12 Surprising Facts About Black Christmas

Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

Nearly a decade before he made A Christmas Story, director Bob Clark embarked on making another eventual holiday classic of a different sort: The story of a sorority house decorated with Christmas lights, an unsuspecting group of young women, and a mysterious killer lurking in the attic.

Black Christmas is one of the most important Canadian horror films of all time, and is now considered a classic of both the Christmas and the horror genres, as well as an important benchmark on the road to slasher films as we now know them. Here are a dozen facts about the film, from creepy voices to the actors who almost joined the production.

1. It went through several script evolutions.

Black Christmas began life as a screenplay by Roy Moore called The Babysitter, which riffed on the now-familiar urban legend of a babysitter tormented by a killer who turns out to be making phone calls from inside the house. That concept was tweaked by writer Timothy Bond to include a collegiate setting, and eventually made its way to director Bob Clark, who’d made a working home for himself in Canada after kickstarting his film career in the United States with low-budget films like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. The script, then retitled Stop Me, underwent yet another evolution in Clark’s hands.

The director dialed back the murder sequences, believing they were “too violent,” and added various dialogue to “emphasize the adultness of college students,” including the scenes in which Barb (Margot Kidder) is drunkenly ranting about turtles having sex. Clark also introduced the idea that the film would never actually show the killer to the audience, something Moore—the film’s sole credited writer—"didn’t want to go along with" at first, according to Clark. Moore eventually came around, and the film’s now-famous mysterious killer concept stuck.

2. Olivia Hussey said yes because of a psychic.

Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas (1974)
Shout! Factory

Clark wanted to make Black Christmas as sophisticated as he possibly could, and pursued top-tier talent to elevate his script. To that end, he reached out to Olivia Hussey, then best known for her work on Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, to play the role of “final girl” Jess Bradford. Hussey took the part, and when she showed up on set, she apparently had a rather interesting reason for saying yes.

According to co-producer Gerry Arbeid, Hussey told him that she’d been informed by a psychic that she would be involved in a film in Canada that would make a lot of money. Since Black Christmas was being filmed in Toronto, she believed it to be the film the psychic was referring to. Arbeid told her at the time that he hoped she was right.

3. Bette Davis was asked to play the house mother.

The sorority’s house mother, Mrs. MacHenry or Mrs. Mac, was loosely based on one of Clark’s aunts, who also had a habit of hiding liquor bottles throughout the house. The role is vividly played by veteran actress Marian Waldman, but Clark originally had a bigger named in mind. The role was offered to screen legend Bette Davis, but she ultimately turned the role down.

4. Gilda Radner was supposed to co-star.

Black Christmas's cast is a mix of already established stars (Hussey and 2001: A Space Odyssey's Keir Dullea among them) and future stars (Margot Kidder, for example, had not yet starred in Superman), and that’s also reflected in the people who were almost in the cast. One future star who was cast but ultimately had to leave the film was Gilda Radner, who would have played Phyl, one of the longest-surviving sorority sisters in the house. Just a month before filming was set to begin, Radner was cast on a new TV show called NBC’s Saturday Night, which was eventually retitled Saturday Night Live. The role of Phyl went to future screen and stage legend Andrea Martin instead.

5. One actor was fired for a tragic reason.

For the role of police Lt. Kenneth Fuller, Clark originally wanted Oscar-winning actor Edmond O’Brien, who agreed to do the film. When O’Brien arrived in Toronto to begin work, though, Clark and Arbeid noticed something was wrong. According to Arbeid, O’Brien had trouble remembering where he was, and once declared that he was going to go back up to his hotel room while they were dining together at a restaurant in another part of town. It became clear that Alzheimer’s was beginning to take hold of the veteran actor, and Clark and Arbeid were worried about what might happen if they took O’Brien out into the cold Toronto winter for the night shoots required to film the scenes in which the police are searching for the missing girls. So the decision was made to let O’Brien go, and it fell to Arbeid to sit the actor down and break the news to him.

“It was very traumatic for me as well, and he burst into tears,” Arbeid recalled. “It was a very sad thing.”

