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||Ambassador Film Distributors (Canada)|
Warner Bros. (United States)
|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 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 section 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.
Black Christmas was released on October 11, 1974 in Canada, and December 20 in the United States under the title Silent Night, Evil Night. It has received critical praise, with film historians noting it for being one of the earliest slasher films to conclude without revealing the identity of its villain, as well as serving as an influence on John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Aside from earning a cult following since its release, 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.
An unseen and disoriented man climbs up into the attic of a sorority house, where the tenants are celebrating with a Christmas party. One of the girls, Jess, answers an obscene phone call from a mentally unstable man who is implied to call the house regularly. She summons her fellow students into the room, where they listen as the caller screams and curses them on the phone. When one of the girls, foul-mouthed Barb, takes the phone from Jess, she incites the caller, who in turn promises to kill her. Barb argues with a younger student, Clare Harrison, who implies that the caller could be a serial rapist, before Clare returns to her bedroom to finish packing for Christmas break. The disoriented man lures Clare into her closet, where he suffocates her with a plastic dress bag. He moves her body to the attic.
The following morning, Mr. Harrison arrives at the school to pick up his daughter, but she fails to show up to their agreed meeting place. He quickly makes his way to the sorority house, where the housemother, Mrs. MacHenry, is surprised by Clare's absence. Meanwhile, Jess meets her boyfriend, Peter, a neurotic music student. She explains she is pregnant and planning to get an abortion, angering Peter, who attempts to intimidate her. In town, Mr. Harrison, accompanied by Barb and one of the other girls, Phyllis Carlson, attempt to report Clare as missing, while Jess quickly tells Clare's boyfriend Chris about Clare's sudden disappearance. They learn that another local girl named Janis Quaife has also seemingly vanished while walking home from school.
After putting a drunken Barb to bed, Mr. Harrison, Chris, Jess, and Phyllis help search for Janis in a nearby park where she allegedly disappeared, hoping to turn up some sign of Clare. Meanwhile, Mrs. Mac plans to leave for her sister's home, only to be lured up into the attic, where she discovers Clare's body. The killer throws a crane hook into her face, hanging and killing her. In the park, Janis's disfigured body is found by the police and Jess returns home, while the search continues for Clare. She answers another obscene phone call and decides to file a report with the police, only for Peter to appear and surprise her. He attempts to persuade her into marriage for the sake of their child, but Jess adamantly refuses. Peter leaves in an emotional state, while Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller arrives to bug the telephone.
A group of choir children arrive on the house's stoop to sing Christmas carols, distracting Jess. The killer enters Barb's room and murders her with a glass figurine; Barb's cries for help are drowned out by the singing children. One of the women in charge of the children ushers them away, having learned of Janis's murder. Jess experiences another unnerving phone call, in which the caller restates part of her argument with Peter. Lieutenant Fuller theorizes that Peter could be responsible, due to the caller's knowledge of the argument and his own mental fragility, but Jess doubts this. Moments later, Phyllis enters Barb's room and is ambushed by the killer, who murders her off-screen.
Jess gets another obscene 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 by Graham, a telephone company employee, and Sergeant Nash instructs Jess to leave the house immediately. Concerned for Barb and Phyllis, Jess arms herself with a poker and ventures upstairs, where she discovers Barb and Phyllis's maimed figures. The killer appears and pursues Jess through the house; Jess locks herself in the cellar, only for Peter to appear outside one of the windows. He smashes the window to get to Jess, who proceeds to bludgeon him with the poker, assuming he is the killer.
The police arrive moments later, alerted by Jess's screams. They discover her barely conscious in the basement, with Peter's bloody remains next to her. They put Jess to bed and discuss the murders, unaware of Clare and Mrs. MacHenry's bodies still in the attic. Jess is left in the house to rest, with a policeman standing outside. The killer climbs down from the attic as Jess sleeps in a nearby room. The house's telephone begins to ring, leaving Jess's fate unknown as the credits roll.
- Olivia Hussey as 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 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."
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 review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, it currently holds a 70% approval rating, based on 30 reviews, with the consensus reading: "The rare slasher with enough intelligence to wind up the tension between bloody outbursts, Black Christmas offers fiendishly enjoyable holiday viewing for genre fans." 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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