“If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . it’s on too tight!” — advertising tagline for Black Christmas
Canada is a nation of firsts. Torontonian Don Munroe built the first table hockey game here in the early 1930s. Other parts of the country can lay claim to the Jolly Jumper, the celebration of Labour Day, artificial hearts, the Robertson square-head screwdriver, and it was a Canadian who mixed the world’s first Bloody Caesar. The country has broken ground in many fields, including film. Florence Lawrence, the first performer to be identified by name on screen, was born in Hamilton, Ontario, while the first aboriginal actor to portray a Native American on television, Jay Silverheels, hailed from the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Brantford, Ontario.
In a more macabre vein, without a groundbreaking 1974 Canadian horror film there might never have been a Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. Between them the gruesome threesome have sliced and diced their way through at least two dozen movies, but the mayhem they imposed on promiscuous college girls and studly teens owes much to one film made in Toronto, a movie Film Threat magazine calls “the first modern slasher movie.”
Director Bob Clark didn’t invent the slasher film with Black Christmas — arguably Psycho, Peeping Tom or Bay of Blood (Reazione a catena) were the granddaddies of gore — but he did establish the format. Mix and match the fear of an unwelcome visitor to a sorority house brimming with randy college girls, a holiday-turned-violent theme, the anonymous phone call used to terrorize girls, a motiveless killer, a mysterious male stalking young women, and a female lead who must conquer her own fear in order to stay alive and you have the plot of dozens of films that were to follow.
Shot in Toronto between February and May 1974 on a budget of roughly $600,000, Black Christmas is about an unseen psychotic killer named Billy who makes disturbing, obscenity laced phone calls to a group of sorority girls. Soon he escalates from one-sided phone sex to dispatching the girls one by one in brutal fashion.
“It was originally called Stop Me,” says Clark, who was killed in an April 2007 car accident, “I don’t think I’m taking unfair credit, but Black Christmas was my title, my idea. I love the contrast of the idea of Christmas, the jolliest of all seasons with this dark kind of imagery. Both a horror film and Christmas have tremendous trappings that make a nice juxtaposition.”
Apparently others agreed with him. In the next two decades a tsunami of holiday themed horrors — Christmas and otherwise — drifted into theaters; My Bloody Valentine, New Year’s Evil, April Fools Day and a Santa’s sack of movies featuring death by Christmas tree light.
What sets Black Christmas apart from the rest of the Christmas horror pack are the memorable characters. The standout is a pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder as the sharp-featured brunette Barb, whose alcoholic tendencies foreshadowed the actress’s troubled real life. “One of my favorite memories is Margot coming to the set for her famous turtles-screwing-for-three-days scene,” says Clark. “She was supposed to be imbibing, and she was, to get in character. She was definitely there.”
As Barb she thumbs her nose at any form of authority — be it the thick as a brick Sgt. Nash or the threatening caller — and steals every scene she’s in with her reckless energy. When she slurs, “This is a sorority house, not a convent,” it is lewd, raunchy and sexy-funny.
Argentine-born Olivia Hussey as Jess is not the typical sorority slasher movie heroine. Hussey brings a quiet strength to Jess that hints at a fountain of inner resolve. It has often been said that slasher films are the most Republican of genres because of the punishment meted out on people who go against conservative middle-American values. In other words smoking pot and jumping from bed to bed is bound to earn you a one way ticket to hell courtesy of some masked madman, while the virgin of the group usually makes it through bloodied but unbowed. In Black Christmas Jess rebels against her boyfriend, and is planning to have an abortion. Clearly she is no virgin, and yet she is the sole survivor of Billy’s rampage.
The boyfriends of Claire and Jess — Chris Hayden(Art Hindle) and Peter Smythe(Keir Dullea) — are studies in opposites. The Halifax-born Hindle plays Chris as earnest and loving (although he does wear a raccoon coat), a stand-up guy who loves his girlfriend even if their relationship is chaste.
