Black Christmas (1974 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Bob Clark|
|Produced by||Bob Clark|
|Written by||A. Roy Moore|
|Music by||Carl Zittrer|
|Cinematography||Reginald H. Morris|
|Edited by||Stan Cole|
Film Funding Limited of Canada
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
October 11, 1974(Canada) |
December 20, 1974 (U.S.)
|Box office||$4 million|
Black Christmas is a 1974 Canadian psychological slasher film produced and directed by Bob Clark, and written by A. Roy Moore. It stars Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Marian Waldman and John Saxon. The story concerns a group of sorority sisters who are receiving threatening phone calls, while being stalked and murdered by a deranged killer during the Christmas season.
Moore wrote the screenplay under the title Stop Me, and was inspired by a series of murders that took place in the Westmount section of Montreal, Quebec, and the urban legend "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs". Numerous alternations were made by Clark's involvement, primarily the shifting of its setting to a university with young adult characters. It was shot in Toronto from 1973 to 1974, on an estimated budget of $620,000.
The film was distributed by Warner Bros. and was released in Canada on October 11, 1974. In the United States, Warner Bros. timed its release with the Christmas holiday, and was released on December 20, 1974 under the title Silent Night, Evil Night. It screened in theaters throughout late 1975, and internationally grossed over $4 million at the box office. Black Christmas has received critical praise, noting by film historians for being one of the earliest slasher films to conclude without revealing the identity of its villain, and serving as an influence on John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Aside from earning a cult following, a novelization written by Lee Hays was published in 1976, and a remake of the same name, produced by Clark and directed by Glen Morgan, was released in December 2006.
In the town of Bedford, a disoriented person climbs up into the attic of a sorority house while its occupants hold a Christmas party. Inside, Jess receives an obscene phone call from "The Moaner", a man who has been calling the house. She allows her sorority sisters Barb Coard, Phyllis "Phyl" Carlson, Clare Harrison, and several other girls to listen in on the call. When Barb provokes the caller, he responds by telling that he will kill them and then hangs up the phone; Barb and Clare argue over the potential threat posed by the caller. Upstairs, Clare begins to pack and while investigating a noise, she is suffocated with plastic wrapping by the unseen person and her body is placed in a rocking chair inside the attic.
The next day, Clare's father arrives to bring her home for the holidays. The housemother, Mrs. Mac, and the other girls are taken off guard, believing that Clare left the night before. Meanwhile, Jess meets with her boyfriend Peter Smythe, a neurotic aspiring pianist, to inform him that she is pregnant and wants to have an abortion; Peter becomes agitated and urges her to reconsider, but she refuses. While Mr. Harrison, Barb, and Phyl report Clare's disappearance to the police, Jess informs Clare's boyfriend Chris about the situation. After discussing the case with Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller, the group learns that a local mother, Ms. Quaife, has reported her daughter Janice missing as well.
That evening, Mr. Harrison, Chris, and the sorority sisters join a search party for Janice and Clare. At the house, Mrs. Mac is murdered by the unseen assailant with a hook, which drags her body into the attic. Upon returning home after the search party discovers Janice's dead body, Jess receives another obscene call and reports it to the police. She is startled by Peter, who sneaked into the house to confront Jess about her planned abortion. When they both argue and an upset Peter leaves, Lt. Fuller then arrives and arranges for the phone to be bugged to trace the origin of the obscene phone calls.
When Christmas carolers visit the house to sing, the killer takes this opportunity to sneak into Barb's room and stabs her to death with a glass unicorn head, as her screams get drowned out from the singing. Afterwards, Jess receives another obscene call that quotes part of the argument she had with Peter.
Phyl goes upstairs into Barb's room to check on her, where the killer awaits behind the door and murders her. The assailant phones Jess again, where she keeps him on the line long enough for the police to trace the call. Sargent Nash contacts Jess to inform her that the calls are coming from inside the house, and orders her to leave the place immediately. Worried about Barb and Phyl's whereabouts, she arms herself with a fire poker and goes upstairs, and she discovers their dead bodies. Jess is then chased by the killer through the house, and she barricades herself in the cellar. Peter appears outside a basement window, telling her that he heard screaming. Believing him to be the killer, Jess bludgeons him to death out of panic when he enters to approach her.
Lt. Fueller and the police arrive to find a fatigued Jess in the basement, with Peter's body. Later, they sedate her into bed, and the officers discuss the case; they also believe Peter was the killer, although they are puzzled about the absences of Clare's and Mrs. Mac's bodies. The police then leave Jess alone to sleep while a sole officer waits outside for a forensics team to arrive. The killer, who identity remains unseen, climbs down after everyone has left and whispers, "Agnes, it's me, Billy." Jess's phone begins to ring, leaving her fate unknown.
