Thursday, April 05, 2007

BOB CLARK 1941 - 2007

Film director Bob Clark, by most accounts one of the more personable, unpretentious and likable men in the movie business, died early Wednesday, along with his 22-year-old son Ariel Hanrath-Clark, victims of an unlicensed driver speeding down Pacific Coast Highway in the wrong lane under the influence of alcohol. Of course, it shouldn’t matter a bit, Bob Clark’s reputation as a gentleman—even the death of the most spurious Hollywood asshole under such circumstances would be a tragedy. But in this case, death came far too early to a well-loved man whose professional life seemed to be on an upswing (he was busy finalizing plans to remake his biggest hit, Porky’s, with Howard Stern) and who was finally beginning to enjoy a measure of respect from critics and other filmmakers for a career in lowbrow comedies and horror films that, for all the financial success of the Porky’s films (he helmed the first two), spawned two genuine classics, one horror film, one comedy, and both tied to the celebration of the Christmas season.

He adapted Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash into A Christmas Story (1983), wisely hiring Shepherd himself to read the droll narration, and in the process creating a movie that did modest business theatrically, but which became a perennial favorite through repeated viewings in the early days of home video. It’s an inspired, pitch-perfect evocation of a postwar Rockwellian past spun with just enough saltiness to make for several hilarious and memorable set pieces. Hearing Darren McGavin, as Shepherd’s harried and harassed father, spewing untranslated mock curses was worth the price of admission alone.

Left to right, R.D. Robb (Schwartz), Ian Petrella (Randy Parker), Peter Billingsley (Ralphie), Scott Schwartz (Flick) and Zack Ward (Scut Farkus) flank Bob Clark at a recent appearance at the Arclight Cinemas to promote the 20th anniversary of the release of A Christmas Story.

And in 1974, after making low-budget shockers like Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Dead of Night, he unleashed Silent Night, Deadly Night in Canada in 1974. The film, which played in the USA under the title Black Christmas, was a favorite of mine, and after having not seen for nearly 20 years, I revisited it recently, convinced that my memory of it being an effective but routine thriller would far exceed the reality of seeing it as a jaded adult horror fan. I wrote of Black Christmas last October:

“Like A Bay of Blood was to Friday the 13th, Bob Clark’s holiday-themed slasher film was an admitted influence on John Carpenter, and it predates Halloween by three years. But many of the genre’s familiar visual motifs are present here, including long periods of foreboding silence and an early stab at Steadicam-type camera movement to suggest the killer’s point of view. (In an interview, Clark admitted that the movements were done sans Steadicam, with a camera mounted on the operator’s head.) Black Christmas, a slasher thriller taking the form of a whodunit set on a small college campus, features a pretty good cast, including Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, John Saxon and Margot Kidder, who steals the movie outright as one of Hussey’s foul-mouthed sorority sisters who engages the killer in a memorable trash-talking phone call. (It was Kidder, in this film, who introduced me, at age 15, to the word “fellatio.”) Clark does a fine job teasing the audience with the various possibilities as to the killer’s identity. But where Halloween offers a creditable back story for the knife-wielding Michael Meyers, Clark and company offer no such comfort, either at the beginning or the end of the film, leaving the audience chilled in a way that goes far beyond the movie’s wintry setting. And Black Christmas registers at least one grisly image into the horror hall of fame—that screaming woman in the rocking chair, her gasping visage wrapped in plastic, a human Christmas present from the movie’s relentless psycho to the rest of the terrorized sorority sisters and, of course, to us.”

The big surprise in viewing Black Christmas was not that it matched my memory, but actually exceeded it. Kim Morgan, in her tribute to Clark today, called Black Christmas a masterpiece, and though I wouldn’t have said so a year ago, I’m pretty close to agreement with that statement after seeing it again last year. Its influence on the trajectory of the modern horror film, I think, can’t and shouldn’t be understated. And for those who never met him (I’m one) who are interested in a look at what Bob Clark was like with an appreciative audience, the special edition Black Christmas DVD features footage of Clark in a Q-and-A at the New Beverly here in Los Angeles on a recent screening of his horror classic. Bob Clark made a lot of forgettable films, it’s true, as well as a couple of lesser-known pictures that are far better than their reputation or obscurity would suggest—the savagely-reviewed lawyer comedy From the Hip (1987) starring Judd Nelson, and the relatively lavish Sherlock Holmes-Jack the Ripper thriller Murder by Decree (1979), which featured the best cast—Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Donald Sutherland, John Gielgud, just for starters— with which Clark would ever work. But for any one director to have his name on not one, but two acknowledged genre classics is no small achievement, and there is no doubt that A Christmas Story and Black Christmas will continue to be remembered long after Porky’s, Rhinestone and Baby Geniuses have been forgotten. The saddest commentary on Clark’s life and career is that they could be so mindlessly, instantly snatched away in a horrific set of circumstances that remain far too common on every street and highway in our country and around the world.


