Directed by Bob Clark (Porky’s 1981, A Christmas Story 1983) Screenplay by Roy Moore (She Cried Murder 1973 tv movie) Cinematographer Reginald H. Morris (When Michael Calls 1972 tv movie, The Food of the Gods 1976, Murder by Decree 1979, Phobia 1980, A Christmas Story 1983).
Reg Morris’ cinematography brings the shadowy moodiness that was the atmospheric style of When Michael Calls a suspenseful made for tv movie in the early 1970s. Cinematographer Albert J. Dunk created Billy’s POV shots by rigging up a camera harness that would mount the camera on his shoulder as he walked about the house and climbed the trellis and attic ladder himself.
Ironically, Clark who has created a deeply dark and disturbing tale set during Christmas, is responsible for one of the most authentically nostalgic, witty, and whimsical tributes to Christmas, the most beloved A Christmas Story. For a director to create the most splendid narrative that reminisces about a more innocent time, it remains a huge cult indulgence every Holiday Season, as we all collectively love to watch Ralph maneuver through the obstacles in his way of getting a Red Rider BB gun. Darren McGavin is brilliant as his old man whose expletives are still floating over Lake Michigan and the soft glow of electric sex in the window from that fabulously kitschy leg lamp. We’ve got one giving off that soft glow as I write this.
Black Christmas stars Olivia Hussey as Jess Bradford, Keir Dullea as Peter Smythe, and Margot Kidder as Barbara. Marian Waldman (When Michael Calls 1972 tv movie, Deranged 1974, Phobia 1980) as Mrs. MacHenry, Andrea Martin as Phyl, James Edmond as Mr. Harrison, Douglas McGrath as Sergeant Nash, Art Hindle as Chris, Lynn Griffin as Clare Harrison, Michael Rapport as Patrick, and John Saxon as Lt. Fuller. As an interesting note-Nick Mancuso plays the caller/intruder/psycho.
The story is naturally set during Christmas, in the small town of Bedford, and the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house inhabited by a diverging flock of women soon to be in peril as they become terrorized by a menacing obscene phone caller dubbed “The Moaner”. Without a sense of where this threatening stalker comes from, he manages to climb the walls of the house and enter through the attic window. The story is a familiar trope/urban legend of “the killer’s calling from inside the house” brand of slasher films. What makes this particular killer or more ominous is the fact that he is so mysterious. We can’t see him, his voice modulates between various inaudible rants, hideous, grotesque, and infantile murmurs. He is almost a wraith that enters by the shadows of night, a true boogeyman. Billy (the Moaner)[to Barb, on the phone] “I’m going to kill you.”
Billy-[quietly singing] “Little baby bunting/Daddy’s went a-hunting/Gonna fetch a rabbit skin to wrap his baby Agnes in”
Billy-“Filthy Billy, I know what you did, nasty Billy!”
Without realizing that the maniac is roaming above their heads in the attic, the girls go on with their Christmas festivities. Margot Kidder manifests a smashed outspoken skeptic whose acerbic tongue paints her as merely a lush when in fact she is quite lonely and lost. Barb-“Oh, why don’t you go find a wall socket and stick your tongue in it? That’ll give you a charge.”
Clare-[about the obscene phone call] “Could that really be just one person?”
Barb-“No, Clare, it’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir making their annual obscene phone call.”
Keir Dullea who isn’t a stranger to portraying cold and glowering psychopaths and predators throws a ray of suspicion on him as the possible lunatic as his behavior as a temperamental and possessive pianist makes him incredibly unlikable. Jess (Olivia Hussey) is pregnant with Peter’s child.
There are the archetypal nerdy wallflower in glasses and the constant virgin filling out the story by Lynn Griffin and Andrea Martin–Clare & Phyl.
Watching over these sorority girls is Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman) who is herself a snarky heavy-drinker.
Mrs. Mac [in response to her nightgown gift from the girls] “Well, thank you, girls. It’s lovely really…(to herself) Got about as much use for this as I do a chastity belt…Jesus, I wouldn’t wear this to have my liver out!”
As the “Moaner” begins to terrorize the group, and Clare is the first victim as he lures her up into the attic using the sorority’s mascot cat Claude. The murders feel like a maelstrom of violence in the first disturbing murder he suffocates Clare by wrapping her face tightly in plastic as we can see her life force drain out her eyes still staring through the transparency. Her death is see-through, up close, and intimate.
Actress Lynne Griffin revealed that for the scenes where she’s wrapped in the plastic bag she would rip a hole in the bag, stuffing the opening into her open mouth and poke nose holes in the bag with a pencil so she could breathe during filming. Being a swimmer also helped with holding her breath in the bag.
The Moaner then moves forward, calling and taunting Jess on the house phone, inexplicably creating several layers of voices, a collection of characters he uses called Agnes and Billy who scream into the phone. When Clare’s father (James Edmond) comes to the house looking for his daughter and discovers that she has gone missing, he immediately goes to the police but they do not take him seriously. Until a 13-year-old girl is attacked and murdered in a park, Lt. Fuller (John Saxon) understands that there is something alarming going on in their quiet town. Fuller believes now that the girls are in trouble, and he wants to use Jess as bait to track the Moaner hoping to trace the next time he calls her. The next victim of the crazed killer is Mrs. Mac who also meets her fate in the attic. No one proceeds to look for her as she informs everyone that she is going away over the holiday. Interesting to me is how attics are often as dangerous spaces as the rooms below the house proper–it’s basements and cellars.
