A disoriented person climbs up into the attic of a sorority house in the fictional town of Bedford while the occupants hold a Christmas party. At the party, Jess receives an obscene phone call from “The Moaner”, a man who has been calling the house. Jess allows her sorority sisters Barb Coard, Phyllis “Phyl” Carlson, Clare Harrison, and several other girls to listen in on the call. Barb provokes the caller, who responds by telling the girls that he is going to kill them and then hanging up the phone; Barb and Clare argue over the potential threat posed by the caller. Upstairs, Clare begins to pack and while she investigates a noise, she is suffocated with plastic wrapping by the unseen person before placing her body in a rocking chair inside the attic.
The next day, Clare’s father arrives to bring her home for the holidays. The Housemother Mrs. Mac and the other girls are taken off guard, believing that Clare left the night before. Meanwhile, Jess meets with her boyfriend Peter Smythe, a neurotic aspiring pianist, to inform him that she is pregnant and wants to have an abortion; Peter becomes agitated and urges her to reconsider, but she refuses. Elsewhere, Mr. Harrison, Barb, and Phyl go to the police to report Clare’s disappearance while Jess informs Clare’s boyfriend Chris about the situation. After discussing the case with Lt. Kenneth Fuller, the group learns that a local mother Mrs. Quaife has reported her daughter Janice missing as well.
That evening, Mr. Harrison, Chris, and the sorority sisters join a search party for Janice and Clare. Back at the house, Mrs. Mac is murdered by the unseen assailant with a hook dragging her into the attic. Upon returning home after the search party finds Janice’s dead body, Jess receives another obscene call and reports it to the police. She is startled by Peter, who sneaked into the house to confront Jess about her planned abortion; the two argue and he leaves upset. Lt. Fuller then arrives and arranges for the sorority house’s phone to be bugged in order to trace the origin of the obscene phone calls.
While Christmas carolers visit the house to sing, the killer takes this opportunity to sneak into Barb’s room and stabs her to death with a glass unicorn head as her screams get drowned out from the singing. Afterwards, Jess receives another obscene call that quotes part of the argument she had with Peter.
Phyl goes upstairs into Barb’s room to check on her, and she is murdered off-screen. While the assailant phones Jess again, she keeps him on the line long enough for the police to trace the call. Sergeant Nash contacts Jess to inform her that the calls are coming from inside the sorority house, and orders her to leave the place immediately. Worried about Barb and Phyl’s whereabouts, she arms herself with a fireplace poker and goes upstairs where she discovers both of them dead. The assailant then chases Jess through the house, and she finally barricades herself in the cellar. Peter reappears outside a basement window, telling her he heard screaming. Jess, assuming he is the killer, bludgeons him to death out of panic when he enters to approach her.
Lt. Fuller and the police arrive and find a fatigued Jess in the basement with Peter’s corpse. Later, she is sedated into bed and the officers discuss the case; they also believe Peter is the killer, although they are puzzled about the absences of Clare’s and Mrs. Mac’s bodies. The police then leave Jess alone to sleep while a sole officer waits outside for a forensics team to arrive. After everyone has left, the assailant – obviously not Peter – whispers “Agnes, it’s me, Billy,” before Jess’s phone begins to ring, leaving her fate, and the killer’s identity, unknown.
Bob Clark decided to relocate to Canada. Obtaining a script titled Stop Me! by screenwriter Roy Moore (a previous version of it was called The Babysitter and told of a girl menaced by a killer who made phone calls to her from within the house), Clark rewrote portions of the screenplay – apparently toning down some of the more violent elements. BLACK CHRISTMAS is perhaps Clark’s most skillful work as a director during this period, combining the biggest laughs and some of the creepiest horror yet amid a realistically established college town atmosphere. Clark has always considered casting to be one of his most meticulous duties, often searching out classically trained actors or those with serious stage experience. “Sheer believability is my first criterion in casting. You are continually dealing with the importance of credibility in a horror film. BLACK CHRISTMAS features Olivia Hussey (Zefferelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET), Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, SCTV’s Andrea Martin (in a rare non-comedy role. Mrs. Mack (Marrianne Waldman) the hilarious alky house mother who hides booze in toilets, was originally going to be played by Bette Davis, and Edmond O’ Brien was replaced in the police chief part by scare film perennial John Saxon.
