blank smiles, putting on a mask of practiced civility while investigating the disappearance of a child that no one can remember seeing. Lynley is another of Preminger’s lithe, lovely heroines who finds herself isolated and alienated, a stranger in a culture that feels just slightly off (Noel Coward is particularly unsettling as a landlord with questionable motivations), while devoted brother Dullea supports her through the ordeal. While Lynley’s panic tips into paranoia and makes us question her grasp on reality—does Bunny even exist?—Dullea’s glazed cool and dazed smiles make him a little questionable as well. Like Olivier, Preminger conceals his feelings, wielding the camera like a microscope examining the layers of his characters while setting in motion with a choreographer’s grace.
Please note, however, that the prominent billing of the British rock group The Zombies refers only to a rather contrived appearance on a TV screen in the background of one shot and a song playing on a transistor radio in another. They make no actual appearance in the film as such, yet I can’t help but grudgingly respect Preminger’s purely commercial movie. He made films his way, but as his own producer, he was savvy enough to play the promoter.
It’s a gorgeous CinemaScope movie and Twilight Time does the film up nicely, with a strong transfer of a good-looking HD master from Columbia Pictures, a studio with a superb record of preserving, restoring, and making high-quality digital transfers of their catalog. It’s a reminder that black and white films offer a whole new dimension on good-quality Blu-ray releases, not just added sharpness and clarity but a greater depth of gray scale and shading.
The original Twilight Time model was to provide high-quality releases of films from studio vaults in limited edition runs with minimal supplements beyond an isolated score track and a booklet with an essay by house writer Julie Kirgo. Since their launch, however, they have started including featurettes and other supplements from previous DVD releases where possible, and providing original commentary tracks on select releases. This release offers commentary by film historian Lem Dobbs with in-house historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman (who also founded the label), a trio that has done more than a few commentary tracks together, and their ease gives the track an easy-going quality as they dig into the film and offer historical and critical perspective. Also includes three trailers.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Black Christmas starts to get interesting in the last two minutes. After a series of killings in a college-town sorority house at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, the supposed murderer, in a scene we don’t actually get to see, has been done in by his own girlfriend and a handy firepoker when she thinks that he’s set on making her his latest victim. The movie is about to end on a shot looking from the hallway of the house into the bedroom where the girl (Olivia Hussey) is sleeping, having been left alone to rest until her parents show up in a few hours. Then, with the recurrence of a few familiarly ominous chords on the soundtrack, the camera begins slowly to pan to the right through the dimly lit hallway, pausing at each doorway where a murder has occurred. So far it’s just a kind of chilly atmospheric effect, prolonging the tone of malaise and spookiness, leaving us slightly off balance even though things have been pretty well wrapped up. But that ain’t all. The camera just keeps on trucking, and we begin to hear the maddened jabberings of the heard-but-not-seen psychotic killer who apparently is still around and who apparently wasn’t Keir Dullea, the boyfriend, after all. The latch on the attic trapdoor springs shut once again (that’s his hideaway), he gently rocks a dead girl—his first victim—who sits wrapped inside a plastic bag on a rocking chair (still we don’t see him), and the final scene of the movie looks at the house from a slightly elevated perspective across the street; a cop stands guard on the front walkway, listening to a phone ring inside. The killer, who made it a habit of saying obscene things over the phone before he murdered someone, still seems to be on the loose. Strange, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much by now.