Black Christmas (1974 film)
|Directed by||Bob Clark|
|Written by||A. Roy Moore|
|Produced by||Bob Clark|
|Cinematography||Reginald H. Morris|
|Edited by||Stan Cole|
|Music by||Carl Zittrer|
|October 11, 1974|
|Box office||$4.1 million|
Black Christmas (originally titled Silent Night, Evil Night in the United States) is a 1974 Canadian 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, Lynne Griffin and John Saxon. The story follows a group of sorority sisters who receive threatening phone calls and are eventually stalked and murdered by a deranged killer during the Christmas season.
Inspired by the urban legend "The babysitter and the man upstairs" and a series of murders that took place in the Westmount neighbourhood of Montreal, Quebec, Moore wrote the screenplay under the title Stop Me. The filmmakers made numerous alterations to the script, primarily the shifting to a university setting with young adult characters. It was shot in Toronto in 1974 on an estimated budget of $620,000, and was distributed by Warner Bros. in North America.
Upon its release, Black Christmas received mixed reviews, but it has since received critical re-appraisal, with film historians noting it for being one of the earliest slasher films. It is also praised for its influence on John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Aside from its earning a cult following since its release, a novelization written by Lee Hays was published in 1976. The film is the first film in the Black Christmas series, being followed by two remakes in 2006 and 2019. The film has since received retroactive recognition and has been regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made.
An unseen man climbs the exterior of a sorority house, where a Christmas party is being held, and enters the attic. The house phone rings, and Jess answers to discover it is an obscene phone call from a person who has called before. Jess calls the other sorority girls and they listen as the caller rants in strange voices. Barb insults the caller, who, in turn, promises to kill her. A younger student, Clare Harrison, suggests that the caller could be dangerous before returning to her bedroom. The intruder suffocates Clare with a plastic dress bag and moves her body to the attic.
The following morning, Mr. Harrison arrives to pick up his daughter, but she fails to show. Jess explains to her boyfriend Peter that she is pregnant and planning to get an abortion, angering Peter, and they agree to discuss it later. In town, Mr. Harrison attempts to report Clare as missing. At the police station, they learn that a young local girl has also vanished while walking home from school.
After putting a drunken Barb to bed, Mr. Harrison, Chris, Jess, and Phyl help search for the missing girl. Meanwhile, the housemother, Mrs. MacHenry, discovers Clare's body and the killer throws a crane hook into her face, hanging and killing her. In the park, the missing girl's disfigured body is found by the police. Jess answers another obscene phone call and decides to file a report with the police, only for Peter to surprise her. He attempts to persuade her into marriage, but she refuses and reaffirms her decision to have an abortion. Peter leaves angrily while Lieutenant Fuller arrives with a telephone lineman to bug the phone.
After the police leave, the killer murders Barb with a glass figurine. Jess experiences another unnerving phone call, in which the caller restates her argument with Peter. Lieutenant Fuller calls her to say the attempt to trace the call failed, and theorizes that Peter could be responsible, but Jess doubts this. Phyl is murdered next.
Jess gets another phone call, in which the killer alludes to some sort of transgression between two children named Agnes and Billy. The call is long enough to be traced, and Sergeant Nash instructs Jess to leave the house immediately, as the calls are coming from within the house. Concerned for Barb and Phyl, she ventures upstairs, where she discovers Barb's and Phyl's bodies. The killer appears and pursues her; Jess locks herself in the cellar, only for Peter to appear outside one of the windows. He smashes the window and enters the basement.
The police arrive and hear Jess screaming; they discover her barely conscious in the basement with Peter's bloody body next to her. Believing that Peter was the killer, they put Jess to bed in her room and leave her alone in the house, with a cop standing outside. The killer's voice is heard from the attic, implying that he is still alive. The still-undiscovered bodies of Clare and Mrs. MacHenry are seen through the attic window before the house's telephone begins to ring, leaving Jess' fate ambiguous.
- Olivia Hussey as Jess Bradford
- Keir Dullea as Peter Smythe
- Margot Kidder as Barb Coard
- John Saxon as Lieutenant Ken Fuller
- Marian Waldman as Mrs. MacHenry
- Andrea Martin as Phyllis Carlson
- James Edmond as Mr. Harrison
- Doug McGrath as Sergeant Nash
- Art Hindle as Chris
- Lynne Griffin as Clare Harrison
- Michael Rapport as Patrick
- Leslie Carlson as Bill
- Martha Gibson as Mrs. Quaife
- John Rutter as Laughing Detective
- David Clement as Cogan (as Dave Clement)
- Julian Reed as Officer Jennings
- Marcia Diamond as Woman
- Nick Mancuso as Billy / Phone Voice (uncredited)
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (March 2019)
Black Christmas was initially developed by Canadian screenwriter Roy Moore, who wrote the screenplay under the title Stop Me. Inspirations for the film came from the urban legend known as "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs", which had become widespread during the 1970s. Moore also claimed to have been inspired by a series of murders that occurred during the holiday season in the Westmount area of Montreal. As noted in an article for The Telegraph, the murders, which occurred in 1943, were perpetrated by a fourteen-year-old boy who bludgeoned several of his family members to death. 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. For the role of Clare Harrison, whose murder jump-starts the film's plot, Toronto native Lynne Griffin was cast after her mother, who was also her casting agent at the time, got her an audition. Griffin would later go on to star in Curtains (1983), and in the acclaimed television series Wind at My Back (1996–2001).