Keir Dullea as Peter is a different story. Peter is an eccentric musician who realizes too late that he has traded one passion for another. His love of music overshadowed his feelings for Jess and now she is backing away from him. He is prone to fits of anger, and this hot-headed behavior is the perfect red herring (or McGuffin as Hitchcock used to call them) to make us think he is the killer. It is interesting to imagine how the character might have differed if Clark’s first choice for Peter, Malcolm McDowell, had accepted the part.
During shooting Dullea was only available for a week as he had other commitments in Europe. In his short time on the film, he never met Margot Kidder and worked with John Saxon only briefly. “My total experience with working with anybody was Olivia Hussey,” he says. Clark shot all of Dullea’s scenes first and in editing made it appear as though he was there for the whole time.
Like Black Christmas’s other imported movie star, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea’s early career showed great promise, but didn’t mature into full-blown movie stardom. Two films hinted at his star potential — 1963’s Lisa and David and Bunny Lake is Missing in 1965 — but it wasn’t until he played astronaut Dave Bowman in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 that his full promise was reached. He failed to really capitalize on the notoriety that movie earned him, leading Noel Coward to famously quip, “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.”
Uncredited but very effective are the actors who voiced the obscene phone calls. The disembodied voices of unseen evil were supplied by a number of people including Bob Clark, actor Nick Mancuso and several female actors. “[The phone calls are] a compilation of about five actor’s voices,” says Clark. “I remember what Nick brought it to was an intensity that certainly I had never seen before,” said sound designer and composer Carl Zitrer who engineered the calls, mixing in reverb and an array of spooky sounds.
Was Black Christmas the inspiration for John Carpenter’s seminal slasher flick Halloween? It’s a question that has sparked a fair amount of debate, so let’s break it down. There are similarities that cannot be denied between the two films.
Most obviously both films open with a point of view shot of the killer creeping around the outside of a house at night. Clark uses this shot, and many POV angles to great effect in Black Christmas, but he wasn’t the first to use the subjective camera to create fear. Clark simply took an old idea and put a new spin on it. He would later say that he hoped to break new ground by “employing some, if not new, certainly reworked and rethought cinematic ideas.” Mario Bava used distorted POV in Blood and Black Lace, and Hitchcock used it in the shower scene in Psycho, just to name a couple famous examples. Clark’s innovation in Black Christmas was to make the point of view shot his centerpiece, using it create a mood of terror rather than a secondary complement to the horror already on screen.
Clark’s film is unique in that we never see the killer, he moves in the shadows, a subliminal figure of terror unlike the very visible Michael Myers in Halloween. What they share, however, is motive – neither of them has one. They are striking out at these victims for no reason. Carpenter says he modelled Michael Myers’ relentless passion for killing on a film by Michael Crichton. “I must tell you that I cribbed from Westworld – Yul Brynner as a robot gunfighter who malfunctions and keeps coming after them. I just took it a step further, but I gave you no explanation.” Pre-Black Christmas movie homicidal maniacs always had a motive, but we never know why Billy targeted the Pi Kappa Sig house or its inhabitants.
There is one major difference between the two – Billy is literally a raving lunatic, screaming and grunting his way through the film, whereas Michael Myers (and later, Jason Voorhees) is unnaturally silent.
It may have just been weird synchronicity that two films about homicidal maniacs open with unusual POV shots, and share an ideological bent, but there is no question that Black Christmas and Halloween are similar.
“I absolve John Carpenter every time,” says Clark. “The facts are that I was going to direct a film John wrote a couple of years after Black Christmas. He was a big fan of Black Christmas… and he asked me if I was ever going to do a sequel.
“I said, ‘I would make it the following fall and somehow in the interim the killer had been caught and had been institutionalized. I would have him escape one night, and now he is free in the community… and he starts staking them again at the Black Christmas sorority house, and I was going to call it Halloween.’
