When you think of a list of holiday films that go against the grain for jolly festive fun and good family times during the Christmas season, some ‘anti-Christmas’ greats come to mind…certainly Gremlins for its tiny terror creatures who wreak comedic havoc on a small town, Die Hard for the lone wolf cop tasked with taking down a terrorist group in a high rise building during a Christmas party, or The Ref for the foul-mouthed dysfunctional family held hostage by a house thief on Christmas Eve. All of these films are dark and great fun, but the granddaddy of them all is the aptly named Black Christmas. A movie that evokes the dread right from the get-go when a sorority house of girls become the targets of a deranged killer hiding out in their attic during the holidays.
Released back in 1974 (a 2006 remake would follow) and directed by Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, Porky’s), Black Christmas did not have the initial impact those among the project hoped for. Perhaps it was released too soon for the times and introduced to a public that just wasn’t ready to get dark for the holidays, because Black Christmas was essentially the trailblazer for horror/thriller films set against a holiday back-drop (Halloween would follow four years later). Not only that, but it was also innovative with its perspective camera moves from the POV of the killer and eerie creation of the phone-call dialogue. Needless to say it took a long time for the film to find its audience and eventually become the cult classic that it now stands as.
On the eve of the new Blu-ray and DVD release set for November 24, 2015 from Anchor Bay Canada, I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the key cast members of that production that took place an unbelievable 40 years ago in multiple locations around Toronto, Ontario. Doug McGrath (i.e. Sargeant Nash), Lynne Griffin (first victim Clare Harrison) and the outspoken Nick Mancuso (who voiced and played the notorious killer ‘Billy’ most of the time off-camera) collected together to look back and discuss their thoughts on a movie that grew from a perceived one-note effort into what is considered to be an absolute cult classic that many cannot not indulge without during the holiday season.
Ryan Young: When you were involved during the shooting/making of the film, did any of you have reservations about the content considering this was essentially the first horror/thriller film to occur during one of the most festive and happiest times of the year?
Doug McGrath: I had absolutely no concerns whatsoever.
Lynne Griffin: No. The safest place you think you could be is in your sorority house, cozy and warm surrounded by friends, having a great time and just thinking about festivities and family. What better scenario to introduce a threat to upset the bucolic atmosphere?
Nick Mancuso: This was a radically different time from this ultra conservative and politically correct era we are now in. It was a lot more liberated in spirit and we took chances, we were iconoclasts or at least my generation of actors and writers I knew who were pushing the frontiers. We were anarchists and doing a tongue in cheek movie like Black Christmas wasn’t anything we could take seriously. It’s just a movie and it’s supposed to scare you very much like the Punch and Judy shows used to make the children laugh and frighten them. Times have changed that’s for sure, but basically Black Christmas is a Punch and Judy show. You can’t take it seriously. it’s entertainment with a serious underbelly, the secret or the monster in the closet and it makes some people want to leave the lights on when the phone rings in the middle of the night and a weird voice rasps…”it’s me ..billy…”
RY: Taking into account how dark the movie is, what kind of mood or tone was present on location/set under the direction of the late Bob Clark (who went on to make comedy hits like ‘Porky’s’ and the friendlier-known holiday film classic ‘A Christmas Story’)?
DG: The mood on the set was very full of friendliness, humour, and love especially because of the atmosphere Bob Clark created, everyone enjoyed working with him very much. The element of humour in the film helped highlight the horror in the film, which you have to credit the well-written script. My character was a bit different, and at times posed bit of a challenge given my scenes were set away from the rest of the group. I credit my success at it to the leadership of Bob Clark.
LG: Bob Clark, Uncle Bob, was the sweetest and smartest man and kept the set and even the creepiest of scenes jolly. He was always right there with me in the attic, rocking the chair with his foot, wrangling Claude the cat and telling jokes. He would have made a great Santa Claus!
NM: While the film was dark in theme and content, the atmosphere working with Bob Clark was fun and lighthearted. Other that standing on my head to make the voice of Billy sound weird and compressed we laughed and had a great time. Bob let me improvise and do what I wanted vocally and play around, a sure sign that a playful atmosphere is the best atmosphere to do good work. Acting is as Sondra Seacat (a New York Acting teacher) wrote “children games with adult rules”. Over the last 40 years things have gotten a hell of a lot more serious and controlling on the average film set. Back then the bankers and lawyers and accountants didn’t run the show.
