In 1986, Olivia Hussey met producers for the film Roxanne (1987), since they were interested in casting her for the title role. Roxanne co-star Steve Martin met her and said "Oh my God, Olivia, you were in one of my all time favorite films." Thinking it was Romeo and Juliet (1968), Olivia was surprised to find out it was actually Black Christmas (1974). Martin claimed he had seen it around 27 times.
The film is regarded as being one of the first slasher films (with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), A Bay of Blood (1971), Psycho (1960), and Peeping Tom (1960) preceding this film). It set the layout for films such as John CarpenterHalloween (1978). However, director Bob Clark considered it to be more of a psychological horror film than a slasher film.
According to director Bob Clark, there were three voices used for the frightening phone calls, including actor Nick Mancuso, an unnamed actress, and himself. During a FanExpo panel in 2014 Nick Mancuso said that the actress was probably Ann Sweeny though he was not entirely sure as the film came out 40 years prior and could not remember properly.
According to director Bob Clark the original script for the film featured murder scenes that were more graphic. Clark however felt that it would be more effective if the murders were toned down and made more subtle on screen. Writer Roy Moore liked the idea as well.
The original title of the films script was "Stop Me". It was director Bob Clark who came up with the title "Black Christmas" saying that he liked the irony of something dark occurring during such a festive holiday.
The snow seen outside of the sorority house was actually fake, because there had been surprisingly little snow fall during the filming. A foam material that was provided by the local fire department was used for snow on the lawn and according to cinematographer Albert J. Dunk the substance actually caused the grass on the lawn to grow greener than ever the following spring.
Director Clark claims that he re-wrote half of Roy Moore's script, adding some humor into the film. Moore was also against the idea of never seeing the killer however when he saw the finished film, he was very pleased with it.
The film had only moderate box office success and negative critical reception when originally released, however the film went on to have a large cult following. It has since received a critical reevaluation and is now considered a classic.
Reportedly, writer Roy Moore took inspiration for the story from an actual series of murders that took place in Montreal, Quebec around the Christmas season along with the urban legend "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs".
During an interview with director Bob Clark, Clark said Olivia Hussey's decision to take the role of Jess was based upon advice given to her by a psychic. According to Clark, Hussey said her psychic believed that the film would be successful and a wise career choice for her. She took the role.
Composer Carl Zittrer said in an interview that he created the bizarre music score for the film by tying forks, combs, and knives to the strings of his piano so the sound would warp as he struck the keys. Zittrer also said he would distort the sound further by recording audio tape while putting pressure on the reels of the machine to make it turn slower.
The role of Lieutenant Fuller was originally supposed to be played by Edmond O'Brien, but due to failing health from Alzheimer's he had to be replaced. John Saxon (who was originally considered for the role) was brought in at the last minute when a space in his schedule opened up.
Despite its ominous themes and plot, Olivia Hussey reassured that the set was a very light and happy place between takes stating everyone got along with each other very well. She did however admit that Margot Kidder was rather distant from cast/crew during the filming.
The audio for the demented phones calls was edited into the film during post-production. While shooting the footage for the phone call scenes the actresses were actually just reacting to threatening dialog being spoken from director Bob Clark from off-camera.
Cinematographer Albert J. Dunk created Billy's POV shots by rigging up a camera harness that would mount the camera on his shoulder as he walked about the house and climbed the trellis and attic ladder himself.
Upon initial release in the US the films title was changed to "Silent Night, Evil Night" because the American distributor feared the title "Black Christmas" might cause the film to be mistaken for a 'blaxploitation' flick. However the film didn't do well under the new title and it was changed back to the original "Black Christmas" title, under which it was a success.
Minimal vulgarity from the phone calls were initially scripted, director Bob Clark read out rather tame dialogue for the actors to react to. However stronger coarse language was later looped in post-production for a stronger reaction.
This film holds the honor of being the first seasonal slasher film (a horror movie taking place during a holiday) in horror movie history and would later be followed by Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980), Mother's Day (1980), Graduation Day (1981), My Bloody Valentine (1981), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) which is another Christmas horror movie, and April Fool's Day (1986).
