24 October 2014

(1974)

Agnes, it's me, Billy...don't tell what we did, Agnes...
- Billy
Director Bob Clark was no stranger to the horror genre when he helmed this Canadian gem in 1974. He had previously directed Deathdream in 1972, the acclaimed film about a soldier who returns home to his loving family after serving in combat. Only problem is, he's come back a bloodthirsty zombie.

Considered by some to be one of the finest horror films of the 1970s, Deathdream had direct relevance to the then ongoing Vietnam War. Clark also directed Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things that same year, under his birth name Benjamin Clark.

Simply put, his work on Black Christmas is phenomenal. Predating Halloween by several years, the basic scenario of a killer terrorizing people during a traditional holiday, is similar. POV camera shots are used for the psycho, which were to become a staple of later horror films.

The superb cast includes Olivia Hussey, who had made a splash by playing Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli's exquisite 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and Margot Kidder, fresh from Brian De Palma's Sisters. They were joined by, among others, Andrea Martin, who would find later comedic success in television's SCTV and Keir Dullea, best known for his work in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Shot in Toronto, Ontario, the film was first released in October of 1974. The title was changed to Stranger In The House soon after, due to the fear that the movie would be perceived as one of the countless "blaxploitation" films at that time.

Yet another title it was given during a re-release was Silent Night, Evil Night. Whatever name it goes by, the film is a real treat.

The quiet college town of Bedford prepares for Christmas break. At a sorority house on campus, the girls of Pi Kappa Sig are getting ready for their winter vacations. The night before they're set to leave, they have a going away party. Outside the sorority, someone is lurking. The stranger enters the house by climbing up the side and into the attic.

A call comes in for Barb (Margot Kidder) from her mother and she goes into another room to talk to her. She's asked not to come home for the holidays because her mom is spending Christmas with her new beau. "You're a real gold-plated whore, mother...you know that?" Barb tells her.

Barb says she'll go skiing with some friends instead. Visibly upset, she asks Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) and Phyl (Andrea Martin) to join her for a few days.

Clare (Lynne Griffin) walks her boyfriend Chris (Art Hindle) to the door. He plans to see her again at her family's home. The phone rings again and Jess answers it. The caller on the other end doesn't speak at first. The girls have been receiving obscene phone calls recently and Jess tells everyone it's the "moaner" again.

They all gather around as the the person makes various noises through the phone. "He's expanded his act," Barb says. The sounds are so unusual...Clare wonders if it could be just one person. The guy continues to snorkle and laugh, before getting even more aggressive by saying he wants to lick a "pretty, pink cunt."

No laughing matter, the students stand around frightened. When he asks them to perform a lewd act, the tough-talking Barb grabs the phone and calls him a pervert, adding that he should "go over to Lambda Chi, they can use a little of this."

The guy continues his taunts and after Barb call him a "fucking creep," the caller says he's going to kill her and hangs up. The girls are shaken, especially Clare...who tells Barb she should't provoke somebody like that. Barb blows her off but Clare reminds the group that a town girl was raped a couple of weeks ago. "Darling, you can't rape a townie" is Barb's retort.

Her sorority sister's irreverent response upsets Clare even more - so she goes upstairs to pack for her trip. Jess tries to comfort her and then tells Barb the girl has had enough trouble fitting in with them.

Clare finds Claude (a cat) in her bedroom, unaware that someone is in the closet watching her. As she prepares to leaves, she hears what sounds like the animal's cries coming from that direction. She approaches the closet when suddenly a pair of hands reach out and she is suffocated with a plastic garment bag.

The killer then puts the corpse in a rocking chair in the attic with the plastic wrapped around her head...and later places a doll in the dead girl's lap.

Mrs. Mac (Marion Waldman), the housemother, returns from a shopping spree. The girls all take her into another room where they have a surprise Christmas gift for her. They present her with a nightgown and encourage her to try it on. When they've all gone up to bed, Mrs. Mac reaches for a book from a glass case and grabs a bottle of Sherry she keeps stashed in it.

Jess comes back into the room and Mrs. Mac quickly hides the alcohol, saying "you girls are just too good to me." The phone rings and Phyl answers it. It's Jess's boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) and Jess tells him she's sorry he couldn't make it to the party. He's a music major and reminds her that he has been practicing for four days straight.