“I think he was influenced by it, as were a few others. When you think about what John Carpenter did, [however], wrote a script — really quite different from that idea —directed it, edited it and did the music. It was a terrific piece of work. Maybe the title Halloween he should have given me a little of, but I didn’t own that either.”
Despite the rave reviews, and the prediction of Olivia Hussey’s personal psychic that the film would make a bundle, Black Christmas didn’t fare well at the box-office in the USA. To boost admissions, in some markets the movie’s name was changed to A Stranger in the House to avoid confusion with the flurry of blaxploitation films that were appearing at the time. It was also released as Silent Night, Evil Night.
Viewed through today’s eyes the movie holds up. It is very stylish, although slower in sections, and with a lower body count than modern horror fans are used to, but it is still capable, more than three decades after its conception, to raise goose bumps. A testament to the film’s enduring ability to scare came when NBC cancelled an airing of the film because they felt it was too intense for television audiences. It has also earned the seal of approval from Quentin Tarantino, who cites it as one of his favorite movies.
“It’s an interesting film.” says Clark, “I thought it was a good, scary, classic horror story, and those have a way of surviving.”
Richard speaks to “CTV News at Six” anchor Andria Case about television and movies to watch this weekend including the Showtime sho biz documentary “Sid & Judy” about Judy Garland and her husband Sid Luft, the seasonal favourite “The Nightmare Before Christmas” on Disney+ and the creep “Black Christmas” on Starz.
Without Black Christmas, a groundbreaking 1974 Canadian horror film there might never have been a Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. These characters owe much to one film made in Toronto, a movie Film Threat magazine calls “the first modern slasher movie.”
The film enters its fourth decade this year, a milestone celebrated with the release of Black Christmas, the Season’s Grievings Edition in late November. The story of a sorority house terrorized by a murderous stranger has been given the deluxe Blu-ray treatment, packed with a Santa’s sleigh of new features. It is one of the great Christmas horror movies, but it isn’t the only one.
Here’s a look at holiday films without an ounce of tinsel treacle.
Silent Night, Deadly Night
Originally called Slayride, this movie about a teen who goes on a murderous rampage dressed as Santa after his parents are killed, changed its name for release. In its first weekend it out-grossed Nightmare on Elm Street, but then parents angry at Santa’s portrayal as an axe murderer picketed theatres, and the box office dried up.
K. Gordon Murray was a film producer best known for snapping up the rights to foreign films, dubbing them into English for American audiences. His best-known pick-up was Santa Claus, a strange Yuletide flick about St. Nick and Merlin doing battle with Lucifer.
Originally produced in Spanish and featuring a Santa Claus who doesn’t live at the North Pole, but above it, in a magic castle in outer space, it isn’t exactly scary, but may be the weirdest movie on this list.
When most people think of Dan Haggerty visions of the gruff but kind-hearted mountain man from the 1970s TV show The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams come to mind. B-movie fans, however, remember him as Mike McGavin, a down-on-his-luck department store Santa who does battle with a bloodthirsty Nazi elf in Elves. It suffers from cheesy dialogue — “I had a rough day at work… Santa got murdered” — and the fact that a movie called Elves features only one elf, but it’s so ho-ho-ho-horrible it’s fun to watch.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Imagine if our collective image of Santa Claus had been shaped by Allegory of Gluttony and Lust painter Hieronymus Bosch instead of some nameless commercial artist at Coca-Cola and you’ll get an idea of the dark edge of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The jolly fat man in the red suit is gone, hijacked by a skeleton in a pinstriped suit. The story of the mayor of Halloweentown who kidnaps and impersonates ‘Sandy Claws’ to bring his own brand of good will to the world is a Disney release but it is one of the rare ones that isn’t meant for the entire family.
Silent Night, Zombie Night
Walking Dead fans might get a charge out of Silent Night, Zombie Night, a Christmas viral outbreak movie so realistic a concerned citizen called the police during filming, citing gang violence. The LAPD showed up by foot, car and air only to find movie zombies battling with prop weapons.
