I’ll admit that, until a few years ago, I never really got the appeal of Black Christmas. Despite being a lifelong horror fan who has happily sat through all manner of chillers ranging from quietly creepy to balls-out gory starting from a probably much-too-young-for this-sort-of-thing age, I never found joy in Bob Clark‘s sinister tale about a group of sorority sisters being stalked by a malevolent attic dweller who likes to make threatening phone calls. I found it abysmally ugly, awkwardly paced and uncomfortable to watch so I dismissed it as ”not for me” (and very possibly overrated) and instead turned to Clark’s other Christmas classic, A Christmas Story, during the holidays.
But then something strange happened, a few years ago I found myself alone at my parents’ place out in the middle of nowhere during the Christmas holidays. We’d already watched our way through our stack of Christmas mainstays so I grabbed the only holiday-themed movie left — Black Christmas. Maybe it hit me at just the right moment but suddenly I understood what all the fuss was about and later on, as I read more about the film that pretty much launched Bob Clark’s career and established a whole new formula that’s now considered almost mandatory in slasher flicks, I came to appreciate its messy genius (and embrace its many flaws). Here’s a look at the story behind Black Christmas and what makes it so ho-ho-hopelessly brilliant and worthy of the “Canadian Classic” moniker.
Written by Roy Moore (and re-written by Clark himself), Black Christmas takes place just before Christmas break at a large college, where a group of sorority sisters are making plans for one last party before they all head off on holiday. Jessica (Olivia Hussey), the serious-minded beauty of the group, isn’t in such a celebratory mood. She’s just found out that she’s pregnant and she’s struggling with whether or not she wants to keep the baby while also dealing with near constant badgering from her temperamental boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), who wants her to keep the baby and commit to marriage. As Jessica contemplates her future, her friends plan their party oblivious to her plight…and to the fact that the night is about to take a very ugly turn. The house begins to get a rash of obscene phone calls, that at first seem like a harmless prank but quickly turn serious as the caller starts to delve into each girl’s personal life and one of the sorority sisters goes missing. When it becomes clear that Jessica is the caller’s primary target, the police place a wire tap in the house only to find out that the real culprit is closer than anyone ever imagined!
Bob Clark had already made two horror films before he was handed the script for Black Christmas. He turned to the horror genre because he’d heard that the only two ways to break into the movie industry were through either pornography or scary drive-in flicks — especially for someone who grown up in Florida, a long way away from Hollywood. His first two genre films, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and Dead of Night (aka Deathdream), made little more than a ripple when they were released. By then, Clark had moved to Canada, then a tax haven for American filmmakers, and had begun production on a screenplay that was originally titled Stop Me and was supposedly based on a spate of murders that had taken place in Quebec around the Christmas season. Clark re-wrote much of the script’s dialogue and injected his own ideas about what might play as scary (supposedly drawing inspiration from Psycho) and of course making the now legendary decision to never reveal the killer’s identity or backstory. The film didn’t really find an audience until the dawn of home video thanks to a botched US release ( the film was retitled Silent Night, Evil Night because Warner Bros. was worried it would otherwise be mistaken for a blaxploitation film) and the fact that it came out just before slasher movies became vogue after the release of Halloween in 1978.
Over the years, the phrase “the calls are coming from inside the house!” may have become somewhat of a punchline thanks to urban legends about babysitter stalkers and campy movies like When a Stranger Calls, but back in 1974, Black Christmas established this now seemingly normal horror convention in a way that hasn’t been used quite as effectively since. There’s still some speculation about whether Roy Moore actually based the initial idea for the Black Christmas screenplay on those old babysitter stories, but what is clear is that whatever formula he used proved influential to many classic horror films that followed. Billy, the film’s main menacing force, roams through the sorority house at will and the audience sees everything through his point of view, a technique that hadn’t been used so effectively in mainstream cinema up to that point. On the Canadian DVD extras, it’s revealed that although the steadicam wasn’t introduced to filmmakers until 1976, camera operator Bert Dunk created the fluidly roaming “Billy” camera shots by designing a rig that attached to his head – this is especially impressive considering the shot where Billy climbs the trellis outside the house all the way up to the attic. That killer-POV shot went on to become standard in soon-to-be-classic slasher films that followed like John Carpenter’s Halloween and Friday the 13th. In fact, many of the elements present in Black Christmas – including its holiday-themed setting and feminist sub-text - may seem like clichÃ©s when viewed through a present day horror fan lens, but the truth is that Black Christmas all but the set the table for numerous imitators and for the whole wave of slasher films that dominated in the ’80s and beyond.
The Toronto Connection
The film was shot over an 8-week period in Toronto. One of the main sites, Annesley Hall which is part of the University of Toronto (and located across from the ROM), has become a popular pilgrimage for fans of the film. The infamous sorority house is also still standing but a little more difficult to get to — it’s a residence on a private road near St. Clair Avenue West and Avenue Road that Clark stumbled across by accident while scouting locations. The 2002 DVD release of Black Christmas features actor Art Hindle walking through the sorority house location while discussing his memories of shooting the film. It’s also important to note that along with Hindle, the film featured a who’s-who of Canadiana talent who went on to larger noteriety including Superman‘s Margot Kidder and SCTV‘s Andrea Martin.
In other words, while Black Christmas might not be one of the most well-known or flawlessly made horror films out there, it’s certainly important in the grand scheme of the genre and even if it’s not one of your favourite scary movies, you should, at the very least, be proud that Canadians can claim this influential and ahead-of-its-time gem as one of our own.
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