Peter notices Jess has something on her mind and she tells him she wants to talk to him. They plan to meet the next day. Mrs. Mac goes to her room and while brushing her teeth, she gets the urge for another drink. She opens the toilet tank - where another bottle of liquor is hidden and takes a swig.

Jess goes up to Clare's room to check up on her. She knocks on the door but gets no response.

The next day, Phyl's boyfriend Patrick (Michael Rapport) plays Santa to some local underprivileged kids in the common room. He's upset because Phyl cancelled their plans for the weekend to go skiing with Barb.

Clare's father waits for her at their appointed meeting place. Mr. Harrison (James Edmond) becomes worried when she doesn't show up and asks a fraternity student for directions to the sorority. When he arrives at the house, he speaks with Mrs. Mac...who tells him not to be concerned. She points out that the girl's clothes are all packed and ready to go.

During his visit, Mr. Harrison is appalled at some of the unsavory decor in his daughter's room. He says he's disappointed in the atmosphere and intends to do something about it. Mrs. Mac suggests he check out the fraternity and asks if he can drop her off at a store near it.

The housemother gets ready and while looking in the mirror, she drinks a little more Sherry. She mocks Mr. Harrison by saying a few classy things to herself such as: "am I supposed to be responsible for the morals of every girl in this goddamn house?" and "these broads would hump the Leaning Tower of Pizza if they could get up there."

Just then, Mrs. Mac hear the cat crying. While looking for Claude, she drops the contents of her purse. Mr. Harrison catches her cursing like a sailor and glares at her. He goes outside to wait for Mrs. Mac, who gives him the middle finger. She doesn't have any luck finding the pet.

Jess meets with Peter (Keir Dullea) and tells him she's pregnant. However, she doesn't want to have the baby and intends to have an abortion. When he says she can't make a decision like that without his approval, Jess replies that she wasn't even going to inform him of her condition in the first place.

Peter wants the baby and tells Jess she's selfish. He has a recital that afternoon and asks her to leave. Before she goes, he says he wants to talk to her again that night.

Mr. Harrison ends up in the common room, where he calls his wife. He tells her Barb is going to help find Clare by calling around for him. Barb sits on a couch nearby, giving sips of her drink to a little kid.

The phone rings and Jess answers it. It's the killer again and he mentions the name Billy. It appears he's talking nonsense when he says "What your mother and I must know is...where did you put the baby? Where did you put Agnes, Billy?" Jess hangs up on him.

Mr. Harrison goes to the police station with Barb and Phyl. Barb is sauced and demands to know what the police are going to do about Clare's disappearance. When Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath) tells her to shut up, she says his "attitude really sucks."

Barb then opens a can of beer as the officer tells Clare's father that 90 percent of girls who are reported missing on the campus are actually somewhere with their boyfriends.

Not exactly the consolation Mr. Harrison needs. When Sgt. Nash asks Barb for the number of the sorority house, she obnoxiously tells him it's Felatio-20880. "F-e" is a new exchange, she says.

Mrs. Mac returns to the house and Jess helps her with her packages. Jess tells her that another threatening phone call came in and that it sounded like two people - a woman screaming and a man wailing. Mrs. Mac doesn't seem bothered by this and tells Jess that Mr. Harrison is still looking for his daughter.

Jess tries to help out and goes to see Chris at a hockey game. She asks him if he's seen his girlfriend and he's surprised that no one has. Jess tells him that the police didn't take the report seriously because they probably think she's shacked up somewhere.

Peter, meanwhile, does horribly at his recital. Jess's news about aborting her baby upset him so much...he's unable to play properly. The judges watch in disbelief as he doesn't hit any of the notes properly. Later, Peter destroys the piano in a fury.

The police are faced with yet another disappearance. Mrs. Quaife (Martha Gibson) speaks with Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) about her missing thirteen year-old daughter, Janice.

Chris bursts through the doors of the station and demands to know why Sgt. Nash is not doing more to find Clare. Lt. Fuller overhears the commotion and asks the sergeant for the girl's file.

In the evening, Mr. Harrison is invited to have supper at Pi Kappa Sig. He doesn't have an appetite and ends up not eating. Barb is drunk once again and starts to talk about a certain species of turtle "that can screw for three days straight."

Mr. Harrison is not amused and Phyl can barely keep from laughing. Barb then says she knows everyone blames her for Clare's disappearance because of the way she treated her. Her antics are embarrassing and Phyl tells her to go to bed.