RY: What challenges or elements of the film did you find the hardest to endure; whether it be a specific scene or moments behind the camera?
DM: In my role I felt there was nothing was hard to endure at all. But I did have to put up with having the cast and crew laughing at me as I developed the role and really played up the humour. I did include some of my own character in the role too, maybe more of myself than I care to admit.
LG: Holding my breath and keeping my eyes open for long takes, and many takes with a plastic bag over my head, needless to say!
NM: I’ve done a lot of films where there were real challenges to endure. Physically, mentally emotionally. insane hours, dangerous stunts, incompetent directors, nasty lying producers, bad contracts, toxic locations, where going to work was like going to war. Black Christmas was not one of them. In fact it was one of the funniest and fun times in my career.
RY: When it was initially released ‘Black Christmas’ was not a surefire success story, but it has since evolved into a cult classic. What impressions of the film did each of you have when it was first completed/released and did that change over the passage of time?
DM: Unfortunately yes, Black Christmas didn’t have the surefire success at the time as we hoped the big budget and high profile cast would bring. But the film has held up so well due to the effort of the cast and crew, in fact it’s marvelous how well it has held up. I actually didn’t get the opportunity to watch it after the release, given as it wasn’t successful and I didn’t have a copy so I didn’t keep up with it. The new release has led me to rewatch it and this resurgence has made me happy to revisit the film.
LG: Well, you are sad for the filming to end because you’ve made many good friends, but you leave that family behind and move on to the next job. That is the nature of our business. But then, years later, fans found me on Facebook and I started being invited to horror conventions and I was delighted to find the next generation of fans discovering the film. I love that families gather together at Christmastime to watch the film every year. I was told it was one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite Christmas movies!
NM: I completely forgot I had ever done the movie until I was contacted by an English fan who had a website called ‘It’s me Billy.com’. I was floored that the film had gained such popularity. How he found me or found out I was the voice of a Billy I have no idea since I don’t think I’m even on the credits. Showbiz is such a bizarre business. The movie is becoming the It’s a Wonderful Life of this generation where acts of terror are now common and psychopathic Billies are now running around and committing mass murder. Maybe that’s why the film is so popular, because it predicted these unsettling times and reflects a horrible truth- that the sociopath killer is living in the house and is within. Disturbing thoughts but as Ezra Pound wrote “the artist is the antennae of society” and in many ways predicts the future. This film was made 40 years ago, a far safer time. But let’s not forget that the film is still a joke and the joke is on us.
RY: Looking back on the film now over forty years later, what would each of you say is the most rewarding factor of having your name forever associated with the film; either personally or professionally?
DM: Overall I’m happy with my role and how it turned out, definitely thrilled to be a part of Black Christmas and how many people I’ve met that it’s become important to.
LG: The most rewarding thing for me is meeting the fan base that keeps growing and feeling that you were involved in a film that never lost it’s popularity. I hope my notoriety will lead to more offers to do horror films in the future. AND I am delighted that the image of Clare in the rocking chair in the attic remains iconic and graces the cover of every DVD And Blu-Ray- now that’s immortality!
NM: I guess the most rewarding factor of having my name associated with the film is that fact that it has pleased and entertained 4 generations of viewers and for some people given them a sense of comfort and acknowledgment. The teen years are tough in every generation and sexual frustration, rejection and a doomed sense of isolation affect a lot of young men trying to find their way in a society that doesn’t understand them and often than doesn’t care or give a rats ass about them. It’s a terrible thing to be rejected and to have to hide from the world and Billy is one of the aborted fetus’ of a human being rejected by his mother and by all women or so he thinks and can only make his presence known by murdering them, as if to say..see me…hear me…in many ways the film acts as a safety valve to such people…allowing them to purge the darkness and the fear within and in some cases the frozen terror. We used to call this neurosis but Billy’s problem is clearly psychosis, like Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Peter Lorre in the German silent film classic M which predicted the sociopath and indeed psychopathic pathology of the Nazis. Black Christmas is a kind of black gem like opening your colorful Christmas present with colorful ribbons and bows and discovering a tarantula in the box. In many ways there is deep existential anguish in the film and Bob Clark did an amazing job as did all the actors involved. Thanks for the questions.