So what possessed you to make a horror film set at Christmastime?
CLARK: Well, I thought there was an interesting contrast with Christmas. I do actually enjoy the holiday. There is sadness; there are more suicides at Christmas than any other time, but nonetheless, there is a genuine joy despite all the commercialism. A lot of heart is expressed at that time, and it seemed natural: Why not contrast that with something evil?
Were any investors or studios turned off by the idea of sacrilege setting a horror film during the holidays?
CLARK: No, not at all. This was a Canadian production entirely shot in Toronto. There wasn’t any sacrilege or anything really Christmas-y that we used to evoke horror. I was careful not to do that; this [situation] was just something that was going on and it happened to be the week before Christmas. That’s all.
Was Black Christmas a big jump for you?
CLARK: Black Christmas was a big jump in sophistication, yes. And money, we made that one for $450,000 in Toronto.
Did you have a hand in the script?
CLARK: Yes. I didn’t take credit but I actually did write it. People who know me recognize my humor in that film. Margot Kidder’s character makes a joke about tortoises making love for three days. That’s my type of humor.
Do you feel the film needed its humor to balance the horror?
CLARK: For human beings on almost all levels, humor is a significant part of our lives. Even in some of the most gruesome moments. We’re talking about college students, boys and girls, and one of my main objectives was to show how sexual girls were, how often they used the “f” word, because people simply hadn’t done it yet; they were still doing Beach Blanket Bikini. Margot Kidder was outrageously funny and clever, and being funny is a natural thing for young people.
It was pretty daring that you dealt with the abortion issue too. Have you always sought to break taboos?
CLARK: Yes. I was pretty determined to do that. We were in—and still are in—an age where high school and college young people are depicted [on screen] in a way that has nothing to do with the way they really are. Even with Children, I was determined to break the mold. Black Christmas was the first opportunity to show a college milieu and have the characters act like real people. They didn’t want me to have (Olivia Hussey) pregnant; I added that to the script. Worst thing I did was have Santa Claus say, “Oh, f**k.” I wouldn’t do that today. That word wasn’t used in 1974. When I did Porky’s, I had 100 uses of the “f,” the “c,” those words, and they didn’t interfere with me at all.
SCRIPT AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
Realizing his script was not particularly strong in character development, Clark chose actors who easily fit their roles, either in reality or public perception. Keir Dullea, who already had a number of emotionally disturbed roles under his cinematic belt, was picked to play Peter, Hussey’s romantic interest and prime suspect number one.
“It was very much a stereotypical Keir Dullea role,” says the good natured star of 2001 from his Connecticut home. “In movies, much more than in theater, I got typecast very early as an uptight, intense, edgy individual. While I was not always a murderer, it was one step away from being disturbed in Bunny Lake is Missing or David & Lisa to Black Christmas. Most people don’t know this, but in theater I had done a lot of comedy.
Saxon, busy in films since the mid-’50s, has made a career out of playing no-nonsense policemen in movies most of his career. “At the end of shooting, Bob tallied up how much film he had wasted on each actor. And my ratio of takes to what he used was something like I 5 to 1. Nobody went broke on me.
Yet it was Edmond O’Brien, the charismatic star of the original D.O.A. whose busy career stretched back to the 30s, who was originally set to appear as Lt. Fuller. “It’s one of the saddest moments of my life, Clark sighs, remembering his rendezvous with the then-59-year-old actor. “I loved him, and worked hard to get him for the movie. Edmond came up to do the role and we went to the hotel room to get him, and we sat and watched this poor man ramble and try to put his coat on for 45 minutes. He kept telling us how he hadn’t worked in a long while and how he was so excited to be working again. I might have been inclined to use him, but we were going to be filming in 10- to 20-below-zero weather, and shooting was less than a week away. I knew it wouldn’t work. So I finally called his agent and they suggested John. It was very, very sad.
