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Remind Me

The Gist

Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) was not the first horror film to squeeze the cheery Yuletide for all its worth in latent menace. One of the vignettes comprising Ealing's postwar portmanteau Dead of Night (1945) concerns a ghostly child who crashes a Christmas party, while any film adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (of which Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge [1951], starring Alastair Sim, is perhaps the most highly-regarded) is chockablock with shapes and shadows of the restless dead. Made in 1970 but unreleased until the spring of 1974, Theodore Gershuny's dour Silent Night, Bloody Night beat Black Christmas to the cinemas by several months, as did the Amicus anthology Tales from the Crypt (1972), which kicked off its spook syllabus with an expansion of the EC Comics classic "All Through the House," about the Christmas Eve siege of a private residence by an escaped maniac in a grubby Kris Kringle suit. Rather than send its resident lunatic after a lone female, Black Christmas puts an entire college sorority house in peril, winnowing down the number of potential victims to a surviving final girl...and in so doing stamping a template for the as yet unborn horror subgenre of slasher films.

The origin of Black Christmas can be traced back to a spec script written by Canadian Broadcast System staffers Roy Moore and Timothy Bond in the early 1970s. The Babysitter's concept of a deranged killer telephoning his psycho-sexual intentions to his intended victim riffed on the urban legend "The Baby-Sitter and the Man Upstairs," collected by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in his 1981 study The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. As the old chestnut goes, a young girl receives threatening phone calls while minding a neighbor's children; the sting in the tail has the local police tracing the calls to an upstairs room of the very house, a shock reveal that allows the protagonist to escape with her life. (In most variants of this tale, the children are not so lucky.) Producers Harvey Sherman and Richard Schouten had Bond rewrite The Babysitter for a university setting before showing it to their in-house director, Bob Clark. By the time the script got to the expatriate American, it had undergone a title change to Stop Me, recalling the written-in-lipstick imperatives of accused Illinois serial killer William Heirens, the inspiration for Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956).

While Black Christmas has an estimable body count, viewers remember it being more violent than it really is. Very little blood is spilled onscreen (Clark reworked the script, credited solely to Roy Moore, making the killings less explicit) and the most acute frissons are aural rather than visual. Taking a tip from William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), Clark gives Black Christmas a harrowing soundscape, blending the voices of multiple actors (one of them a then-unknown Nick Mancuso, later the star of Columbia's Nightwing [1979]) to achieve the disturbing patter of "the Moaner," as the residents of Pi Kappa Sig refer to their resident (and how!) obscene phone caller. Clark had some ambitious casting ideas for Black Christmas: although Bette Davis proved to be out of his price range for a bit as the sorority's tipsy den mother and Gilda Radner quit the production to become a Not Ready for Prime Time Player for SNL (her role was given to Second City trouper Andrea Martin), Olivia Hussey, star of Franco Zeffirelli's Romero and Juliet (1968) agreed to play Clark's Final Girl. Clark's principal players also included 2001: A Space Odyssey's (1968) Keir Dullea and Margot Kidder just a few years shy of her crossover success as the leading lady of Richard Donner's Superman (1978) and Stuart Rosenberg's The Amityville Horror (1979).

In America, Black Christmas underwent a ruinous title change (the distributors feared the word "black" would lump the film into the "blaxploitation" ghetto) to Silent Night, Evil Night and tanked at the box office. (On American TV, the film was called Stranger in the House.) Re-released as Black Christmas, Clark's tidy little shocker found its audience, among whose number was rising filmmaker John Carpenter. Carpenter approached Clark about the possibility of writing a sequel, to which Clark proved amenable. Clark's imagined follow-up took place on the grounds of the same college campus, in the autumn of the following school year; his proposed title for the stillborn project was to be Halloween. John Carpenter went on, of course, to great success on his own with his 1978 film of the same name (based on an original script titled The Babysitter Murders), which effectively launched the cycle of slasher films to which Black Christmas is an undisputed patron saint.

Director: Bob Clark
Writer: Roy Moore
Producers: Bob Clark, Gerry Arbeid, Findlay Quinn, Richard Schouten
Photography: Reginald H. Morris
Editor: Stan Cole
Music: Carl Zittrer
Art Director: Karen Bromley
Cast: Olivia Hussey (Jess), Keir Dullea (Peter), Margot Kidder (Barb), John Saxon (Lt. Fuller), Marian Waldman (Mrs. Mac), Andrea Martin (Phyl), James Edmond (Mr. Harrison), Doug McGrath (Sgt. Nash), Art Hindle (Chris), Lynn Griffin (Clare), Leslie Carlson (Graham), Nick Mancuso, Bob Clark (Phone Voice).

by Richard Harland Smith