With a tight schedule to keep, Arbeid and Clark had to recast the role of Lt. Fuller quickly. John Saxon was available, and was in wardrobe and preparing to shoot his first scenes just hours after landing in Toronto. According to Clark and Arbeid, if Saxon hadn’t said yes so quickly, the production might have been shut down.

6. A lot of the snow wasn’t real.

Though the film was shot in Toronto during the winter, Black Christmas dealt with an interesting problem when it came time to set the wintry scenes: a lack of snow. What little snow the production did have was closely guarded by the film's art director Karen Bromley, who recalled going to the house where much of the film was shot very early in the morning and making sure no one tracked through it before cameras were rolling.

For the scenes where snow simply wasn’t around, the production employed a fire truck spraying out flame retardant foam—the kind usually used for hard landings on airport tarmacs—to simulate a wintry look.

7. The creepy phone call voices were done upside down.

One of the most memorable elements of Black Christmas is the repeated use of phone calls from the killer, which take the form of threats, screaming, and arguments from two personalities calling themselves “Billy” and “Agnes,” though little else is told to us during the film. The calls were mixed by composer Carl Zittrer, and the voices were done by actor Nick Mancuso (who auditioned with his back to Clark so the director would hear rather than see the character), Clark, and other uncredited performers. According to Mancuso, one of the ways he achieved a particularly creepy vocal effect was to perform the calls upside down.

"I did the voice actually standing on my head to compress the thorax, to give it that kind of weird and spooky sound," Mancuso later recalled.

8. One cameraman played the killer.

A still from 'Black Christmas' (1974)
Shout! Factory

The film is also recognizable for its continuous use of point of view shots to establish the movements of the killer throughout the film. All of those shots, including every time we see the killer’s hands, were performed by cameraman Bert Dunk, who developed a “body brace” rig that would allow him to mount the camera on his shoulder while keeping his hands free. Dunk used that rig to climb the trellis outside of the house, throw objects around the attic, and even perform the famous bag strangulation scene with the bag mounted on the camera lens.

9. There is a backstory for the killer.

Clark was determined to keep the killer’s identity mysterious throughout Black Christmas, so other than the names Billy and Agnes we know very little about who he is or why he kills. That doesn’t mean no information exists, though. According to Clark, he developed a “very strong” backstory for Billy that provides a subtle logic to the phone calls.

"Billy is abusive and abused his little sister, and was abused himself, and probably killed his parents, and probably locked her up in a basement for five or six years,” Clark said. “And I think she escaped, and Billy doesn’t like girls, and it turns out Agnes doesn’t like boys."

A version of this backstory was explored in greater detail in the film’s 2006 remake.

10. Several crew members maDe cameos.

Because Black Christmas was produced on a low budget, Clark cut costs and saved time wherever he could, which meant various crew members ended up playing small roles throughout the film. Arbeid, for example, appears in the film as the taxi driver at the door of the sorority house. Among the other cameos: Property master John “Frenchie” Berger appears as a snowmobiler during the search of the park, costume designer Debi Weldon appears as a sorority sister, and production supervisor Dave Robertson appears as a police officer.

11. It was a hit in Canada, but bombed in America—at first.

James Edmond, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, and Marian Waldman in Black Christmas (1974)
Shout! Factory

Black Christmas was released in the fall of 1974 in its home country of Canada, and creative marketing (including a series of macabre countdown ads released in newspapers) helped make it a box office success. Warner Bros. picked up the film for distribution in the United States, and though the response to preview screenings was positive, the studio was worried that the title would make people think it was a blaxploitation film rather than a Christmas horror feature. The film was retitled Silent Night, Evil Night for its U.S. release, and audiences never quite latched on. Ironically, as was common practice at the time in Canada, various sets in the film had been dressed with American flags to make the movie more appealing to U.S. audiences. Revival screenings and home video releases eventually took care of Black Christmas in the States, and the film is now considered a holiday horror classic.