“I remember flying up to Toronto, Saxon recalls, “arriving at midnight, being driven to the set and doing a scene right then and there. I don’t remember if I had read the script at that point.” O’Brien would appear in just one other film (John Frankenheimer’s 99 and 44/i00% Dead) before passing away in 1985 from the Alzheimer’s disease that had plagued him since the early 70s.
Canadian Kidder, already visible as the feisty, down-to-earth lead in films like Gaily, Gaily and Brian De Palma’s Sisters, was picked to play the tough-talking, hard-drinking Barb. While Hussey and Martin were unavailable to be interviewed due to scheduling Conflicts, Kidder, at the time this piece was written, was under private care after a well-publicized incident in which she was found hiding in a suburban LA backyard in a “disoriented state.” Both Saxon and Clark remember Kidder as a major part of what made Black Christmas a memorable production.
Keir Dullea and I got along well, and would later become good friends, studying yoga together almost every day, Saxon recalls. “Olivia Hussey was Sweet and very charming: she seemed so gentle and sensitive. But Margot was the most fascinating to me then and especially with what we all know now. I remember her as being very bold in her personality using a lot of risqué, suggestive language. Like she was making some kind of feminist statement. She was really something, and she definitely interested me a lot. I was married at the time, so of course nothing came of it,” he laughs.
“I love Margot,” says Clark, “She’s an absolute original. A bit of a loose cannon, a bit of a wild child, but always worked hard, always good spirited. I can’t say that knowing her, the recent events completely shocked me, but if she gets the proper care she can get back on track.
Waldman, a well-known Canadian stage actress who was practically unknown in the U.S., is easily one of the film’s highlights in her role as housemother Mrs. Mack. But she, too was not the first choice for her role. “We were talking to Bette Davis about doing the Mrs. Mack part, and we really thought she was going to say yes, but she never did,” Clark recalls. “Knowing what we know now, I think we were really lucky she didn’t. By all accounts, she could have easily made my life very miserable for the length of the shoot.”
You starred in three horror films that were recently remade. What are your memories of making Black Christmas, Sisters and The Amityville Horror?
MARGOT KIDDER: They were very different; Black Christmas was a low budget film with a delightful director Bob Clark and we were all kids without much money and it was a much looser, goofier set it was all like we were away from home so it was like a sorority club in that respect and we all had fun like young kids do.
Your character Barb in Black Christmas is so loose and fun. Was that a role you especially enjoyed letting go in?
KIDDER: Well, sure, but what character would you compare Barb to? I mean, you really can’t compare the parts you do. It would be like comparing children or lovers; they’re all different, and acting is always a different experience. That’s the beauty of doing movies; you just never know what the next one will be like.
As with his subsequent Jack the Ripper film Murder By Decree, all the humor in the film, particularly concerning Kidders dialogue and Mrs. Mack (Marion Waldman) the alcoholic house mother character, was Clark’s work. Long before his success with Porky’s, the director showed his knack for raunchy comedy: Sneaking a swig from some booze she has hidden in a toilet tank, Mrs. Mack mumbles, “These broads would f**k the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they could get on top of it”; the scene where she shows a man his missing daughter’s room, only to have to hide some X-rated posters from the prudish father, is a genuine laugh riot. “Mrs. Mack was based on my dear Aunt Mabel,” Clark chuckles. “Except she used to hide wine bottles around the house, not whiskey.*
Coming from a theater background, Clark has always separated himself from his horror peers by being primarily an actor’s director. Even for his earliest works, he sought out actors who were classically trained or had serious stage experience. “Sheer believability is my first criterion in casting,” he explains. “You’re continually dealing with the importance of credibility in a horror film. Comedy, realistic character comedy, needs very skilled people to not make it seem corny and burlesque. Horror and comedy are very much alike in that way. You’re asking people to accept an outrageous situation as real. Black Christmas was the first film where I could cast on the basis of aesthetic need as opposed to who I could get for the money.”
