The film was shot on an estimated budget of $620,000 and was released by Warner Bros. in the United States and Canada. When originally released, the film grossed over $4 million at the box office and initially received mixed reviews. The film was inspired by a series of murders that took place in the Westmount section of Montreal, Quebec, and the urban legend "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs".
A disoriented person climbs up into the attic of a sorority house while the occupants hold a Christmas party. At the party, Jess (Olivia Hussey) receives an obscene phone call from "The Moaner", a man who has been calling the house. Jess allows her sorority sisters Barb Coard (Margot Kidder), Phyllis "Phyl" Carlson (Andrea Martin), Clare Harrison (Lynne Griffin), 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 (Marian Waldman) and the other girls are taken off guard, believing that Clare left the night before. Meanwhile, Jess meets with her boyfriend Peter Smythe (Keir Dullea), 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 (Art Hindle) about the situation. After discussing the case with Lt. Kenneth Fuller (John Saxon), the group learns that a local mother Mrs. Quaife (Martha Gibson) 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 as 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.
Canadian Roy Moore wrote the screenplay entitled The Babysitter based on The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs urban legend. Film producers Harvey Sherman and Richard Schouten had Timothy Bond rewrite the script to give it a university setting and retitled it "Stop Me". Clark made several alterations in dialogue, camera placement and added some notes.
The role of Mrs. Mac was offered to Bette Davis. The role of Lieutenant Fuller was originally supposed to be played by Edmond O'Brien but, due to failing health, he had to be replaced. John Saxon was brought in at the last minute. Gilda Radner was offered the role of Phyllis Carlson. She was attached, but dropped out one month before filming began owing to Saturday Night Live commitments. The composer of the film's score, Carl Zittrer, stated in an interview that he created the film's mysterious music by tying forks, combs, and knives onto the strings of the piano in order to warp the sound of the keys. Zittrer also stated that he would distort the sound further by recording its sound onto an audio tape and make the sound slower. The audio for the disturbing phone calls was performed by multiple actors including actor Nick Mancuso and director Bob Clark. Mancuso stated in an interview that he would stand on his head during the recording sessions to make his voice sound more demented.
Margot Kidder remembers making the film was "fun. I really bonded with Andrea Martin, filming in Toronto and Ontario. Olivia Hussey was a bit of an odd one. She was obsessed with the idea of falling in love with Paul McCartney through her psychic. We were a little hard on her for things like that."
During preparation in 1975 for the film's American release, Warner Bros. studio executives asked Clark to change the concluding scene to show Claire's boyfriend, Chris, appear in front of Jess and say, "Agnes, don't tell them what we did" before killing her, however, Clark insisted on keeping the ending ambiguous. The original title of the film was initially planned to be Stop Me. Clark has stated in an interview that he came up with the film's official title, saying that he enjoyed the irony of a dark event occurring during a festive holiday. According to Clark as well, Warner Bros. changed the title to Silent Night, Evil Night, for the United States theatrical release.
Black Christmas was officially released on October 11, 1974, in Canada through Ambassador Film Distributors, and in the United States on December 20, 1974, through Warner Bros., where it grossed $4,053,000. It was released in October 1975 in New York City and Chicago, and previously played under the title Silent Night, Evil Night in Virginia in July 1975. and grossed over $4,053,000 internationally, managing to earn more than the film's budget of $620,000. When released in the UK, the BBFC had the word "cunt" removed, as well as several other crude and sexual references during the first obscene phone call.
The film, under the title Stranger in the House, was set to make its network television premiere on Saturday night, January 28, 1978, on NBC's weekly "Saturday Night at the Movies". Two weeks prior to its premiere, the Chi Omega Sorority House on the campus of Florida State University in Tallahassee was the scene of a horrible double murder in which two Chi Omega sisters, asleep in their beds, were bludgeoned to death. The killer then went to a nearby room in the sorority house and violently attacked two more sleeping co-eds, who survived. [The killer was later identified as Ted Bundy. He was executed for this and other homicides on January 24, 1989].."
A few days before the movie was set to premiere on network television Florida's then-Governor Reubin Askew contacted NBC President Robert Mullholland to request the movie not be shown due to its all-too-similar theme as the murders of sorority sisters by an unknown madman at the Chi Omega Sorority House. On Tuesday, January 24, NBC-TV gave several of its affiliates in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, the option of showing an alternate movie, Doc Savage...The Man of Bronze, in place of Stranger in the House.."
"The network said in a statement issued yesterday in New York that it was responding to concern voiced by the affiliates because of the murder of two coeds this month in a sorority house at Florida State University in Tallahassee."
Two editions of the DVD release of the film have been specially designed. A bare-bones release was released on November 6, 2001. The release was followed by a collector's edition that was released on December 3, 2002, containing a making-of documentary, behind-the-scenes footage, and more bonus content. Critical Mass and Alliance Atlantis released a special edition on December 5, 2006, before the theatrical release of the remake of the film on Christmas day, containing extra and similar bonus content to the previous collector's edition, including interviews with stars Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder. The "Special Edition" version of the film, with all of its existing special features and a new HD transfer, was later released on Blu-ray on November 11, 2008.
Soon after the film's 40th anniversary, Anchor Bay Canada announced that they are releasing a new version of the film on Blu-ray and DVD only in Canada, called the "Season's Grievings Edition". It contains the same transfer of the film as the "Special Edition" release and all previous bonus content, plus the addition of: a new documentary ("Black Christmas Legacy"), a 40th anniversary panel from Fan Expo 2014, a new commentary track featuring Nick Mancuso as the character "Billy", a new retrospective booklet written by Rue Morgue Magazine, and new packaging art by Gary Pullin (art director of Rue Morgue Magazine). This new edition was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 24, 2015.
Scream Factory has announced a new Blu-ray release for the film available for purchase on December 13, 2016 with a new transfer and new extras.
During its initial release, the film had garnered mixed reviews. A writer for The New York Times scored the film a 1 out of 5, calling it "a whodunit that raises the question as to why was it made."
The film has since received generally positive reviews from critics. According to the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 64% "fresh" score based on 24 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2 out of 10. Heidi Martinuzzi of Film Threat called the film "innovative" and praised the leading actresses, Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder. Author and film critic Leonard Maltin gave the film two and a half out of a possible four stars, calling it "bizarre" but also praised Kidder's performance as a standout.Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films
1976: Nominated, "Best Horror Film"
Canadian Film Awards
1975: Won, "Best Sound Editing in a Feature" – Kenneth Heeley-Ray
1975: Won, "Best Performance by a Lead Actress" – Margot Kidder
Edgar Allan Poe Awards
1976: Nominated, "Best Motion Picture" – A. Roy Moore
The film eventually gained a cult following and is notable for being one of the earliest slasher films to go on inspiring slasher films, the biggest being John Carpenter's Halloween (which was apparently inspired by Clark suggesting what a Black Christmas sequel would be like). The film ranked No. 87 on Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Olivia Hussey told Bravo during an interview about their 100 Scariest Movie Moments series, that when she met Steve Martin for the first time, he told her she starred in his favorite movie of all time. Hussey initially thought he was referring to Romeo and Juliet but was surprised when Martin said it was Black Christmas and that he had seen the film 27 times.
The film has been assessed in feminist film theory, with viewers arguing that the female-led cast, presence of casual sexual activity, and plot elements of obscene phone calls and abortion provide feminist subtext.
A remake of the film directed by Glen Morgan was released on 25 December 2006. It is loosely based on the original film, containing more graphic content and a focus into the past of Billy. Andrea Martin was the only original cast member to appear in the film. Bob Clark served as an executive producer. It was poorly received by critics.