In the 2004 Bravo show 100 Scariest Movie Moments, Olivia Hussey, who appeared in the 1974 original Black Christmas recalled how she was brought into audition with Steve Martin for the 1987 romcom Roxanne. She said Martin was very excited and happy telling Hussey he had been wanting to meet her for years as she was in one of his favorite movies. Hussey said she thought the Wild and Crazy Guy was referring to her breakthrough role in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romero and Juliet.
No, it was Black Christmas. And Hussey said it surprised her.
Released on Oct. 11, the horror classic was filmed at the University of Toronto and surrounding areas sporting a cast of very young actors, including Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Art Hindle as well as John Saxon and Keir Dullea. The plot is set over the course of two days at an unnamed college as the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house has been receiving harassing phone calls from an obscene caller.
While they have been brushing them off, it’s clear some of the sorority members are getting unease as Barb (Kidder) gives the caller a little taste of his obscene medicine causing a riff with fellow sorority sister, Clare (Lynne Griffen) who goes to her room to finish packing as her father, Mr. Harrison (James Edmond) is due to come pick her up the next day for winter break.
Unfortunately for Clare, there is an unseen man in her closet who kills her by suffocating her with plastic. Then, he carries her body up to the attic, where he places her in a rocking chair. None of the sorority members are wise to what’s going on as the house mother, Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman) returns from Christmas shopping and they help her.
The next day, Mr. Harrison waits for Clare who never arrives. He meets Peter (Dullea) a piano conservatory student after being pelted with a snowball. Peter is dating Jess (Hussey) and directs him down to the sorority house. Harrison seems to be the typical conservative stoic father, but Mrs. MacHenry helps him along with the other sorority sisters find out what’s happening.
Clare’s boyfriend, Chris (Hindle), is unaware of Clare’s whereabouts and when they try to get help from the local police, a desk sergeant, Nash (Doug McGrath) isn’t so helpful. Lt. Fuller (Saxon) is speaking with a distraught mother, who claims her daughter didn’t come home from school and fears she may be kidnapped.
Jess meets up with Peter at a music room and tells him she’s pregnant. This causes him to underperform during an important evaluation and in a fit of rage, he later destroys the the piano. When he goes to meet with Jess later that day, he becomes enraged when she tells him that she’s going to have the pregnancy aborted.
The body of the missing girl is later found in a field as Chris, Jess, Phyl (Martin) and Mr. Harrison help authorities and other town residents search for her. Mrs. MacHenry stays as she’s awaiting a cab to go spend the holidays with a relative. However, she doesn’t make it.
Who is killing all the people? Could it be Peter? Or is it someone else? And who’s making the harassing phone calls as the police work with the phone company on tracking them?
Canadian writer A. Roy Moore said he was inspired both by the urban legend of the babysitter and the caller upstairs as well as 1943 murder case that happened during the holiday season in Montreal where a 14-year-old boy bludgeoned his family to death. The script was later rewritten by other writers including Bob Clark, who directed and produced it, to add humor elements and change the setting to a university.
In an odd twist of life imitating art, NBC had to pull the TV premiere in January of 1978 as Ted Bundy had reportedly killed two members of the Chi Omega sorority at Florida State University in Tallahasse, Fla. Initial reviews weren’t too favorable but it did have a few admirers. One of those was John Carpenter, who used similar camera and filmmaking techniques in his classic movie, Halloween.
You can also see the influence on Sean S. Cunningham and Steve Miner who directed Friday the 13th and its sequel, respectively. And while Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Peeping Tom are considered the two horror movies that set the slasher tone, Black Christmas deserves some credit as well for establishing certain tropes as the Final Girl with Hussey as Jess. You also have other tropes that would be common in slashers such as the bigger name stars. Both Dullea and Saxon had appeared in bigger movies. Saxon was just in the martial arts epic Enter the Dragon and Dullea had appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Dullea reportedly filmed all his scenes over a handful of days just like Donald Pleasance in Halloween. Kidder later said that she never met him on the set and was barely in a scene with Saxon.
Some other elements of the tropes are the bumbling and insincere law enforcement which was in Friday the 13th, Halloween and even A Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s also the question of who is the killer with a host of potential suspects. Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine both utilized this better.
And like all great horror classics from that the 1970s and 1980s, it has been terribly remade or rebooted. I recently watched the 2019 version made through Blumhouse Productions and while I didn’t really like it, I liked what it tried to do. But I felt if they had stayed closer to the R-rated version rather making a PG-13 version, it would’ve been more successful.
However, I didn’t care for the 2006 version which was too gory and only seem to exist for people who had grew up hating Lacey Chabert and Michelle Trachtenberg and wanted to see them die grisly deaths.
I must say that I discovered this movie in my 30s after hearing about it for years but unable to find it. Clark, who later found success in the Porky’s movies and A Christmas Story, had been making horror movies prior to this. However, his 1972 zombie flick Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is a horrible plot wasted with a great title.
But Black Christmas shows what can be done with so little. The budget was reportedly $620,000, still cheap for the time and it made over $4 million and was a modest success. It’s a good treat for horror fans as well as a favorite at the Christmas season if you want more than Jack Skellington singing about Christmas ornaments.