- Olivia Hussey as Jessica "Jess" Bradford
- Keir Dullea as Peter Smythe
- Margot Kidder as Barbara "Barb" Coard
- John Saxon as Lt. Kenneth Fuller
- Marian Waldman as Mrs. MacHenry
- Andrea Martin as Phyllis "Phyl" Carlson
- James Edmond as Mr. Harrison
- Douglas "Doug" McGrath as Sergeant Nash
- Arthur "Art" Hindle as Chris Hayden
- Lynne Griffin as Clare Harrison
- Michael Rapport as Patrick Cornell
- Leslie "Les" Carlson as Bill Graham
- Martha Gibson as Mrs. Quaife
- John Rutter as laughing detective
- David Clement as Cogan (as Dave Clement)
- Julian Reed as Officer Jennings
- Bob Clark as Billy's shadow
- Nick Mancuso as Billy / phone voice
Concept and writing
Canadian Roy Moore wrote the screenplay entitled Stop Me  based on "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs" urban legend. Moore also claimed to have been inspired by a series of murders that occurred during the holiday season in the Westmount area of Montreal.[additional citation(s) needed]
Film producers Harvey Sherman and Richard Schouten had Timothy Bond rewrite the script to give it a university setting. Clark, who had felt the original script was too much of a straightforward slasher film, made several alterations in dialogue, and also incorporated humorous elements into the film, particularly the drunkenness of Barb, and Mrs. Mac, who Clark based on his aunt. Clark felt that college and high school students had not been depicted with "any sense of reality" in American film, and that he intended to capture the "astuteness" of young adults: "College students—even in 1974—are astute people. They're not fools. It's not all "bikinis, beach blankets, [and] bingo"."
Olivia Hussey, who had previously garnered international fame for her role as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), signed on to appear in the film after being told by a psychic that she would "make a film in Canada that would earn a great deal of money." Clark sought Keir Dullea to play the role of Peter based on his performance as Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The role of Mrs. Mac was offered to Bette Davis, who declined the part. Margot Kidder was cast in the role of Barb, and said she had been attracted to the character "because she was wild and out of control", and not a "conventional leading" part.
Gilda Radner was offered the role of Phyllis Carlson; she accepted the part, but dropped out one month before filming began owing to Saturday Night Live commitments, and was replaced by Andrea Martin. The role of Lieutenant Fuller was originally given to Edmond O'Brien. Upon his arrival to the set, however, the producers realized he would be unable to fulfill the duties required of the part due to his failing health (stemming from Alzheimer's disease). John Saxon, who had read the script prior, was called by the producers who offered him the role; he accepted, and had to arrive in Toronto from New York City within two days to begin shooting.
Black Christmas was shot on location in Toronto in the winter of 1973–74; the house featured in the film had been discovered by Clark while scouting for locations, and its owners agreed to lease the home for the production. Additional photography was completed on the University of Toronto campus. According to John Saxon, Clark had meticulously drawn out storyboards with key shots, which he brought to the film set each day: "I could understand exactly what I thought he needed, and the scene needed."
Margot Kidder remembers making the film was "fun. I really bonded with Andrea Martin, filming in Toronto and Ontario. Olivia Hussey was a bit of an odd one. She was obsessed with the idea of falling in love with Paul McCartney through her psychic. We were a little hard on her for things like that."
The composer of the film's score, Carl Zittrer, stated in an interview that he created the film's mysterious music by tying forks, combs, and knives onto the strings of the piano to warp the sound of the keys. Zittrer also stated that he would distort the sound further by recording its sound onto an audio tape and make the sound slower. The audio for the disturbing phone calls was performed by multiple actors including actor Nick Mancuso and director Bob Clark. Mancuso stated in an interview that he stood on his head during the recording sessions to compress his thorax and make his voice sound more demented.
During preparation in 1975 for the film's American release, Warner Bros. studio executives asked Clark to change the concluding scene to show Clare's boyfriend, Chris, appear in front of Jess and say, "Agnes, don't tell them what we did" before killing her; however, Clark insisted on keeping the ending ambiguous. The original title of the film was initially planned to be Stop Me. Clark has stated in an interview that he came up with the film's official title, saying that he enjoyed the irony of a dark event occurring during a festive holiday. According to Clark as well, Warner Bros. changed the title to Silent Night, Evil Night, for the United States theatrical release.
Black Christmas was officially released on October 11, 1974, in Canada through Ambassador Film Distributors. In the United States, Warner Bros. released the film in tandem with the Christmas season on December 20, 1974. For the American release, Warner Bros. initially changed the title to Silent Night, Evil Night, worried that the original title would mislead audiences into believing the film was a blaxploitation movie. They retracted the title after the initial release, restoring it to Black Christmas for subsequent screenings.
The film later screened in October 1975 in New York City and Chicago, as well as 19 theaters in Los Angeles, where it generated considerable ticket sales. This prompted Warner Bros. to expand the release to a total of 70 theaters nationwide in time for Halloween, but the film only generated a daily average of $700 per theater, per day, after which Warner Bros. withdrew the film from circulation in December. The film had previously screened under the alternate title Silent Night, Evil Night in Virginia in July 1975.
Overall, Black Christmas grossed over $4,053,000 internationally, managing to earn more than its budget of $620,000. When released in the UK, the BBFC had the word "cunt" removed, as well as several other crude and sexual references during the first obscene phone call.