Jess and Chris come back to the house with news that a search is underway at the local park. They, along with Mr. Harrison and Phyl, head out to join the other volunteers. Mrs. Mac tells Phyl she's going to her sister's house for the holiday and might not be around when they return.

Mrs. Quaife is already at the park and listens as Lt. Fuller gives instructions. Search dogs lead the way and two groups are dispersed on this particularly freezing winter night. A body is indeed found and it turns out to be little Janice Quaife.

Back at the sorority house, someone sits outside and watches as Mrs. Mac prepares for her trip. A taxicab is also waiting for her. Of course, she's got her trusty bottle of alcohol handy.

While packing, the housemother hears Claude's cries coming from above and believes the animal is in the attic. She goes up to see what's happened and notices Clare's body.

Before she can react, the killer impales her with a hook and hangs the woman. The cabdriver leaves when he gets no response at the door and the psycho in the attic starts yelling and throwing things around.

As soon as Jess walks in the door, the phone rings. It's the killer again, screaming something about "Billy." Jess hangs up and calls out for Mrs. Mac.

The housemother is nowhere to be found so Jess calls the authorities to report the obscene phone calls. Suddenly, Peter appears. He says he was taking a nap while waiting for her and tells her the recital didn't go well. Jess wants to talk to him and finishes her call to the police.

The person on the other end is Sgt. Nash, who again doesn't take the matter seriously. Luckily, Mr. Harrison is also at the station and overhears the conversation. He sees the officer writing down notes about the threats and points it out to Phyl and Chris.

When Lt. Fuller finds out, he tells Nash that with everything going on, they should certainly look into the matter of the threatening calls.

As he's about to call the sorority house, he notices the rather inappropriate exchange Barb gave to Sgt. Nash. With another cop nearby in hysterics, Fuller tells Nash he couldn't "pick his nose without written instructions."

Jess tells Peter about the body found in the park and that Clare is still missing. Peter says he's leaving the conservatory and asks her to marry him.

Jess declines because she says she still has things she wants to do with her life. She simply does not want to be a wife at this point. Peter continues to express his concern with what she plans to do about her pregnancy.

He calls her a "selfish bitch" and adds, "you're talking about killing a baby as though you were having a wart removed." Jess asks him to leave and he tells her that if she aborts the baby, she'll be "very sorry."

Peter departs in a huff just as Phyl arrives with Lt. Fuller and a man from the phone company named Graham (Les Carlson) - who is ready to tap the lines.

The lieutenant takes note of how angry Peter is. While Graham looks at the telephones, Lt. Fuller asks to see Clare's room. Jess tells him she was the last person to see the girl the night before.

Lt. Fuller has all the usual questions. Finding a glass from the party, he asks if she drank a lot. The photo of Chris gets his attention and he wonders if she was seeing anyone else besides him.

Finally, he asks for a list of phone numbers for the rest of the girls who have left for the holidays...which Jess and Phyl get from Mrs. Mac's room.

When the officer inquires if anyone else is in the house, Jess tells him that Barb is sleeping. Graham taps one of the phones so that when it rings, it will also ring at the station house. He'll be at the phone company ready to track the location of the call.

Graham asks if there's another phone in the house and Jess informs him that there's one in Mrs. Mac's room. Lt. Fuller dismisses it by saying it's a different number and there haven't been any calls that have come through it.

The tracing won't be easy. Graham informs the girls they have to keep the lunatic on the phone for as long as possible. The lieutenant tells them not to worry and points out that a squad car with an officer is parked outside. As for Peter...he's nearby, hiding behind a tree.

When Lt. Fuller leaves, Phyl breaks into tears and tells Jess she fears that Clare is dead. In addition, she feels sorry for Mr. Harrison. Tired from the stress and the pills she took for a cold, she says she's going to bed and asks her friend to let her know if there's any news.

At the telephone company, Graham is ready to trace the calls to the house. Jess sits by the phone and waits. The killer enters Barb's room and Jess hears her gasping for breath.

Jess goes up to her bedroom to check on her. Barb's asthma is acting up and she says she had a nightmare that a stranger was approaching.

Jess calms her down and goes downstairs to the door, where a group of children are singing Christmas carols in front of the house. She's delighted by this nice diversion from all the trouble. At that moment, the killer re-enters Barb's room and stabs her repeatedly with the spike from a crystal unicorn.