12. It helped inspire Halloween.

Black Christmas is considered one of the prototypes for what would become the slasher genre thanks to its high body count, point of view shots, and use of the “final girl” plot device, among other things, but it turns out the film actually has a rather direct connection to another of the most influential films in the genre. After it was released, Clark and writer/director John Carpenter were working on a project together. That project was never released, but the work did eventually lead to Carpenter one day expressing to Clark that he loved Black Christmas, and asking if a sequel or companion film could ever happen. Clark said he wasn’t really interested in going back to that territory, but he did offer up an idea for what it could be.

“It’ll be he was captured after all, he was put in an institution, and the movie will begin the night he escapes, back in town and they don’t know it yet, and I’m gonna call it Halloween,” Bob Clark recalled telling Carpenter.

“He deserves the full, expansive credit he’s gotten for doing that movie,” Clark added. “A few words about an idea are hardly a screenplay and a finished movie.”

Additional Sources:
The 12 Days of Black Christmas (2006)
On Screen!: Black Christmas (2005)

12 Good Ol' Facts About The Dukes of Hazzard

Getty Images
Getty Images

When The Dukes of Hazzard premiered on January 26, 1979, it was intended to be a temporary patch in CBS’s primetime schedule until The Incredible Hulk returned. Only nine episodes were ordered, and few executives at the network had any expectation that the series—about two amiable brothers at odds with the corrupt law enforcement of Hazzard County—would become both a ratings powerhouse and a merchandising bonanza. Check out some of these lesser-known facts about the Duke boys, their extended family, and the gravity-defying General Lee.

1. CBS's chairman hated The Dukes of Hazzard.

CBS chairman William Paley never quite bought into the idea of spinning his opinion to match the company line. Having built CBS from a radio station to one of the “Big Three” television networks, he had harvested talent as diverse as Norman Lear and Lucille Ball, a marked contrast to the Southern-fried humor of The Dukes of Hazzard. In his 80s when it became a top 10 series and seeing no reason to censor himself, Paley repeatedly and publicly described the show as “lousy.”

2. The Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee got 35,000 fan letters a month.


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While John Schneider and Tom Wopat were the ostensible stars of the show, both the actors and the show's producers quickly found out that the main attraction was the 1969 Dodge Charger—dubbed the General Lee—that trafficked brothers Bo and Luke Duke from one caper to another. Of the 60,000 letters the series was receiving every month in 1981, 35,000 wanted more information on or pictures of the car.

3. Dennis Quaid wanted to be The Dukes of Hazzard's Luke Duke—on one condition.

When the show began casting in 1978, producers threw out a wide net searching for the leads. Dennis Quaid was among those interested in the role of Luke Duke—which eventually went to Wopat—but he had a condition: he would only agree to the show if his then-wife, P.J. Soles, was cast at the Dukes’ cousin, Daisy. Soles wasn’t a proper fit for the supporting part, which put Quaid off; Catherine Bach was eventually cast as Daisy.

4. John Schneider pretended to be a redneck for his Dukes of Hazzard audition.

New York native Schneider was only 18 years old when he went in to read for the role of Bo Duke. The problem: producers wanted someone 24 to 30 years old. Schneider lied about his age and passed himself off as a Southern archetype, strutting in wearing a cowboy hat, drinking a beer, and spitting tobacco. He also told them he could do stunt driving. It was a good enough performance to land him the show.

5. The Dukes of Hazzard co-stars John Schneider and Tom Wopat met while taking a poop.

After Schneider was cast, the show needed to locate an actor who could complement Bo. Stage actor Wopat was flown in for a screen test; Schneider happened to be in the bathroom when Wopat walked in after him. The two began talking about music—Schneider had seen a guitar under the stall door—and found they had an easy camaraderie. After flushing, the two did a scene. Wopat was hired immediately.

6. Daisy's Dukes needed a tweak on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Bach’s omnipresent jean shorts were such a hit that any kind of cutoffs quickly became known as “Daisy Dukes,” after her character. But they were so skimpy that the network was concerned censors wouldn’t allow them. A negotiation began, and it was eventually decided that Bach would wear some extremely sheer pantyhose to make sure there were no clothing malfunctions.

