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Legends: The Legacy of Bob Clark

A fond look back at the late director, a master of the horror and comedy genres.

Filmmaker Bob Clark on the set of Rhinestone

Every December I settle in to watch two Canadian films made by the late and sadly unheralded director Bob Clark. Black Christmas (1974) and A Christmas Story (1983) stand as bookends in the filmmaker’s oddball career. And they make his filmography entirely distinctive. Clark made the darkest, most vicious movie about the holiday season (Black Christmas), and one of the most endearing, non-treacly ones (A Christmas Story). They are perfect symbols of Clark’s incredible range as a director who managed to prevail and create solid work as a result of Canada’s notorious tax-shelter years.

While Clark does get credit for making one of the most commercially successful Canadian films ever (1982’s Porky’s), his body of work has suffered a lack of proper appraisal. Although Clark didn’t appear to be allergic to the concept of cashing in for a quick paycheque—he helmed schlock such as Baby Geniuses (1999) and The Karate Dog (2004), among others—I believe his strong affinity to both horror and comedies means that some will never be willing to give him his due.

If anyone can move beyond these attitudes, it should be Canadian critics and academics. After all, dismissal was the tone when Cronenberg began putting his twisted, psy- chosexual, gruesome visions on the big screen, and now all of those films have been rightly reclaimed as important entries in the genre. Black Christmas, a film that Geoff Pevere has noted is arguably the first all-star Canadian feature film (it stars Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Doug McGrath and Art Hindle), was a precursor to the slasher genre that ignited in the late ’70s. Black Christmas isn’t simply a nasty low-budget horror movie. The film approaches genius in its use of a villain, a crank-calling psychotic killer whose identity remains ambiguous to the final credits. Clark’s use of POV shots, the inventive ways in which the killer took down his victims, make it clear that John Carpenter’s later, more celebrated Halloween (1978), never could have existed without the earlier film and its breakthroughs.

It was Robin Wood who argued that since horror movies were so often dismissed as trash, the filmmakers behind them were able to pack much more subversion into them, precisely because of their marginalized status in the culture. And this, I would argue, is where Clark’s greatest achievement lies. In 1972, he co-wrote with Alan Ormsby Deathdream, one of the most disturbing horror movies I’ve ever seen. Though George A. Romero had tackled the dire effects of the Vietnam war on the American psyche in Night of the Living Dead four years earlier, Clark got right down to business in Deathdream. The film opens with a devastated couple learning that their son has been killed in Vietnam. But before anyone can say “living dead,” sonny’s back, only this time, in zombie form! Mom and Dad are so thrilled to see their offspring that they overlook his, well, newfound handicap—as though zombiedom was merely an alternative lifestyle. Actor Richard Backus managed a gruesome quality as the soldier from beyond the grave, devouring various innocent folks about town. Deathdream is one of the most audacious horror films of the period, and while Vietnam was clearly a scar on the American psyche, it’s telling that an American living in Canada would have concocted the film, given our choice to abstain from sending soldiers into that conflict.

I watched Deathdream again recently, and marvelled at its prophetic quality, given the current American administration and the Iraq conflict. As well, I was saddened to think that Clark left this world in a scene every bit as tragic and horrifying as those in one of his films. Both Bob Clark and his son were killed by a head-on car collision in California, the result of a drunk driver. His films carry on, however, testimony to one of the most strangely versatile filmmakers ever to criss-cross the 49th parallel.

A contributing editor of POV, Matthew Hays has written for The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Guardian, VICE, Cineaste, The Walrus and The Daily Beast. He teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. He was on the jury at Hot Docs 2014.

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