Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
Bob Clark, an American director who wisely moved to Canada and became a landed immigrant during the tax shelter period of the 70s and 80s, made some of the most successful and groundbreaking Canadian films. In addition to the Oscar-nominated Tribute and the acclaimed Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Watson (James Mason) vs. Jack the Ripper thriller Murder by Decree, Clark’s two other Canadian films are notable for kickstarting the teen sex comedy genre (Porky’s) and the modern slasher film (Black Christmas).
Black Christmas (1974) was not only a huge hit at the box-office, but has become renowned for its alternately creepy and jolting scares, its originality in terms of both direction and writing, and the piquant black humour which drives the movie into territory well beyond strict genre parameters. Plus, there’s a perversely indigenous Canadian quality to it which places it in a realm that yields a movie that’s just enough off the beaten track to make it feel wholly prototypical to the genre, but also marks it as a very special example of Canada’s genuinely important place in the creation of contemporary genre cinema.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada has recently honoured Black Christmas with an exclusive, all-new, fully restored Blu-ray and DVD ‘Season’s Grievings’ edition that offers a gorgeous transfer and a Criterion Collection-worthy set of fascinating, amusing and informative added value features which feel very much like an ‘Everything You always Wanted to Know about Black Christmas* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)’ compendium in the spirit of the famed Dr. R. Reuben tome of fleshly love.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with three legendary Canadian cast members together in an Anchor Bay Canada boardroom in the St. Lawrence Market area of downtown Toronto. All three represent Canadian thespian gymnastics at their loftiest, but also had important roles in nailing the utter originality of the movie. Lynne Griffin, a renowned stage actress, kids TV personality and veteran of Canadian cinema was the iconic image of sheer terror on all ads, posters and home video packaging of the picture thanks to her extremely unique role in Black Christmas.
Nick Mancuso, the veteran film and television actor, who first burst onto the scene with his astonishing performance as the victim of a dangerous religious cult in Ticket to Heaven provided the sickening, horrifying and definitely iconic voice of Billy, the foul Yuletide serial killer of Black Christmas who is only heard during his numerous obscene phone calls.
The Holy Spirit of this thespian trinity is none other than Doug McGrath, one of Canada’s most beloved actors, first the star of iconic Canuck classics like Goin’ Down the Road, Wedding in White and The Hard Part Begins, then for many years one of Clint Eastwood’s favourite character actors in such great pictures as Pale Rider and Bronco Billy. In Black Christmas, he is the comic relief (along with Margot Kidder and Marian Waldman). Resembling a cross between Buster Keaton and Don Knotts’ ‘Barney Fife’ in The Andy Griffith Show, McGrath plays John Saxon’s thick-headedly inept desk sergeant, ill equipped to handle the wave of murders, assaults and disappearances plaguing the town in Black Christmas.
Here then is our lovely chat, which, frankly, could have lasted the whole afternoon, but sadly did not.
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Greg Klymkiw: So Lynne, I’m sure this must be one of the more ubiquitous queries you get as an actress, but when your character, the sweet virginal sorority sister Clare Harrison in Black Christmas is forcibly enveloped in a plastic see-through cold-storage bag and suffocated to death by the psychopath Billy, it’s not only a jaw-dropping horror set piece, but one of the most terrifying moments in screen history. I can’t help but think how utterly horrifying it was to perform, even with all of the requisite safety measures in place. That surely couldn’t have been the safest stunt to perform.
Lynne Griffin: Well, we didn’t really have any safety measures, but god bless them, it was a risk worth taking for all the reasons you cited, but I was always front and centre in the posters, ads and every DVD cover.
Nothing more fetching than a sexy young lady with her mouth agape, enshrouded in plastic with a look of sheer terror etched into her face by rigour mortis.
Thank you for that lovely compliment [laughs]. And yes, as ubiquitous as I became on all the advertising material, so too are the discussions I’ve had about that scene. If that becomes my legacy, I’m delighted. Even when I go to horror conventions, I make sure to bring plastic bags with me for photo-ops.
Damn, I wish I’d brought one with me today.
The thought had occurred to me to bring one also. I’m still quite able to demonstrate my prowess under plastic.