Anonymous said...

You're right: it's tragic when anyone dies this way, especially with his young son at his side--but I was sorry especially to see the news in the paper this morning about Bob Clark and his son, Ariel. Thanks for a nice tribute to him--and yeah, BLACK CHRISTMAS holds up pretty well, I think. In fact, it looks better all the time, and I was surprised, as it seems you were, by how suspenseful it still is these days. As for A CHRISTMAS STORY, it's one of those movies which seems to keep charming people, and which I can never seem to find fault with as the years pass: it captures something about families and the celebration of Christmas with just the right touches of sentiment and satire. I've always thought of Bob Clark as someone who had several--if not many--good movies left in him, if he could only get them figured out and make them. As it is, though, he left us some fine ones.

Jeremy Mathews said...

Clark is responsible for one of my family's most cherished Christmas traditions, and it saddens me greatly that he died in such a pointless manner. I am eager to revisit "Black Christmas" now, too, especially since "A Christmas Story" has taken on such versatile meaning for me as I've watched it every year.

My only qualm with this great memorial, however, is that the cast of "A Christmas Story" is every bit as accomplished in their roles than that of "Murder by Decree," thanks not so much to big names as to great casting.

Nathan Austin said...

Let's also not forget Deathdream! It might not stand up as well as the two Christmas films, but it is a good horror film for several reasons. First among these is that it is an allegory (if a somewhat obvious one) for the plight of veterans returning from the Vietnam War; this fact alone makes it relevant to current viewers. (And in fact, it seems to have been an inspiration to Joe Dante's recent zombie-veteran film...)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jeremy-- My comments re the cast of Murder by Decree were meant only to emphasize the relatively weightiness of the cast in terms of recognizable big-name actors involved. I agree with you that A Christmas Story's cast is as accomplished as those actors in Decree in breathing life into Jean Shepherd's already lively anecdotal book.

Nathan, I have not yet seen Deathdream, but will now make every effort to rectify that situation. Is it on DVD?

Blaaagh! Great to hear from you! If you can get a look at that footage of Clark in front of the audience at the Black Christmas screening, I think you'd really appreciate it. He seemed genuinely surprised by the reception, and given that he was pretty thoroughly excoriated in the press for several of his movies-- and Porky's and Rhinestone were certainly no cause for celebration-- it was genuinely nice to see him enjoy some praise for a movie worth praising.

By the way, that Alanis Morrisette video you sent me was hilarious!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the nice tribute to Mr. Clark. Yes, he made some bad movies, but like you said, he deserves credit for making two great ones! I am a horror fan, but relatively few I can say flat out scared me. Black Christmas was one of those movies.

Hemaworstje said...

bonjour tralala .
good to found me another fishingpond.
time browze into yr archives.
never go to cinema got stuck in the 70 's , so good to get new info.
and jep i am a retarded dutch farmer
as many.

Anonymous said...

[quote] Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, John Saxon, and Margot Kidder, [/quote]

I read that West L.A.'s Nuart theatre had a midnight showing of "Black Christmas"(1974) a few years ago. I think that Ms. Hussey, Saxon, and Mr. Clark were there for a personal appearance. So if Ms. Hussey and Bob were also at that recent Beverly Cinema screening of "BC", then I really wish I was there. I would've told Mr. Clark that "BC" was shown on L.A.'s "Z Channel" at around Halloween 1981, but maybe hardly shown on HBO, Showtime, etc. Another reason to go to that screening was because I think that Ms. Hussey was one of the most beautiful actresses.

[quote] Black Christmas registers at least one grisly image into the horror hall of fame—that screaming woman in the rocking chair, her gasping visage wrapped in plastic, a human Christmas present from the movie’s relentless psycho[/quote]

Don't you think that rocking chair image is kind of a ripoff of "Psycho"?