Nearly a decade before he made A Christmas Story, director Bob Clark made another holiday classic of a different color: 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. Black Christmas 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. A psychic convinced Olivia Hussey to star in the movie.
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 replied 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. Some of the creepy phone calls were recorded with the actor standing on his head.
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.
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.
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. It has since inspired a novelization, two remakes (one in 2006, the other in 2019), and It’s Me, Billy: A Black Christmas Fan Film, a crowdfunded short intended to act as a sequel, which was released in 2021.
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.”
The 12 Days of Black Christmas (2006)
On Screen!: Black Christmas (2005)
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A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.