7. Nancy Reagan was fan of The Dukes of Hazzard's Daisy.

Shirley Moore, Bach’s former grade school teacher, went on to work in the White House. After Bach sent her a poster, she was surprised to hear back that then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was enamored with it. “I’m the envy of the White House and I’m having your poster framed,” Moore wrote in a letter. “Mrs. Reagan saw the picture and fell in love with it.” Bach sent more posters, which presumably became part of the decor during the Reagan administration.

8. The Dukes of Hazzard's stars had some very bizarre contract demands.

Wopat and Schneider famously walked off the series in 1982 after demanding a cut of the show’s massive merchandising revenue—which was, by one estimate, more than $190 million in 1981 alone. They were replaced with Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer, “cousins” of the Duke boys, who were reviled by fans for being scabs. The two leads eventually came back, but it wasn’t the only time Warner Bros. had to deal with irate actors. James Best, who portrayed crooked sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, refused to film five episodes because he had no private dressing room in which to change his clothes; the production just hosed him down when he got dirty. Ben Jones, who played “Cooter” the mechanic, briefly left because he wanted his character to sport a beard and producers preferred he be clean-shaven.

9. A miniature car was used for some stunts in The Dukes of Hazzard.

As established, the General Lee was a primary attraction for viewers of the series. For years, the show wrecked dozens of Chargers by jumping, crashing, and otherwise abusing them, which created some terrific footage. For its seventh and final season in 1985, the show turned to a miniature effects team in an effort to save on production costs: it was cheaper to mangle a Hot Wheels-sized model than the real thing. “It was a source of embarrassment to all of us on the show,” Wopat told E!.

10. The Dukes of Hazzard's famous "hood slide" was an accident.

A staple—and, eventually, cliché—of action films everywhere, the slide over the hood was popularized by Tom Wopat. While it may have been tempting to take credit, Wopat said it was unintentional and that the first time he tried clearing the hood, the car’s antenna wound up injuring him.

11. The Dukes of Hazzard cartoon went international.


YouTube

Warner Bros. capitalized on the show’s phenomenal popularity with an animated series, The Dukes, which was produced by Hanna-Barbera and aired in 1983. Taking advantage of the form, the Duke boys traveled internationally, racing Boss Hogg through Greece or Hong Kong. Perhaps owing to the fact that the live-action series was already considered enough of a cartoon, the animated series only lasted 20 episodes.

12. In 2015, Warner Bros. banned the Confederate flag from The Dukes of Hazzard merchandising.

At the time the series originally aired, little was made of the General Lee sporting a Confederate flag on its hood. In 2015, after then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley spoke out against the depiction of the flag in popular culture, Warner Bros. elected to stop licensing products with the original roof. The company announced that all future Dukes merchandise would drop the design element. Schneider disagreed with the decision, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “Is the flag used as such in other applications? Yes, but certainly not on the Dukes ... Labeling anyone who has the flag a ‘racist’ seems unfair to those who are clearly ‘never meanin’ no harm.'”

8 Surprising Facts About Paul Newman

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With roles as varied as pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in 1961’s The Hustler (and 1986's The Color of Money) and alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin in 1982’s The Verdict, Paul Newman never conformed to type. The versatile actor spent decades as a movie star, auto racer, and part-time salad dressing pitchman. In honor of what would have been Newman’s 95th birthday on January 26, 2020, take a look at some lesser-known details of the performer’s life and career.

1. Paul Newman originally wanted to be a football player.

Born in Cleveland and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Paul Newman was the offspring of Arthur, a sporting goods store owner, and Teresa, whose love of theater eventually proved contagious. But Newman originally had his sights set on a sports career. He played football in high school and college before enlisting in the U.S. Navy Air Corps, where he served as a radio operator (as he was ineligible to be a pilot due to being colorblind).

When Newman returned home in 1946, he attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio on a football scholarship. After getting arrested for fighting and being kicked off the team, Newman decided to shift his major to theater. He eventually wound up in summer stock and then the Yale School of Drama before heading off to be a full-time actor in New York.