I imagine the actual suffocation, with all the movement involved might have been somewhat simpler and safer to garner the required effect, but for the rest of the film, we keep visiting your lifeless body sitting rigidly in that creepy rocking chair in the attic. I suspect those shots must have been a killer, so to speak, to maintain the death grimace.
Even when we were shooting, it helped matters that I was an excellent swimmer and able to hold my breath for long periods of time. However, even if they poked air holes in the plastic to allow for subtle breath intake, there’d still be movement and, worst of all, the condensation would spoil the effectiveness of the shots, so to avoid this, it became a huge challenge. We finally agreed that I’d keep my eyes open and hold my breath completely. As a swimmer, I could hold my breath for the entire length of the pool.
Yeah, so you’re not sucking plastic down your throat.
Doug McGrath: That’d be a sure sign your corpse is trying to breathe.
[Mega-laughs all round. McGrath proves that even without cameras rolling he’s a master of the straight face and deadpan delivery.]
Lynne Griffin: There’s that one take in particular where I’m sitting there lifelessly for what seems like an eternity and when I looked at the new Anchor Bay Canada ‘Season’s Grievings’ edition, it sadly occurred to me that for all these years I neglected to include ‘playing dead’ as a skill on my resume.
[More laughs all round. ‘Special Skills’ – even playing dead – can be the lifeblood (as it were) of any working actor’s resume.]
With Black Christmas, Bob Clark really created a horror film which had a huge impact upon North American genre cinema. Clearly influenced by the Italian gialli – even one of your co-stars John Saxon had appeared in Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much – his was the first picture on colonial soil to present the killer’s POV, and it was such a huge hit that it was the film which inspired the entire slasher genre. One of the biggest differences, though, is that all the American films which followed Black Christmas utilised the creepy, twisted, moralistic story element wherein the ultimate heroine and survivor of the homicidal machinations of the slasher was always the virgin.
Not in Black Christmas.
My own virginal exposure to Black Christmas first-run was in a real movie theatre at a time when Canadian films actually played in movie theatres and sitting there, even at that age, I felt like I was seeing something different. The horror and suspense builds, but with a nice blend of genuine characters and a delightful sense of black humour, so that when your character is dispatched, it was, even then, utterly shocking to have such a nice person be so horribly decimated – and even more jaw-dropping, that Clare is the first person to die. Not to take away from any of the lovely surprises in Mr. Hitchcock’s Psycho, but I suspect the shock of Marion Crane dying so early in the film was slightly, moralistically tempered by those scenes of Janet Leigh lollygagging about in her bra with the shirtless John Gavin and then embezzling all that money. But here, we have this sweet, virginal thing adorned in her modest sweater, her chaste relationship with the nice, young hockey player and her excitement over spending Christmas vacation with her mom and dad and yet, she’s the first kill and one of the most shocking and brutal killings in screen history.
[Sounding like the character of Clare here:] It’s unusual, isn’t it?
What were your thoughts when you first read the screenplay?
I was working steadily at Stratford at the time and the idea of doing a horror film seemed like a nice breath of fresh air. Of course, Bob Clark was wonderful. He was so charming and delightful, he could easily sell you swamp land. He’d also assembled an amazing cast and I loved the idea of working with all of them – especially Olivia Hussey, because I really wanted to pick her brain about working with Franco Zefferelli in Romeo and Juliet.
Well, and I’m sure there might have been some burning queries about Leonard Whiting’s pert, shapely bum?
There is that, I suppose.
And of course, when I first saw the ads with you wrapped in plastic, I have to admit, I initially thought it was Olivia Hussey under that huge Glad baggie.
That was a very common experience. Even now, I’ll see one of those ‘Where are they now?’ write-ups for Olivia and they’re actually talking about me. It’s interesting that when I made many thrillers after Black Christmas, I was often cast as a victim. In [Charles Jarrot’s] The Amateur [with Christopher Plummer and John Savage], I was one of the hostages and the first to be shot in the head.
[Laughs] Lucky me, allright. There are, however, many films where I lived to the last reel.