Clark added the humor not to make the film a comedy, but to heighten its impact as a thriller. “If we had played it straight, without adding lighter touches to give some humanity to the characters, it wouldn’t have worked for me,” he says. “It would’ve been much too grim. Adding humor makes it more realistic. Not everything has to be exposition to advance the plot. That’s what makes many horror and sci-fi movies often so unreal that’s not the way life is! It also encourages an audience to sympathize with the characters.”
Can you tell me how you were cast in Black Christmas?
ART HINDLE: It was very simply through the audition process. I got called in and met Bob Clark and read for him, as you usually do. I read a couple of scenes out of the movie and Bob cast me. Actually, the scenes I read were those of the character of Peter, who is played by Keir Dullea. And I had a chance to work with Olivia Hussey for a couple of weeks, rehearsing the scenes as Peter, because Keir Duella was late or couldn’t come to the early part of the shoot. I got the opportunity to watch Bob in action at all the various disciplines in filmmaking. Camera, sound, grips, gaffers, wardrobe—he was on top of everything. He probably could have been any one of those people, done any one of those jobs.
Why didn’t you actually play the role of Peter?
HINDLE: At that point, Bob had actually cast Keir as Peter. The money people wanted a big name, and Keir had one from doing 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, Bob said to me that, had I read for the role before Keir Dullea did, he probably would have cast me as Peter. And after that, I worked with him on quite a few films, and he just automatically cast in me in his movies. We did Porky’s, and I did a cameo for Porky’s II. We became friends and used to go out golfing together.
What was it like working with him?
HINDLE: I understood that when I was rehearsing with Olivia; a sound guy or the cinematographer would come in and talk with Bob about something, and [Bob] would in fact, at times, seem to know more about their craft than they did. I remember one instance when the sound guy wanted to do something about the children’s choir at the door and said, “Well, I don’t think I can do that.” And Bob just kind of walked him through the scene and told him how he could do it.
Margot Kidder is a blast in Black Christmas.
HINDLE: Yeah, there’s an example of a character you love through humor. Margot was actually the catalyst for my moving to LA. She was surprised to find that I was local, and asked if I was getting much work here. I told her no, they were looking to cast the mechanic next door and not the boy next door, and she told me that in LA I’d be working all the time. My girlfriend at the time wanted to go, so we saved our money, got a Drive away car and down we went. Originally, I wanted to stay in Canada, but the government brought in a policy where movies had to have 65 percent Canadian content, but the filmmakers saw it as 35 percent foreign, so they would cast name U.S. actors for that 35 percent, relegating leading Canadian actors like myself to supporting roles. I figured that I might as well work in America at that point.
Any anecdotes about working on the film?
HINDLE: [For the hockey practice scene], Bob originally had me going up and down being one of the forward guys, and I said to Bob, “It would be a lot more fun if you made me a goaltender.” So we were doing a shooting drill and Olivia was trying to get my attention while they were shooting at me. And Bob asked them not to shoot at my head – and I was wearing that colorful mask – and of course, that’s exactly what they were doing, shooting at my face.
Black Christmas was shot in and around Toronto during a bitter subzero winter early in 1974 over an eight-week schedule. “I don’t remember a heck of a lot,” laughs Dullea. “A lot was going on at the time, and I remember that they scheduled it so all of my part of the film could be shot in a week. This way they didn’t need to pay me more than they had to. I never met Margot, I barely met John, but with the magic of film it looks like I’m a much bigger part of the story.”
“It was very, very cold during the shoot, and we were under limitations from the budget, but otherwise it was a joyful production,” Clark recalls. “The personalities involved in making it were all just precious.