2. Paul Newman thought his first film was the worst movie ever made.

After stints on stage and in television, including roles in Playhouse 90, Newman was offered the starring role in 1954’s The Silver Chalice, about a Greek slave who crafts the cup used during the Last Supper. While the $1000 weekly salary was welcome, the film was not. Newman later asked friends to sit through it while drubbing it as the worst film ever made. He had better luck two years later when he played boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). In 1958, Newman earned his first of 10 Academy Award nominations for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

3. Paul Newman was often mistaken for Marlon Brando.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward standing outdoors, circa 1962
Paul Newman and wife Joanne Woodward, circa 1962.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Early in their respective careers, Newman was regularly approached by people who thought he was Marlon Brando. Rather than correct them, he would oblige their request for an autograph by signing, “Best Wishes, Marlon Brando.”

4. Paul Newman frequently enjoyed faking his own death.

Newman, who was described by most who knew him as an affable man, had a mischievous streak that often manifested in practical jokes on his directors. A frequent target was George Roy Hill, who directed Newman in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1973’s The Sting, and 1977’s Slap Shot. Newman cut Hill’s desk and car in half during filming of the first two films. While making Slap Shot, he crawled behind the wheel of a wrecked car and pretended he had been in an accident, much to Hill’s horror.

While making 1960’s Exodus, Newman pranked director Otto Preminger by tossing a dummy off a building knowing Preminger would think it was him: Preminger collapsed in shock. He repeated the joke during shooting of 1973’s The MacKintosh Man, tossing another dummy off a 60-foot building in front of director John Huston.

5. A movie introduced Paul Newman to racing.

It was starring in the 1969 racing film Winning that led Newman down a path of competitive racing in his private life. In 1972, Newman started driving on an amateur level before winning his first professional race in 1982. At age 70, he was part of the winning team in the 1995 Daytona 24-Hours sports car endurance race and continued to drive through 2005. The hobby was one of the few things that could get Newman, who was notoriously press-shy, to open up to media. “I’ll always talk about racing because the people are interesting and fun, the sport is a lot more exciting than anything else I do, and nobody cares that I’m an actor,” Newman said. “I wish I could spend all my time at the racetrack.”

6. Richard Nixon considered Paul Newman an enemy.

Actor Paul Newman is pictured in Venice, Italy in 1963
Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images

President Richard Nixon, who was no stranger to controversy, liked to keep tabs on people he considered volatile and in opposition to his politics. While that normally included political figures, his “enemies list” also included Newman. The actor earned the honor by supporting 1968 presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey and being an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Oddly, Newman and Nixon had some personal history: Both men shared use of a Jaguar on loan from an automobile dealer. When Newman learned that Nixon was driving the car during part of the week, he left a note saying Nixon should find no trouble operating a car with a “tricky clutch,” a nod to Nixon’s “Tricky Dick” nickname. When Nixon gathered his list of rivals in 1971, Newman’s name was on it. The actor later got a copy and had it framed.

7. Martha Stewart helped put Paul Newman’s salad dressing on the map.

Today it's not uncommon for major actors to lend their images to food and alcoholic beverages. In the early 1980s, it was unusual, though Newman wasn’t looking to make history—only salad dressing. The actor enjoyed mixing an oil and vinegar blend and giving it out to friends and family around the holidays. With friend A.E. Hotchner, Newman bottled a batch and dispensed it over the 1980 Christmas season. Martha Stewart, who was then a caterer, was living in Newman's neighborhood at the time and reported a blind taste test was in favor of the dressing. Newman agreed to put his face on the bottle and call it Newman’s Own. The dressing and the foods to come—including spaghetti sauce—generated profits that Newman donated entirely to charity. As of 2015, the company has delivered an estimated $430 million to charitable causes.

8. Paul Newman once offered part of his salary to a co-star.

While making the 1998 film Twilight with Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon, Newman was surprised to discover that both he and Hackman were making considerably more than Sarandon, despite all three receiving equal billing. Sarandon told the BBC in 2018 that Newman then offered to give up a portion of his salary to make things equitable.

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