Christmas Evil is the best of the Santa as serial killer movies and before you ask, there are quite a few of them. In this one a boy is traumatized after walking in on his parents in flagrante with dad dressed as Santa. He develops daddy issues and a Santa fixation and one Christmas Eve brings murder home for the holidays.
Canadian horror, and I don’t mean Tim Horton’s running out of Timbits just before your coffee break, but the kind of scary movies we make, tends to turn convention on its head.
How many hack comics have joked about the beastly effects of PMS? “Ginger Snaps” takes those jokes one step further in a wickedly humorous feminist werewolf allegory. Other examples of distinctive CanCon horror include “Black Christmas,” a movie shot in Toronto that set the template for most of the slasher films of the 1980s and ’90s, “Cannibal Girls,” an early horror comedy, and don’t even get me started on the squirmy body terror of David Cronenberg.
“Hellions,” a new film that smashes up “The Brood” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark,” is a fresh look at the Devil Child genre.
Chloe Rose is Dora, a pregnant high schooler left home alone on Halloween. She’s waiting for her boyfriend (Luke Bilyk) to come over but before he gets there kids in creepy costumes come to the door. At first it seems harmless, but when the same kids reappear, this time with Dora’s boyfriend’s head in their candy sack, things take a terrifying turn for the macabre.
Director Bruce McDonald, working from a script by “The Colony” screenwriter Pascal Trottier, has made a film hat is short on actual hardcore scares, but long on unease. McDonald uses visual tricks—nightmarish red and pink colour palettes, slow motion and inky darkness—dreamy sequences and a spooky children’s chant to underline Dora’s mounting fear.
“Hellions” isn’t the kind of slice-and-dice movie we’ve come to expect from home invasion movies like “You’re Next.” Instead it’s a loosely plotted, hallucinogenic horror that is more weird than scary.
Richard Crouse: CTV Canada AM, Metro News and NewsTalk 1010
James Stewart stars in one of the movies that always puts me in the mood for Christmas, but its not the one you think. Sure, It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic and yuletastic, but I also enjoy The Shop Around The Corner. It’s a Christmassy romance that sees shop co-workers Stewart and Margaret Sullivan at one another’s throats at work, unaware that they are also anonymously courting one another as pen pals. All becomes clear on Christmas Eve and they unwrap a big ol’ gift basket of love. It’s almost as heartwarming as a giant mug of hot chocolate.
On the other end of the scale is Black Christmas. Many years ago, on the first Christmas the PMC — my Preferred Movie Companion — and I spent together, I screened the movie for her, which almost stopped the relationship before it had a chance to really get going. I love the slaying slasher story. Her, not so much. I quickly rebounded with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which made the yuletide bright once again. Thanks, Chevy Chase, for saving Christmas and my relationship!
Read entries from Peter Howell, Johanna Schneller, Linda Barnard, Eli Glasner and Brian D. Johnson HERE!
Reel Guys, Metro Canada by Richard Crouse and Mark Breslin
Synopsis: “Well, it’s Christmas time, pretty baby” … and the Reel Guys are watching films… With our apologies to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote those lyrics to Elvis Presley’s Santa Claus is Back in Town — that song pretty much sums up what the holiday season means for us. Next week we’ll be back to reviewing the big releases of the year, but before we get to that we thought we’d have a look at movies to get us in the Christmas spirit. They may not all be on Santa’s nice list.