Black Christmas has some really beautiful cinematography that sort of makes it a bit classier. Especially the way the genre has gone with “The more blood and more violence, the better.” I liked [the film) because there were some unusual deaths – especially mine. I don’t know if anyone else has ever been killed with a dry cleaning bag. They use it on all the posters. But it was unusual for that time, because no one had really done that sort of antagonist POV camera [work]. And there’s very little blood. You see, that to me is scary – the psychological stuff. – Lynne Griffin (Clare Harrison)
Clark’s skill at bringing the best out of a cast is once again apparent, but his ability to choreograph shocks is just as evident. When Barb is murdered with the glass unicorn, Clark takes a ludicrous concept and with delicate montage, use of slow-motion and crosscutting with a group of caroling children, the result is undeniably eerie. The film boasts rich cinematography (courtesy of Reginald Morris) and excellent use of sound and music.
In fact, with the exception of Clare’s death and one other murder, most of the violence in Black Christmas occurs off-screen. The film’s eerie atmosphere is achieved through shots of darkened, shadow-filled hallways. The film’s subjective camerawork – showing the action from the killer’s point of view – would seemingly influence later slasher films.
Black Christmas came out in 1974 and the Steadicam wasn’t introduced until 1976…so how did you film those scenes from the killer’s point of view, especially the beginning scene where he is climbing up the trellis and entering the attic window, with both his arms and legs in frame?
CLARK: Basically Bert Dunk, the camera operator, designed a camera rig that attached to his head! No one had ever done that before… those are his hands climbing with the small camera. The moving shots when we were on the ground we just standard handheld shots. But the climbing ones were the unique style camera, when he looked up the camera looked up.
It was something he created specifically for the movie?
CLARK: Yes, exactly.
BLACK CHRISTMAS Documentary
MUSIC AND “TELEPHONE CALLS”
Frequent Clark Composer Carl Zittrer’s trendsetting dissonant plucked piano strings underscore the visual shocks, and layered music, background Voices and sound FX help add a nervy edge to the proceedings. Carl Zittrer’s unusual, discordant score (largely created by hanging forks and other utensils from the tuning pegs of an upright piano); sound effects such as the ticking of a clock; and of course, Billy’s psychotic, rage-filled phone calls which go way beyond typical guttural threats and profanity they are positively bone-chilling.
The phone calls were a very substantial character in the piece, so I knew they had to be good,” Clark recalls. “I wanted them to Sound almost supernatural. We were in the studio on and off for two weeks, with many people contributing, including me, Nick (Nightwing) Mancuso and a few women, actually. None of them were Keir Dullea, we wouldn’t cheat that way.” As far as the “caller-is-in-the house” gimmick later copped famously for When a Stranger Calls is concerned, it appears both films drew inspiration from the same campfire tale/urban myth. “From what I remember, Roy Moore told me he had read that it had really happened in the newspaper somewhere,” says the director. “But outside of that, his details were shaky and it was very much unverified.”
What was it like working with him?
CARL ZITTRER: Well, I had known Bob since high school, and worked on some movies earlier than Black Christmas and we kind of grew up together in the business,
The score is very unusual. Carl, did you encounter any problems composing it?
ZITTRER: Well, I would say that the entire thing was a problem. And the problem was how to integrate the sound effects with the music – how to make music into the sound effects. I had first been impressed by that technique from a movie with music that was composed by Toru Takemitsu. And that movie was Kwaidan. That’s where Töru used sound effects as music and music as sound effects. There was no division or little division, and that inspired me. And I wanted to try and at least honor that technique in Black Christmas. And when I say honor, I’m not going to imply that I did 1/15th as well as Tõru Takemitsu did, but he showed me the way.
Some of the sounds were – this was in the day, as everybody here will know, before samplers, before synthesizers, so much of these sounds came from a piano that I destroyed. I scraped it with combs and brushes and forks, and recorded it as many ways as I could think of — reversed it, put it through reverb, sent it to a recording studio, had other things done to it — that any of it survived all that mangling is really quite surprising. But they were mostly concrete sounds that you find anywhere, and then, we manipulated them. And much of it was voices, sometimes — …vocals sung into the piano to excite the strings of the piano, recorded backwards — anything you could think of, we did to the sound.
