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)

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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