Richard: James Stewart stars in one of the movies that always puts me in the mood for Christmas, but its not the one you think. Sure, It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic and yuletastic, but I also enjoy The Shop Around The Corner. It’s a Christmassy romance that sees shop co-workers Stewart and Margaret Sullivan at one another’s throats at work, unaware that they are also anonymously courting one another as pen pals. All becomes clear on Christmas Eve and they unwrap a big ol’ gift basket of love. It’s almost as heartwarming as a giant mug of hot chocolate. Mark: Richard, as I’m Jewish, the Christmas holiday doesn’t have quite the emotional pull on me that it might have on you. So, come Christmas Eve our family gathers around the TV, where we watch Bad Santa until we fall asleep from convulsive laughter. The story of an alcoholic, womanizing, foul-mouthed Santa is a delightful antidote to all that icky cheer I’m supposed to feel. Then, when the novelty dies down, I get with the program and watch Elf. But I wear my Grinch mask just in case a tear is shed.
RC: That green synthetic fur is great for soaking up tears! But an antidote to the icky cheer you describe are two films set during the holidays without an ounce of tinsel treacle between them. In The Long Kiss Goodnight an amnesiac played by Geena Davis is outed as a former hired killer when she is recognized playing Mrs. Claus in a Christmas parade. The title A Christmas Tale sounds traditional enough, but the story focuses on the bitter rather than the sweet. The English title of this Catherine Deneuve dramedy could easily have been Cancer for Christmas, but despite the downer topic it’s complex, funny and touching.
MB: I’ve never seen A Christmas Tale, Richard, thanks for the tip. But if it’s holiday downers we’re looking for, consider Black Christmas, a 1974 slasher flick starring Olivia Hussey. I guess you could double-bill this one with the 2006 remake, but that might be, ahem, overkill.
RC: Many years ago, on the first Christmas the PMC — my Preferred Movie Companion — and I spent together, I screened Black Christmas for her, which almost stopped the relationship before it had a chance to really get going. I love the slaying slasher story. Her, not so much. I quickly rebounded with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which made the yuletide bright once again. Thanks, Chevy Chase, for saving Christmas and my relationship!
MB: Well, for a Jewish guy like me, I’ll just have to be content with Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah animation classic, Eight Crazy Nights, and a glass of Manischewitz!
There’s plenty to be afraid of in Canada — and no, I don’t mean Quebec’s mythical werewolf, the loup-garou or Dalton McGuinty’s proroguing of the legislature. We may be known as a mild mannered people, but put us in front of a camera and all of a sudden we turn into creepy Canucks.
The Great White North has a blood splattered cinematic tradition, dating back to The Mask, the first Canadian film widely distributed in the United States.
A low budget 3D thriller about an archaeologist who believes he is cursed by a mask that causes him to have weird nightmares and even murder people, the movie was a cheapie knocked out to cash in on the 3D craze started by movies like House of Wax. Although it missed that movement by a few years, it may have inadvertently started a new trend. Since the release of The Mask, which coupled tried-and-true 3D with experimental electronic music to heighten its spooky effect, Canadian filmmakers have been scaring the toques off their countrymen and women.
Where would Canadian horror movies be without Valentine’s Day? In 1981, My Bloody Valentine, a creepy little slasher flick shot in Cape Breton, ran afoul of the ratings board but has since gone on to become a cult classic.
In 2008, a new type of terror reared its ugly head on the day Hallmark created. In Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool, the townsfolk of a small Ontario town are infected by a deadly virus on Valentine’s Day — A God bug that turns them into flesh-eating zombies. Not even Cupid with a quiver full of arrows can keep this town safe.
Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, an Ottawa-shot chiller, has cult hit written all over it. Breathing the same fetid air as genre classics Dead Alive and Demons, it has all the earmarks of a midnight movie in the making — humour, a tormented anti-hero, crazy creatures, gallons of guts and goo crowned by an over-the-top performance from horror legend Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund.
No look at Can Con chills would be complete without at least one David Cronenberg movie. The Brood stars Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar and Black Christmas (another great Canadian horror) star Art Hindle in a story about a brood of mutant children. Writer Ken Hanke called it one of the director’s most “unsettling” films, which is really saying something if you’ve seen Rabid, Shivers or Videodrome.