The children's singing is interrupted by a woman who has just heard about the murder of the Quaife girl. The kids are rushed into a car and Jess gives their chaperone a tip.

Jess says she knows about the child's death and the phone suddenly rings. Both Lt. Fuller at the police station and Graham at the telephone company are paying close attention.

Jess hears the sounds of different voices, including what appears to be a girl crying. She's startled by one phrase: "just like having a wart removed." "Oh my God," Jess says as the person hangs up. Graham is disappointed because there wasn't enough time to trace anything.

Lt. Fuller calls and tells Jess she'll have to keep him on the line longer the next time. He asks if the person used more than one voice before. The officer also wonders who the guy was that was leaving as he arrived at the house earlier.

She tells him it was her boyfriend and Lt. Fuller asks if they were having a fight. He doesn't hear her answer because of a ruckus at the police station. (A fellow officer has been shot for trespassing by a cantankerous old man.)

Phyl hasn't been able to sleep because of all the noise in the house. Jess tells her she thinks the caller was Peter and Phyl believes she should inform the police. But Jess doesn't want to implicate her boyfriend if she isn't sure.

Jess explains to Phyl that Barb was screaming because she had a nightmare. She says the reason she thinks Peter made the last call is because the person repeated almost word for word what Peter had said to her.

Phyl says that even though she doesn't like Peter much - she can't believe he would do something like that. Jess is scared and Phyl looks out the window to make sure the patrol car is still there.

The phone rings yet again and it's Peter. He's crying and he tells Jess to help him. "You can't kill the baby," he pleads with her. Jess tries to comfort him as Lt. Fuller listens in and Graham again tries to trace the call. Jess asks Peter where he's calling from and he hangs up. The conversation didn't last long enough to trace.

Lt. Fuller is curious about what he just heard and tells Jess it's important that she fill him in. She reveals that she's pregnant and doesn't want to have the baby...something she told Peter earlier in the day. Fuller says Peter had a strange way of voicing his objection to an abortion. Jess's response? "Peter's an artist. He's very high strung." (Yuk, yuk.)

Lt. Fuller says that if her boyfriend is indeed making the calls, they need to get him help. Asked whether Peter was ever with her when a call came in, Jess recalls he was in the house at one point during the evening.

She tells the lieutenant where Peter might be found and again, Fuller asks Jess to keep the caller on the line a little longer. "I knew it couldn't have been Peter," Phyl says after Jess hangs up the phone.

Lt. Fuller prepares to widen the search for Clare and the killer of the girl in the park. He also asks Sgt. Nash to call the Dean of Admissions at the school get him all of Peter's records.

Jess and Phyl are frightened by two locals conducting their own hunt for Janice's killer. The girls are told to make sure they keep their doors and windows locked.

After the men leave, Jess and Phyl have a good laugh over how weird they were. But they stop laughing when Jess says, "seriously, do you realize this is the only door and window in this whole house that's locked?"

Upstairs, Phyl sees the door to Barb's room close. She knocks on the door before entering. "Barb, are you awake?" she asks. From behind the door, she hears someone whisper the name "Agnes" and the door is suddenly shut.

Lt. Fuller goes to the music conservatory and finds the piano that Peter destroyed. He now seems convinced that something is not right about the guy.

Back at the house, Jess tries to find Phyl. She calls out for her but gets no answer. Just then, the phone rings. The killer again talks in different voices and calls Jess a "bitch pig."

Among the hideous yelling and odd sounds, one can hear him say something about a baby and the names Billy and Agnes are repeated.

This time, Graham is able to trace the call and he contacts the police station immediately. Sgt. Nash tells Lt. Fuller the calls are coming from 6 Belmont Street.

Recognizing the address is the same as the sorority house, Fuller says it's impossible because that's where the calls are going into. "That's where they're coming from too, sir," is Nash's response.

Lt. Fuller tries to get in touch with the officer parked outside the house but he's unaware the cop's neck has been slit. He then tells Nash to call Jess and tell her to get out of the house. He is not to say anything about the killer being inside with her.

Nash pleads with Jess to hang up the phone and walk out the door. When Jess says she's going to get Phyl and Barb first, the sergeant blurts out that the caller is in the house. Despite the officer's order that she not go upstairs, Jess cannot leave her friends behind. She picks up a poker from the fireplace and heads up to see if they're okay.