So, here you are, doing some of the greatest theatre in the world at Stratford, then as a nice change of pace, you’re acting in one of the most notorious horror films of its day and subsequently all time, you’re playing a virgin, you get knocked off horrifically and yet, one of my strongest memories of you as an actress is when you hosted this innocent CBC-TV after-school daily programme which was a kind of pre-teen Romper Room.
[Laughs] Yes, it was called Drop-in and I did it for five years and we did it live-to-air. So, at 4.30pm every afternoon we did this magazine-style show with comedy sketches and interviews.
Okay, so I’m not going crazy.
Not at all, that was me.
Nick Mancuso: And what healthy young lad at the time, didn’t have a crush on you?
Tell me about it.
Lynne Griffin: Well, and this virginal quality Bob looked for in Black Christmas makes so much sense. To host those shows, you needed this sense of innocence, but it was also one which all the young fellas lusted after.
The Hayley Mills effect.
Oh, of course. Even now, when I still do the horror conventions, some forty years after, even these men, young and old, come up and they are, dare I say it, lust-filled and talk to me like I’m still this young, hot chick, and it’s so flattering. But there is a lot to be said for this virginal quality. I played the virginal young thing so often, even though, I wasn’t. Well, I was, of course, innocent.
I can accept that. [Then to Nick Mancuso] You’ve made so many great pictures, Nick, and that’s ultimately a legacy worth accepting, but the fact remains that, as a young man, you attached yourself to the off-camera role of Billy who I think is still one of the – no, the creepiest slasher serial killers in the horror genre.
Nick Mancuso: You know, I’ve acted in over 250 films and TV series, three of my pictures are with the National Board of Review in Washington, and the role I’m best remembered for is the voice of Billy in Black Christmas.
[laughs] I don’t know, Nick, Ticket to Heaven is the first major feature film to focus on the evils of religious cults and you’re damn brilliant as the young guy who’s sucked into the miasma of exploitation and then fucking de-programmed. It’s harrowing, memorable and probably going to be your most enduring legacy.
Well thank you. You have to realise that when I did Black Christmas, I was nineteen-years-old when Bob Clark auditioned me and had me improvise a bunch of grotesque sounds for the obscene telephone calls. He hired me instantly and
Gee whiz, tantalising Bob Clark so zealously in an audition to play a sicko is no slouch. Really, bud. In fact, that’s no mean feat.
I knew I had to create this strange voice, so I stood on my head to compress my thorax. And you know, I wasn’t the only voice in the mix; Bob Clark contributed growls and gurgles, plus on one occasion, an actress who was not credited, a stage actress whose name has I’ve forgotten, did some of the higher-pitched screams.
There are a number of sources which state that you appeared on camera as Billy.
No. Never. There is, however, one curious factotum. The producers couldn’t afford to bring Keir Dullea back to Canada to do a few lines of ADR [Additional Dialogue Recording], so during the climactic scenes when Keir goes into the basement to find Olivia, I did his voice.
It’s great that Bob Clark never felt the need to resurrect Billy, as so many of the American slasher films to follow did, and to keep the killer’s identity ambiguous.
It’s an original film on so many levels, but as you touched on earlier, the killer’s POV was already a staple of European thrillers like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom from Britain – and, of course, everyone was in on it; the French, the Germans and especially the Italians.
Yes, Argento and Bava in particular.
For sure. The Italian influence on Black Christmas and horror films to follow was immense. Bob was a huge cinephile and Argento and all those other guys would have added to Bob’s bag of tricks.
Though it’s safe to say that Bob popularised and made the killer POV all his own in North American cinema.
I can’t take that away from him, but [with tongue in cheek] once again, the Italians are the instigating factor in higher culture.
[Laughing] Well, you’re certainly proof positive of that. In fact, speaking of Italians, your surname is identical to that of the legendary Frank Mancuso, CEO of Paramount and MGM, but weirdly I’ve seen you mixed up on less reliable online sources as Frank and vice-versa.