What is it about Black Christmas that sets it apart from other slasher or horror films?
ZITTRER: It was the Canadian film industry that actually gave us more freedom to play with techniques than we would have had in the United States. Because, one, the Canadian film industry was not as union-bound. And two, because it was younger; it didn’t hold us up, with people saying, “Well, you have to do it that way, because that’s the way we always did it.” So it was much freer, and we were able to do experimental things, [and] some things in Black Christmas were clearly experimental. And when we went into the mix with Black Christmas, we asked the mixer to try this and try that and “Let’s hear it through reverb,” and decide what we were going to do. I don’t think we would have been able to get away with that in California, because it would have cost too much.
Whose idea was it for you to do some of the killer’s phone-call voiceovers?
CLARK: That was me. I had a good range in my voice, so I popped in with a few. Nick Mancuso did most of the voice, and there were about five of us. There’s one voice that comes over the phone and says, “I’m going to kill you” to Margot Kidder that really sounds like Keir Dullea. I don’t know why I let that go, because it wasn’t him. Keir didn’t do any of the voices.
The fact that the voice changes and the killer isn’t caught at the end were you hinting that it might be a supernatural presence?
CLARK: I wasn’t, no. I was telling you he hadn’t been caught yet and he was upstairs. Most people liked the twist, but “she deserves better.” And when Warner Bros. bought the film, they wanted to change the ending and not have the phone call, but they respected my wishes, and most people supported that ambiguity.
Released in October 74 in Canada, the film was beset by a number of problems that delayed its U.S. release for almost a full year. “It did very well in Canada, but it got fumbled in the States,” says Saxon. “Warner Bros. had the U.S. rights and they decided that Black Christmas was a bad title, that people would think it was a blaxploitation movie about Santa Claus. So they changed the title to Stranger in the House and altered the ad campaign. And it laid an egg. Bob had to go down there and make an appeal to them before they would change it and release it properly, and sure enough, it did very well.”
Reissued as Black Christmas, first as a limited release in the summer of 75 and then nationwide in the fall, the film played to respectable box office but mostly negative reviews. In a marked difference from current critical and fan praise, in 1975 The New York Times called it “pointless” and “witless,” while Variety deemed it a “foul-mouthed, bloody, senseless kill for kicks feature that exploits unnecessary violence,” adding that “Black Christmas does no one connected with it proud.”
Most classic horror movies have one thing in common – besides the gratuitous nudity, superfluous decapitations and thumping score – the kids/victims in them are just stupid. Bob Clark, director of the classic 1974 scarefest “Black Christmas”, believes the reason his film holds up so well – some thirty years later – is because he implanted an IQ in each of his key characters’ noggins. They, unlike the screaming vixens and horrified hunks of most other horror films at the time, “were college students”.
Though it didn’t strike much heat when it was released initially at theaters, Clark’s “Christmas” – a genuinely scary flick about a sorority house that’s terrorized by a stranger who makes frightening phone calls and then murders the sorority sisters during Christmas break – is now considered many blood-buff’s favorite film, and renowned as a bona-fide cult classic.
The film, which was a smash on video, has a “lot of truth and conviction in it”, says Clark, “I think we were the first movie to get away from beach-blanket bikini treatment of college people – our college people acted like college adults. I think it’s just a good chiller and a very well acted film. It just caught on. At the tribute, we had like 400 people that they had to turn away and do a second screening for! – Turns out, it’s a lot of people’s favorite film”.
It’s ironic that the director of Black Christmas also made A Christmas Story.
CLARK: Yeah, people said, “OK, you made up for it.” I thought it’d be ironic, that I would have that contrast. I’d met [Christmas Story source author] Jean Shepherd in 1968, 14 years before I got to make the movie. It was actually on the docket before I’d even got Black Christmas. Christmas Story is not a syrupy-sweet movie by any means. It’s got a lot of bite to it, but it is interesting to have done those two.