Television premiere controversy
The film, under the title Stranger in the House, was set to make its network television premiere on Saturday night, January 28, 1978, on NBC's weekly "Saturday Night at the Movies". Two weeks prior to its premiere, the Chi Omega Sorority House on the campus of Florida State University in Tallahassee was the scene of a double murder in which two Chi Omega sisters, asleep in their beds, were bludgeoned to death. The killer then went to a nearby room in the sorority house and violently attacked two more sleeping co-eds, who survived. The killer was later identified as Ted Bundy, who was executed for this and other homicides on January 24, 1989.
A few days before the movie was set to premiere on network television Florida's then-Governor Reubin Askew contacted NBC President Robert Mullholland to request the movie not be shown due to its all-too-similar theme as the murders of sorority sisters by an unknown madman at the Chi Omega Sorority House. On Tuesday, January 24, NBC-TV gave several of its affiliates in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, the option of showing an alternate movie, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, in place of Stranger in the House.."
"The network said in a statement issued yesterday in New York that it was responding to concern voiced by the affiliates because of the murder of two coeds this month in a sorority house at Florida State University in Tallahassee."
Black Christmas has been released on DVD several times in North America. A 25th Anniversary edition was released in Canada on November 6, 2001 by Critical Mass. This edition only contains the theatrical trailer as a bonus feature. The following year, on December 3, 2002, Critical Mass released a Collector's Edition of the film on DVD with making-of documentaries, two audio commentary tracks, and reversible English and French cover artwork.
On December 5, 2006, Critical Mass released a third "Special Edition" DVD with a newly remastered transfer, two original scenes with newly-uncovered vocal tracks, a new documentary on the making of the film, and cast and crew interviews. This edition was later released on Blu-ray on November 11, 2008.
Soon after the film's 40th anniversary, Anchor Bay released a Blu-ray and DVD in Canada, titled the "Season's Grievings Edition". It contains the same transfer of the film as the "Special Edition" release and all previous bonus content, plus the addition of: a new documentary ("Black Christmas Legacy"), a 40th anniversary panel from Fan Expo 2014, a new commentary track featuring Nick Mancuso as the character "Billy", a new retrospective booklet written by Rue Morgue Magazine, and new packaging art by Gary Pullin (art director of Rue Morgue Magazine). This new edition was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 24, 2015.
In the United States, Scream Factory released the film in a collector's edition Blu-ray on December 13, 2016 with a new transfer and new extras. The Scream Factory release collates all of the bonus materials from the previous releases by Critical Mass and Anchor Bay, and also features the 2006 Critical Mass restoration of the film in the bonus materials.
During its initial release, the film had garnered mixed reviews. A writer for The New York Times scored the film a 1 out of 5, calling it "a whodunit that raises the question as to why was it made." Variety called the film "a bloody, senseless kill-for-kicks feature, [that] exploits unnecessary violence in a university sorority house operated by an implausibly alcoholic ex-hoofer. Its slow-paced, murky tale involves an obscene telephone caller who apparently delights in killing the girls off one by one, even the hapless house-mother."
According to the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 67% "fresh" score based on 24 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2 out of 10. Heidi Martinuzzi of Film Threat called the film "innovative" and praised the leading actresses, Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder. TV Guide awarded the film three out of four stars, writing: "Although strictly standard fare, the material is elevated somewhat through Clark's skillful handling of such plot devices as obscene phone calls from the killer to the girls via the upstairs phone and a nicely handled twist ending, which provides a genuine shock." Author and film critic Leonard Maltin gave the film his usual two and a half out of a possible four stars ( his most frequently given rating) calling it "bizarre" but also praised Kidder's performance as a standout. The Time Out film guide noted that the film "manages a good slice of old-fashioned suspense."
- 1976: Nominated, "Best Horror Film"
- 1975: Won, "Best Sound Editing in a Feature" – Kenneth Heeley-Ray
- 1975: Won, "Best Performance by a Lead Actress" – Margot Kidder
- 1975: Nominee, Best Feature Film
- 1976: Nominated, "Best Motion Picture" – A. Roy Moore
The film eventually gained a cult following and is notable for being one of the earliest slasher films. It went on to inspire other slasher films, the biggest being John Carpenter's Halloween (which was apparently inspired by Clark suggesting what a Black Christmas sequel would be like). The film ranked No. 87 on Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Olivia Hussey told Bravo during an interview about their 100 Scariest Movie Moments series, that when she met Steve Martin for the first time, he told her she starred in his favorite movie of all time. Hussey initially thought he was referring to Romeo and Juliet but was surprised when Martin said it was Black Christmas and that he had seen the film 27 times.
The film has been assessed in feminist film theory, with viewers arguing that the female-led cast, presence of casual sexual activity, and plot elements of obscene phone calls and abortion provide feminist subtext.
A novelization of the film written by Lee Hays was published in 1976 by Popular Library.
A remake of the film, directed by Glen Morgan, was released on December 25, 2006. It is loosely based on the original film, containing more graphic content and a focus into the past of Billy. Andrea Martin was the only original cast member to appear in the film. Bob Clark served as an executive producer.
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