When she opens the bedroom door, she finds the bloodied bodies of her friends on the bed. She looks up and catches a glimpse of the killer's eye behind the door. Jess runs downstairs as the maniac screams like a banshee.

She tries to get out the front door, but it's jammed. As she runs by the staircase to find another way out, the killer grabs her by the hair. Jess breaks free and locks herself behind a door to the basement. The killer pounds on the door and then abruptly stops.

Jess can see somebody lurking outside. She hears him say "Jess...are you alright"? It's Peter and he breaks open one of the basement windows. He goes towards his girlfriend hiding in a corner and holding the poker. At that moment, the police arrive and Lt. Fuller discovers the dead cop in the squad car. He hears screaming coming from inside the house and the officers find Jess with Peter's body in her lap.

Jess is given medication by a doctor (played by Rober Warner) who says she might not be alert until the morning. Chris and Mr. Harrison are also in the room...as Lt. Fuller tries to figure out why Peter would go on a killing spree.

Another officer tells Fuller that the bodies have to be taken to a morgue in a different town because the local hospital doesn't have the facilities for all the corpses. Clare's father goes into shock and has to be taken to the hospital himself. Chris tells him that his daughter will be alright, making it clear that her body was not among those found.

Everyone leaves the house, believing the case has been wrapped up. Jess is left alone lying in bed when we hear a familiar voice coming from the attic..."Agnes, it's me...Billy." We see the bodies of Clare and Mrs. Mac. The police never even thought to look up there.

The door to the attic opens slowly, implying that Jess will soon have company. As the camera pulls away from the house, the phone rings...and rings...and rings...

Setting it apart from many horror films in which the players don't have any idea where the marauding killer is at any given time, in this one the killer is always JUST UPSTAIRS. It's an obvious inspiration for When a Stranger Calls and just as frightening here.

The clever screenplay was written by Roy Moore and credit should also be given to cinematographer Reginald Morris and Carl Zittrer for his wonderful score.

Giving support to the three female leads already mentioned, Marion Waldman is funny and endearing as Mrs. Mac, a role Bob Clark originally intended for Bette Davis.

Making a career out of playing police officers, John Saxon is fine as Lt. Fuller. Two others would appear in horror films within a few years, Lynne Griffin in Curtains and Art Hindle in the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Brood.

Director Clark went on to make a number of diverse and successful movies, including Murder By Decree and Porky's. He tackled the subject of Christmas once again in 1983, with the beloved comedy classic A Christmas Story.

Truthfully, Clark later regretted the open ending of Black Christmas. It's been said that NBC once cancelled a showing of this film for being too scary.

"Billy" as the killer is one of the more fascinating and truly terrifying menaces in the genre. Why? Because there's an utter vaccum to his history, leaving the viewers to color Billy's past with their own imaginations. We hear snippets of backhistory from Billy himself, over the phone. He seems to possess an intense preoccupation with a deep secret he shares with "Agnes." (It can only be guessed that "Agnes" is his sister, since he and Agnes did something that Billy doesn't want anyone to discover.)

But these are clearly the mad ramblings of a psychotic. How truthful could they be? Taken at face value, what could Billy and Agnes have done? Consider his obsession with a "baby." Or his comment to Jess: "what your mother and I must know is....what have you done with the baby?" His placement of a baby doll on Clare's cold corpse in the (very maternal) rocking chair. Or his second comment to Jess about aborting her baby, as easy as "removing a wart." Just eavesdropping, perhaps? Maybe.

Is it possible Billy and Agnes as children killed their infant sibling, and that adult killer Billy spends most of Black Christmas killing those who will potentially bring forth children: young women? Jess would prove an especially ideal target for Billy's rage, as she's pregnant. Although Jess intends to presumably have an abortion, Billy is merely...helping her along.

The vocalism of Billy is a wonderful touch. Name another film where the killer vocally exercises his rage and you may be hardpressed. Like the sorority house itself, Billy's vocal antics are a dynamic presence in Black Christmas, becoming a separate character in the very action of the film.

The Christmas setting is perfect, the acting is great and there are touches of humor that don't get in the way. The ending is unsettling. And the killer is just a psycho, period. There is no flashback. No explanation or tidy, formulaic wrap-up, although you can certainly come up with your own theories, as my partner has done.

Over the years, it would seem Black Christmas has finally gotten the recognition it so richly deserved back in 1974. From the first eerie strains of "Silent Night," to its chilling conclusion, you'll be glued to the screen.

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