There’s lots of strange stuff like that, especially after I’d wrapped on the Stingray series, I was hired to star as Rudy Giuliani in a series focusing on his pre-Mayoral days as New York’s crime-busting D.A. and was paid a ridiculous amount of money for a show that eventually didn’t even go to pilot. While waiting for that to not happen, Mancuso F.B.I went into production with Robert Loggia as ‘Nick Mancuso’. I called Loggia up and he said in his trademark gravelly voice, ‘Yeah, hey kid, I know. I love the name and thought it might do you some good.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, right asshole!’ Then the producer of the series said he’d go through all the scripts and change the name from Nick to Nico. I said, ‘That is my name!’ [Nick’s full name is Nicodemo Antonio Massimo Mancuso – hence ‘Nico’, hence ‘Nick’.] The asshole then told me to get a good lawyer. Ah man, the weird things that happened because of my name. There was a spa in L.A. I occasionally went to and I was very good friends with Frank Mancuso who went there also, but years later, I got a call from the spa wanting to confirm my booking for thirty people! And not just a mere booking. They wanted to confirm that I’d paid for thirty people in full. Thirty people! It turned out to be from Frank’s son, Frank Mancuso Jr. This Mancuso link is so weird. There’s apparently a new show with a detective called Nick Mancuso. So let them, I say. And screw them!
Here you are though, an actor known primarily as the voice of a foul-mouthed serial killer, when you have indeed been in a whole whack of films, and some of them like Ticket to Heaven and Maria Chapdelaine are not just classics of Canadian cinema, but great pictures – period!
None of them made money! Black Christmas DID and DOES, to this day, make money. Of course, we get nothing in residuals for it. [Lynne Griffin and Doug McGrath chime in with full concurrence.] But you know, Black Christmas is one of those films that lives well beyond that sort of thing and is indeed a very special picture for all of us. Aside from Bob Clark’s masterful direction, a terrific cast, a well structured story and screenplay [written by Canadian A. Roy Moore], it’s a film that really deals with the deep unconscious, aloneness, sexual lust and isolation experienced by so many young people. To this day, it’s still that way. There’s also the clear linkage between sex and violence. [In stuffy Brit sotto voce] Not to get too philosophical about it, dear boy, but as Aristotle said, the function and purpose of drama is catharsis… [and back to normal Mancuso timbre] Purgation! And of what? Pity, or compassion and terror. Terror is the frozen fear that lives in the deep unconscious of the community and the young characters in Black Christmas get to purge it on the screen. Of course, as one gets older, the linkage between fear and sex, or rather the fear of sex is abated by the sure-fire cure of marriage.
[Huge laughs all round.]
Well you know, Doug, it’s very cool to speak with you about your participation in Black Christmas, which occurred several years after the first time – as a kid – that I encountered you on screen in Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road. You know, when most Canadian movies actually played in real movie theatres.
Doug McGrath: At one time. A long time ago.
And you know, I pulled the movie pages from the newspaper archives from my hometown – Winnipeg! The ads were huge and the movie actually played for four weeks in one of the biggest movie theatres in my sleepy old prairie winter city. So here I am, ten or eleven-years-old, and I saw Shebib’s picture on the opening weekend. In fact, I didn’t even initially connect the dots that I was about to see a Canadian movie. I just went to see as many movies as I could. But as the picture unspooled, I became completely enraptured in the fact that something seemed so familiar in ways I’d never experienced at the movies before. It was Canadian and not only did I love the movie, but the feeling of experiencing something so Canadian. This was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget and it instilled in me, even back then, the importance of seeing movies that were Canadian. Of course, as a kid, I saw you in Wedding in White and The Hard Part Begins and a few years later, still a kid, I saw Black Christmas first-run. Of course, I noticed your name in the credits, along with a bunch of other Canadians and I was plenty excited. I loved movies, especially horror movies, and here I was about to see a Canadian horror movie. You, however, totally blew me away in that – at the time and even now – because amidst the carnage and chaos you’re standing there like some bizarre cross between Buster Keaton and Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show, and I pretty much peed myself laughing. I think what’s so great about your performance is your utterly straight face as this complete incompetent cop.
Yeah, I kind of fell into that performance because the writing is so strong.