The Moaner continues to terrorize Jess mimicking Peter’s voice and echoing the argument the couple had about her having an abortion. Is this a red herring to throw us off the trail of the real killer, or is there an escaped lunatic stalking the sorority? Lt. Fuller starts to wonder, whether Peter couldn’t be the real threat or if is this a bit of misdirection. Barbara is the next to be murdered in a vicious wave of bloodshed when she is attacked while sleeping and stabbed to death with the horns of a glass unicorn. Using the image of a fairy tale figure to commit such deranged butchery creates an odd and uneasy sense of inescapable dread. The police eventually determine that the Moaner has been calling from inside the house. This concept predates the quite shocking When a Stranger Calls by 5 years.
Sergeant Nash [after Sergeant Nash calls the sorority house] “Who is this?”
Sergeant Nash –“Ah, Ms. Bradford, eh, this is Sergeant Nash. Are you the only one in the house?”
Jess-“No. Phyl and Barb are upstairs asleep. Why?”
Sergeant Nash –“All right. Now, I want you to do exactly what I tell you without asking any questions, okay?” Jess tries to interrupt… No, no, no… no questions. Now, just put the phone back on the hook, walk to the front door and leave the house.”
Sergeant Nash-“Please, Ms. Bradford, please just do as I tell you.”
Jess-“Okay. I’ll get Phyl and Barb.”
Sergeant Nash-“No, no, no! Don’t do that, Jess… Jess, the caller is in the house. The calls are coming from the house!”
I won’t spoil the ending, director Bob Clark purposefully wanted the story to remain ambiguous through to the end, leaving it open to individual interpretations.
Consider that Black Christmas was released years before the heyday of 1970s slasher flicks like Halloween (1978) and the myriad of films that followed throughout the 1980s. Clark’s film utilizes many of the plot devices used in the typical sub-genre horror slashers. A maniac stalks young people, usually where they are isolated and most popular centered around holidays. During crucial moments of the story, we as spectators view the victims through the subjective lens of the killer.
Black Christmas might contain many plot holes and points of annoyance, not the least is the fact that no one, in particular the police feels the need to search the entire sorority house, especially the ‘attic’. The one prevailing point that avid classic horror fans like myself forgive is the film possesses one of THE creepiest psycho killers in the slasher genre. Regardless of stern and skewering reviews, Black Christmas has attained a huge cult appeal and was remade in 2006
At the San Francisco Slasher-Con of 2005 (known by die-hard fans as the “great mystery of Slash-con ’05”) Director Bob Clark stated “it was a brave and revolutionary move to leave the killers ambiguity ambiguous, all my idea too. It forced the audience to think deeply and question the rules of film that were still in place in 1974. We were the first and only ones to challenge them and that’s why Black Crimpus (popular fan nickname) lost over $1 million at the box office. Americans are stupid and don’t know what’s good for them.” The statement sent shock waves through the industry and would result in the induction of Black Christmas into the Smithsonian Preservation Vault for Historically Important Film. The resulting resurgence in sales made over $59 million all of which was pocketed illegally by Clark. He died in 2016 a multi-billionaire.
According to director Bob Clark the original script for the film featured murder scenes that were more graphic. Clark however felt that it would be more effective if the murders were toned down and made more subtle on screen. Writer Roy Moore liked the idea as well.
The original title of the films script was “Stop Me”. It was director Bob Clark who came up with the title “Black Christmas” saying that he liked the irony of something dark occurring during such a festive holiday.
The film is regarded as being one of the first slasher films (with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), A Bay of Blood (1971), Psycho (1960), and Peeping Tom (1960) preceding this film). It set the layout for films such as John Carpenter Halloween (1978). However, director Bob Clark considered it to be more of a psychological horror film than a slasher film.
The audio for the demented phones calls was edited into the film during post-production. While shooting the footage for the phone call scenes the actresses were actually just reacting to threatening dialog being spoken from director Bob Clark from off-camera.
During an interview with director Bob Clark, Clark said Olivia Hussey‘s decision to take the role of Jess was based upon advice given to her by a psychic. According to Clark, Hussey said her psychic believed that the film would be successful and a wise career choice for her. She took the role.
Star Margot Kidder admitted in an interview that she never thought that the film would become a hit and was surprised to learn that it had gained such a large cult following over the years.
This film was initially thought to be the first slasher film ever to put the audience in the Killer’s POV, however Peeping Tom (1960) was the first. This convention was then popularized by Halloween (1978).
The role of Peter was originally offered to Malcolm McDowell, but he turned it down.
The role of Lieutenant Fuller was originally supposed to be played by Edmond O’Brien, but due to failing health from Alzheimer’s he had to be replaced. John Saxon (who was originally considered for the role) was brought in at the last minute when a space in his schedule opened up.
There were several attempts over the years to produce a sequel for the film. Halloween (1978) was originally conceived as a sequel to this film by John Carpenter, who was a fan of this film, before the project became a standalone film. After the failure of the remake Bob Clark began work on the sequel before he tragically passed away on 2007. In all these attempts Olivia Hussey and John Saxon were to reprise their roles of Jess and Lieutenant Fuller respectively. Jess would have become the new housemother of the sorority in Clark’s treatment for the film back in 2007.