Black Christmas is a very nasty film. You also made a comedy version of A Christmas Carol. Do you like Christmas?
CLARK: Oh yes, I could never do one of those killer Santa movies. That’s very mean to kids. The thing that appealed to me about the holiday in Black Christmas was the element of isolation. Everyone in the film is going one place or another. No one knows where the other person is or should be. There’s all this bustling going on outside the house. Yet inside, the house is very claustrophobic.
Black Christmas has a lot of elements used in slasher films a couple of years later. There’s a sorority house, shots from the killer’s point-of-view, the strong female lead, the killer phoning from inside the house. Do you think your film influenced future films?
CLARK: Clearly it does… It’s immodest of me to say, but it had an influence, yes. Tarantino screened it at home over Christmas and said it was his favorite movie. I’ve had 20 people who’ve said, “Oh, God, you did one of my favorite movies.” And I would always say, “Oh, Christmas Story,” and they’d say, “No, no, the other one, Black Christmas. ” Steve Martin once told Olivia that Black Christmas is his favorite movie! And it is a very good film; it dates very well. It was a little ahead of its time, and it was played on a realistic, low-key level.
Some critics accuse Black Christmas and other slasher films of being misogynistic and anti-feminist.
CLARK: That’s the other one that angers me. That’s an outrageous lie. Yes, the young women are the ones who are killed, but there’s not one of them without real character, real dignity; nobody is a slut. Margot Kidder’s role is borderline alcoholic, but she’s got plenty of personality, plenty of spunk. I like the hell out of her. Olivia is a very strong, powerful heroine. Unless you want to pick on Mrs. Mack, and you’re crazy if you do, ’cause she’s fantastic too, and she’s got balls bigger than whoever has big balls! That (criticism) is a kneejerk cliché, automatic-pilot comment. I had the same questions on Murder by Decree, about killing women, so I kept it off camera and non-graphic. The two victims are both treated with dignity.
Did you ever think of changing the ending?
CLARK: Warner Brothers was ferociously opposed to the ending. And commercially, I think they were right.
What did they want to change? The fact that the killer remains alive and unknown? Or that the lead character is left to die?
CLARK: Both. But I think having the killer living on and remaining unknown is right. What audiences objected to was leaving this strong female character in dire jeopardy, having her survive everything and then leaving her alone and asleep in the house with the killer. I mean, she’s going to die. That bothered people. I knew audiences would be upset, but maybe that’s why the film is so effective.
Black Christmas (1974) Pressbook
“I’m proud of my work in Black Christmas,” says Dullea. “There are only a few films in which I feel bad about my performance or personally hate. One is De Sade [a 1969 Roger Corman/Richard Matheson/AIP fiasco), which was so bad the critic for the New York Daily News sat behind me at the premiere and described me in her review sinking down in my seat out of view and she was right! The other one was a film called
Welcome to Blood City, with Jack Palance and Samantha Eggar, which hopefully will remain in the ashcan of history. I hated the director (Peter Sasdy); it was just a terrible film. And there are a couple of Italian movies I did which nobody probably even knows about.”
Happy to avoid being typecast as a horror director, Clark credits his nimble use of comedy in his early features with his subsequent ability to pursue other projects. He has not, however, turned his back on the genre. Clark punctuates his Black Christmas comments with discussion of his early horror career, with stops along the way to give discourse on the nature of film as art, offer his criticism of recent genre works like Seven and Independence Day and explain how Dustin Hoffman, Sydney Pollack and famed playwright Arthur Miller are all big fans of Porky’s
As time went by, a number of similar real-life crimes occurred, sensitizing Clark even more to the issue. “There had been some sorority house murders right around the time that it was about to be shown in prime time on NBC, so they pulled it at the last minute, which frankly, I was happy about,” he says. “I would not want my film or me connected with any real-life tragedy in any way. There were some accusations that Ted Bundy was influenced by the film, but that was later mercilessly discredited.”