During the conversation between Phyllis, Mr. Harrison, Barb, and Mrs. MacHenry at the dinner table, Barb in a drunken state talks about a turtle that can have sex for three days straight. The species of turtle that can do this is the sea turtle.
Olivia Hussey was excited to be in the film as she had never done a horror movie before in her career (even though she does not watch because they scare her too much) and this would have been her first film since giving birth to her son. She had also never been to Canada before prior to this film's production.
None of the actors portraying teenagers in the film were actually in their teens. In fact the oldest actor to portray a college student was Keir Dullea who was 38 years old at the time. Lynne Griffin and Olivia Hussey were the youngest actors on set being 22 and 23 respectively.
The film managed to gross $4,053,000 on a relatively small budget of $620,000 at the box office. By today's standards those numbers would be a $21 million dollar gross on a $3 million dollar budget which would mean that the film grossed 7 times it's budget turning in a profit.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
After seeing the ending of the film, studio executives asked director Bob Clark to change the ending. The proposed idea was to have the cops leaving Jess alone with Chris, Claire's boyfriend. She wakes up and he says, "Agnes, don't tell them what we did." Then he kills her. However, Clark refused and insisted that the ending be ambiguous.
Bob Clark stated in an interview that he couldn't recall whose eye was used for that infamous shock scene where Jess sees "Billy" staring at her from behind the door. It was possibly Albert J. Dunk, the camera operator who played Billy during some of the murder scenes, but it has never been confirmed just whose staring eye has given countless viewers nightmares for all these years.
Billy" is mainly embodied by camera operator Albert J. Dunk, who not only did the POV shots from the killer's perspective, but also played him during a few of the murders. It was his hands that were seen by the audience. Nick Mancuso, the main voice actor as "Billy", was not on set. Both director Bob Clark and Keir Dullea confirmed that Dullea at no point contributed to "Billy".
Actress Lynne Griffin revealed that for the scenes where she's wrapped in the plastic bag she would rip a hole in the bag, stuffing the opening into her open mouth and poke nose holes in the bag with a pencil so she could breathe during filming. Being a swimmer also helped with holding her breath in the bag.
Regarded among horror fans as the first film to come up with the popular convention of a killer calling from inside the house. However, it was preceded a year earlier by The Severed Arm (1973), in which a radio announcer is called repeatedly by the killer who the operator soon discovers is inside the studio on another phone, and then by the TV movie Mousey (1974), which featured star Kirk Douglas terrorizing ex-wife (Jean Seberg) with calls that the police eventually trace to a room upstairs (dialogue between the police inspector and Seberg is almost identical to that between Jess and Sgt Nash in this film). Both likely set the precedent for this convention popularized by Black Christmas (1974).
There is a purpose for the eerie ringing telephone as the closing crawl appears. This indicates that the main heroine will die. However, the heroine's death is left open to personal interpretation by each member of the audience. The ending of the film forces people to think independently.
Body Count: 7 - Clare Harrison, Mrs. MacHenry, unseen character Janice, Barbara Coard, Phyllis Carlson, Officer Jennings, and Peter Smythe. At the end of the film, Clare and Mrs. Mac's bodies are still undiscovered and Jessica's fate is left unknown. Peter was the only victim in the film that was not murdered by Billy.
There were several attempts over the years to produce a sequel for the film. Halloween (1978) was originally conceived as a sequel to this film by John Carpenter, who was a fan of this film, before the project became a standalone film. After the failure of the remake Bob Clark began work on the sequel before he tragically passed away on 2007. In all these attempts Olivia Hussey was to reprise her roles of Jess.
For the scene where Claude the cat jumps on Clare's corpse and starts licking the bag over her head, Lynne Griffin's face had to be sprayed with catnip so that the cat would jump on top of her as it had refused to do so otherwise.
The convention of a killer calling from inside the house that was utilized in this film would serve as inspiration for the legendary opening 20 minutes of When a Stranger Calls (1979) which would only come out 5 years later. Both films are inspired by the urban legend "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs".
While writing the script, Roy Moore and Bob Clark could not decide whether or not to have Jessica killed off or let her live and so they decided to write two alternate endings to the film, one where she dies and one where she survives. Neither ending was ever filmed and so they decided to leave the ending and Jessica's fate ambiguous and stuck to this ending despite interference with the studio.