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. For the role of the film's antagonist, Italian-American actor Nick Mancuso was cast as one of the main voices in the phone call sequences. When auditioning for the role, director Clark had Mancuso sit in a chair facing away from him, so as not to see the actor's face. Clark then had Mancuso experiment with different voices in order to come up with one that was right for the character, with Clark later offering him the part.
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." Scenes in the film involving POV shot of Billy scaling the house was accomplished through the use of a rig designed by camera operator Bert Dunk, which was attached to Dunk's head as he climbed up the side of the house. Griffin's death scene, which was shot with a handheld camera in a real closet, was accomplished in only a couple of takes. According to Griffin, her character's surprise as the killer lunges from the closet was genuine as the actress later recalled: "it was a total shock because I didn't really know when to expect him to jump out!" Shots of Clare's corpse in the rocking chair required the actress to wear an actual plastic bag over her head for extended periods of time. Griffin would also state that these scenes came relatively easy for her, "I was actually, and still am, a fairly good swimmer so I could hold my breath for a long time. And I could also keep my eyes open for a long time without blinking."
Margot Kidder remembered shooting the film as being "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 audiotape and make the sound slower. The audio for the disturbing phone calls was performed by multiple actors including 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. Mancuso spent only three days recording dialogue for the character, later recalling the experience as being very "avant-garde", with Clark encouraging him to improvise with the character's voice.
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 distributed in Canada by Ambassador Film Distributors and released in Toronto on October 11, 1974. 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 alternative title Silent Night, Evil Night in Virginia in July 1975.
The film was the third-highest-grossing Canadian film of all-time in Canada with a gross of $2 million, behind The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) and the French language Deux femmes en or (1970), directed by Claude Fournier.
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 City 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."
During its initial release, the film had garnered mixed reviews. A. H. Weiler of The New York Times called 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." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 1.5 stars out of 4 and called it a "routine shocker" that "is notable only for indicating the kind of junk roles that talented actresses are forced to play in the movies." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Before it maddeningly overreaches in a gratuitously evasive ending, 'Black Christmas' (opening today at selected theaters) is a smart, stylish Canadian-made little horror picture that is completely diverting ... It may well be that its makers simply couldn't figure out how to end it."
Contemporary reviews have been more positive. On Rotten Tomatoes, Black Christmas holds an approval rating of 71% based on 34 reviews, with an average rating of 6.26/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "The rare slasher with enough intelligence to wind up the tension between bloody outbursts, Black Christmas offers fiendishly enjoyable holiday viewing for genre fans." On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 65 out of 100, based on nine critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
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 two and a half out of four stars 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."
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.
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.
Saturn Award-Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films
- 1976: Nominated, Best Horror Film
Canadian Film Awards
- 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
Edgar Allan Poe Awards
- 1976: Nominated, Best Motion Picture – A. Roy Moore
Black Christmas 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 one of all being John Carpenter's Halloween (which was apparently inspired by Clark suggesting what a Black Christmas sequel would be like).
Black Christmas has been included in multiple lists in various media outlets as one of the greatest horror films ever made. The film ranked No. 87 on Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It was ranked at No. 67 in IndieWire's The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time, its entry stating "The plot sounds formulaic, but Black Christmas remains timeless thanks to its terrifying and elusive killer, 'Billy,' whose backstory is never revealed, as well as a foreboding ending that doesn't offer much hope for the film's Final Girl". Thrillist's Scott Weinberg, in his article The 75 Best Horror Movies of All Time, ranked the film at No. 48. Paul Schrodt of Esquire placed the film at No. 23 in his list of the 50 Best Horror Films of All Time. In 2017, Complex magazine named Black Christmas the 2nd-best slasher film of all time. The following year, Paste listed it the 3rd-best slasher film of all time, while also placing the character Jess Bradford at #1 in their list of "20 Best 'Final Girls' in Horror Movie History". While director Clark maintained he did not intend for the film to have political leanings, critics have noted Black Christmas is nonetheless a feminist film for its treatment of female characters—particularly Jess having agency and making the choice to have an abortion—and its portrayal of casual misogyny (as when the police initially fail to take the sorority’s concerns about the phone calls and Clare’s absence seriously). Film critic Tim Dirks of the film-review website Filmsite.org added the film to his list of films featuring the "Greatest Film Plot Twists, Film Spoilers and Surprise Endings", based on the film's major plot twists- the revelation that the real killer was hidden inside the unsearched attic, and Jess' implied murder.
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 that she starred in one of his favorite films 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.
Black Christmas has been remade on two separate occasions, with the films differing significantly from the original.
The first remake was directed by Glen Morgan and 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, and Bob Clark served as an executive producer.
On June 13, 2019, a new remake was announced by Blumhouse Productions. Directed and written by Sophia Takal, co-written by April Wolfe and produced by Jason Blum. Principal photography began on June 24 and wrapped on July 31, 2019, in Dunedin, New Zealand. Starring Imogen Poots and Cary Elwes, the film was released on December 13, 2019.
On May 28, 2021, a short fan film funded through an Indiegogo campaign was released online, with the title "It's Me, Billy." It is billed as an "unofficial sequel" to the original film and picks up the story 50 years later, following the granddaughter of Jess Bradford.
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