“Back then, it was considered just entertainment, but today I don’t think you could make the film and have it thought of in the same way,” says Clark. “The stalking thing has become so horrendous that I think it may very well affect the way the film is seen now. I didn’t create the piece, and what I was determined to do was make a woman-in-peril movie without sexuality, except for the phone calls, because we didn’t want to inflame any of that sexually violent kind of impulse in people. Also, I was not interested in showing women in weak, non-aggressive postures, nor was I making any judgments as far as their moral purity. You might remember, the most pure of all the girls is the first, and most graphic, murder.”
I’ve tried to go back to thrillers on a number of occasions,” says the director, whose most recent (though uncredited) genre work was producing 1991’s Popcorn. “Alan Ormsby and I were going to do Northeast Kingdom, about a teen boy who becomes involved with monsters in the nearby woods that had a lot of similarities to The Lost Boys.”
“I watch my movies every few years and I watched Black Christmas a few months back,” Clark concludes. “It holds up. Some of the acting is amateurish, but there’s naturalness to everything that shines through. It’s scary when it’s supposed to be scary and funny when it’s supposed to be funny. That in itself is saying a lot!”
John Carpenter’s Halloween Connection
Its excellent run in the Great White North and surprising open ended finale did prompt interest from the film’s financiers in a Black Christmas follow-up. “Yes, I was going to do a sequel, and I was going to call it Halloween,” Clark reveals, and he’s not kidding. “It was going to be about the killer getting caught and being put in an asylum, and the following Halloween, he gets out again.”
In 1975 that Clark was developing his Halloween script, he was also working with a young John Carpenter on an unrealized screenplay (for Carpenter to direct) about a murderous family of Appalachian mountain people. Especially considering that Carpenter and Debra Hill later turned their (basically almost identical) Halloween concept into an influential horror hit, some would say the similarities are too strong to be entirely discredited.
“I remember him asking me later if I was going to make the sequel, Clark responds.”At that time I was clearly moving on, so I said, “No, I’II never make that. But I don’t feel ripped off. They’re not alike, really, and he may have totally forgotten about my script by the time Halloween rolled around. Also, the killer in Black Christmas is a phantom-you never see him, and that would have carried over to the sequel. There are a lot of dissimilarities like that.”
Is it true that you wanted to shoot a sequel to Black Christmas and call it Halloween, pre-John Carpenter?
CLARK: No. I didn’t want to. John was a fan of Black Christmas, and he got Warner Bros. to hire me to do his first movie in 1976. It was about some killers in the mountains of Tennessee. We virtually cast it. John asked me at the time, “Do you ever want to make a sequel to Black Christmas?” I said, “John, your movie is my last horror movie. I love ’em, but I didn’t come in to be just a horror maven…I came in to be a director, so I won’t do another one.” He said, “Well, if you did do it, what would it be? Because I bet you thought about it since (Black Christmas) did so well.” The ideal had was that the killer had been caught and institutionalized, and he escapes. It’s Halloween, and he comes back to the sorority. I was going to call it Halloween. And his movie got cancelled, so I did Murder by Decree. So John liked Black Christmas, I think he was influenced, but just as I was influenced by Night of the Living Dead. If Halloween has a little influence of Black Christmas, it flatters me. He didn’t rip me off. For a while, I used to say John could have given me credit, at least for the Halloween title, but he didn’t have to, ’cause [executive producer] Irwin Yablans came up with the title.
Did you find it difficult to break away from the horror genre?
CLARK: Not really, I was extraordinarily lucky. I did my first non-horror film after Black Christmas and then came Murder By Decree. It’s a thriller of sorts, certainly not a horror film, but I had that incredible cast. I had such extraordinary luck. Look at Black Christmas who I had—Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, all at the beginning of very strong career. Murder By Decree was just unreal, it was like a dream—I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I was in my early 30s. And then came Porky’s.