How the hell did you keep a straight face when Margot Kidder gives you her telephone number with the new phone exchange ‘Fellatio’ and then having John Saxon and the other cop cracking up when they discover that you’ve been had?
[Chuckles] You know, that’s maybe a kind of good question. I was feeling a kind of frustration.
You? Or the cop’s frustration?
Well, both I think, and as I felt that double-edge frustration, I responded to the character as written and said to myself, ‘Okay, let’s go with this.’ And in a strange way, the character was sort of close to myself, so I also chose to play it like myself. It’s funny, I wasn’t prepared for it and yet, the writing is so good I realised, once on the set with Margot and John Saxon, that I needed to go with the frustration. Sergeant Nash really wants to be a good cop, but he keeps having stuff thrown at him that he’s not equipped to handle. And it’s so funny that [the arc of] the character builds to that point when he’s on the phone with John Saxon who tells him ‘not to fuck things up’ and maybe, for the first time, he realises he truly has. Yes, he is the comedy relief, but when I discovered that, I also knew that playing it straight was the right thing to do. It helped that Bob seldom said anything. He obviously was getting what he wanted and that’s a great feeling for an actor. And then there’s Margot Kidder, someone I had the deepest respect for. She’s spelling out the word ‘Fellatio’ and part of me is reacting to Margot doing that and another part of me is reacting to it like I would react and, of course, as the Sergeant – as written – would react.
Nick Mancuso: Bob was always such a generous director. He’d always give you the space you needed to nail it just perfectly.
Doug McGrath: He was so great. Keep in mind, I’d just come off doing one heavy realistic film after another like Goin’ Down the Road and The Hard Part Begins…
And lest we forget, the unrelentingly real and almost unbearably depressing Wedding in White where Carol Kane is forced into a shotgun marriage to an old man by her father Donald Pleasance after she’s been raped and impregnated by your character.
Oh gosh, yes. So here I am in ultra-realistic mode and I’m playing a role that’s supposed to be the comic relief in a scary horror film. I was so grateful to Bob that he let me find the realistic side to the bumbling desk sergeant. Actually, I worked with him soon after Black Christmas on Porky’s. That’s where Bob continued to use his faith in both, the shot and the actors within it, and also how he instinctively would just hold the shot. He’d hold and hold and never break up the natural rhythm of the scene.
[If you’ve seen Porky’s, you’ll know exactly the points in the film where McGrath has you rolling in the aisles – especially during some very long shots. If you haven’t seen it, just do so. McGrath delivers one of the great comedy performances from the latter chunk of the last century, as does his Canadian co-star Kim Cattrall.]
And in Black Christmas there’s the scene where you’re trying to explain the Fellatio telephone exchange to John Saxon, this incredibly stalwart figure who, as part of his character, is supposed to be holding back his laughter and trying to keep a straight face while a cop in the background is howling with laughter as the scene plays out. And witnessing your character’s utter straight-faced incredulity that there’s something wrong with a phone exchange called ‘Fellatio’, I can’t help thinking how hard it must have been for Saxon to stay in character and not cough up huge guffaws.
[With an ever-so slight touch of puckishness] Well, that may be so. Believe me, I kept my eyes on John for the whole scene.
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Black Christmas is available in the all-new ‘Season’s Grievings’ Blu-ray/DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada Ltd. If you’re in the Dominion of Canada, it’s available everywhere. If you’re a foreigner, you’ll need to order it as an import from Amazon. It’s well worth it.
If you live in Toronto, you’re going to be blessed with a screening of an archival 35mm print at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox with a live appearance from Keir Dullea, and then again at The Royal Theatre in Toronto’s Little Italy featuring live appearances by Lynne Griffin and Nick Mancuso. At this latter screening, packaging artist Ghoulish Gary Pullin will be unleashing his ‘Season’s Grievings’ variant edition of the poster art. This gorgeous silk-screened poster, featuring metallic links, is limited to only 80 copies.
You can read Greg Klymkiw’s review of Black Christmas on his website The Film Corner.
Do what all stalwart Canucks in the colonies do – celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus with Black Christmas.
From the Dominion of Canada,
I bid you a hearty,
Watch the trailer: