From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films
What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?
Welcome back to The Next Reel, PopMatters' column that explores the tapestry of the world of film and uncovers the links between films that are often just under the surface. Over the years we have tackled such linkages between some very diverse genres like horror, raunchy teen sex comedies, slasher flicks, action comedies, family Christmas movies, musicals, Texas Chainsaw Massacre-connected films, and very bizarre sequels.
What if I told you that each of these genres owed a debt of gratitude (if not its very existence) to one man? What if that one man was also responsible, in part, for such wildly divergent Hollywood elements as The Dukes of Hazzard and the modern standard of horror film gore effects? What if that same man was not only a football hero, but actually turned down a professional football career to pursue theater and film, ultimately to become the highest grossing Canadian director of all time?
What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?
Surprisingly, all of that is true. His name was Bob Clark, and his diverse filmography includes some of the biggest icons of each of these genres of film from the aforementioned Dukes of Hazzard to Porky's to A Christmas Story to Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2.
His resume also includes an equally diverse multitude of awards and nominations. On the bright side, Clark was the winner of three Genie Awards (two for directing and one for writing) as well as the Reelworld Award for Best Canadian Film and the Atlantic City Jury award for Best Director. On the not-so-bright side, Clark was nominated for multiple Golden Raspberry Awards and Stinkers Awards for "Worst Director" (often interchangeably with the years in which he won the more prestigious awards).
Interestingly, the award winner for Best Canadian film and highest grossing director of a Canadian film was not Canadian at all.
Robert Benjamin Clark (also occasionally credited as Robert B. Clark and Benjamin Clark) was born in August of 1939 in New Orleans, Louisiana, and grew up in Alabama and Florida in the American South. With his father's passing when Clark was a child and his mother's work in bars, Clark grew up poor but still managed to get into private college Catawba College in North Carolina, where he studied Philosophy, before his skills with the pigskin led to a scholarship to Michigan's Hillside College. Eventually, Clark returned to Florida to complete his drama degree at the University of Miami, turning down offers to play professional football to do so. However, Clarke did quarterback for the semi-pro team the Fort Lauderdale Black Knights for a time.
It was at the University of Miami that Clark directed his first film, the short known as The Emperor's New Clothes (1966) that starred film legend John Carradine. This film led to Clark's first feature, She-Man (1966).
Also at the University of Miami, Clark met Alan Ormsby, a collaborator who would give Clark's career the shot in the arm it needed. Ormsby could act, create makeup effects, direct, and write, and their collaboration soon led to the semi-comedic horror film Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972).
Seth Sklarey in Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972) (IMDB)
Coming only four years after the definitive zombie film Night of the Living Dead, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things had a strong impact on the burgeoning genre and became a cult classic. This is especially notable because the film was shot on a $50k budget over two weeks with a cast and crew that largely consisted of Clark's college buddies.
Based on their relative success with Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Ormsby and Clark stuck with the horror genre for their next feature, which they shot in and around Brooksville, Florida during the same year of 1972. The film was shot under the working title of The Night Walker and again featured the special makeup effects of Alan Ormsby. This time out, however, Clark required even more convincing gore effects and found a young makeup effects technician who was ready to make his name in Hollywood. Perhaps the Vietnam allegory of The Night Walker appealed to Savini as, after a childhood of experimenting with makeup, Savini was a U.S. Army combat photographer in Vietnam. As a coping mechanism for the "hideous" visions he photographed in Vietnam, Savini constantly told himself that he wasn't looking at reality but makeup effects.
The Night Walker was eventually renamed both Deathdream and Dead of Night and is still released under both titles. The story of the Vietnam veteran returning to his home town changed (in more horrific ways than Rambo) struck a chord with audiences and critics. This is due in no small part to the makeup effects of Tom Savini and the capable direction of Bob Clark, whose handling of drama in this film helped to make it a true horror classic.
Unfortunately, it took Deathdream (by any name) about two years to be released, eventually hitting theaters in August of 1974. In the meantime, Clark and Ormsby were not done with their collaboration with young Tom Savini. Answering the call to Canada, Clarke executive produced Deranged (1974), one of the first films to fictionalize the life of killer Ed Gein, after Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and William Girdler's Three on a Meathook (1973). Featuring the creepy direction of Ormsby (with co-director Jeff Gillen), a screenplay by Ormsby and the skillful gore effects by Savini, this Canadian production beat not only Deathdream into theaters, but also the similarly themed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). (See The Next Reel's "No Texas, No Chainsaw, No Massacre: The True Links in the Chain" for more.)
While the Clark/ Ormsby collaboration that helped launch Tom Savini's career continued, Savini himself soon teamed up with none other than Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero for makeup effects on 1978's Martin and won his first Saturn Award for Romero's Dawn of the Dead (also 1978). Clark and Ormsby may have given him his start, but Savini became one of the most acclaimed and sought-after gore effects artists in the industry, going on to create special makeup effects for Romero's own Creepshow (1982), Monkey Shines (1983) and Day of the Dead (1985) along with other features like Friday the 13th (1980), The Prowler (1981), The Burning (1981), Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) out of one hell of a resume. In 1990 Savini went full circle to direct the first remake of Night of the Living Dead.
While Savini certainly found more than his fair share of success in the slasher film genre, that genre arguably would not exist, at least not as we know it, without Clark.
Lucy Currey in Black Christmas (2019) (IMDB)
Staying with both Canada and the horror genre, Clark directed his first Christmas movie and changed the slasher film genre forever. Originated by writer A. Roy Moore under the working title Stop Me, Black Christmas was given a rewrite/ polish by Clark (after script doctor Timothy Bond) to feature more realistic dialogue (showing the intelligence of his characters) along with humor and unique situations. The admirable cast includes Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and John Saxon.
Black Christmas features an unseen killer, identified as "Billy", who makes creepy phone calls (in surreal voices, provided by multiple contributors) and stalks the Christmas partying sorority sisters and kills many of them in unique and bizarre ways. Although we never see Billy himself, we do see his shadow as well as seeing much of the film (including the murders) from his point of view, a trick that became a staple of the slasher genre. Black Christmas also features one of the first ever creepy hockey masks ever used in a horror film.
While many cite the Texas Chain Saw Massacre as the start of the slasher film boom (and it is difficult to minimize its impact), Black Christmas (incidentally released on the very same day as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 11 October) arguably has even more of a claim to the influence over the genre. Clark would later meet with John Carpenter who asked him for his ideas for a Black Christmas sequel. Their discussions included the concept of the killer being an escaped mental patient with a penchant for returning on certain red letter days like Christmas or Halloween. The film Carpenter wrote and directed based on these ideas was, of course, Halloween (1978), one of the most critically acclaimed slasher films of all time, spawning a series of 13 films (the last two films, so far, of the saga being set for release in 2020 and 2021).
Halloween had an enormous influence on the slasher genre (arguably being the definitive film of its kind), with its fingerprints on the Friday the 13th series (again launched, in part, by Savini), the Nightmare on Elm Street saga and the Scream quadrilogy. But the influence of Black Christmas is written all over Halloween, a film that is unlikely to have ever existed without Black Christmas.
Black Christmas itself was remade twice, once in 2006 (with Clark's input, production and blessing) and once in 2019, with his posthumous influence.
One reason Clark had no problem discussing a quasi-sequel to Black Christmas is because he indicated he was done with the horror genre. Therefore, he went about as far in the other direction as he could go for his next film.
That film was called Moonrunners (1975), an American movie about bootleggers in a Georgia county controlled by a corrupt political boss out to get the two moonshining, bow-and-arrow wielding cousins, who live with their Uncle Jesse and hang out at a bar called The Boar's Nest with their buddy Cooter. The cousins even drive a souped-up, audaciously painted former racing car with the doors welded shut in which they try to escape an equally corrupt sheriff named Rosco P. Coltrane. To top it all off, the whole thing is narrated by Wayon Jennings.
If you think I've just described The Dukes of Hazzard, you're not far from being correct. Moonrunners directly led to the creation of the 1979 – 1985 series. The cousins' stock car is named "Traveller" after General Lee's horse, while the Duke boys' car was called "The General Lee" and Moonrunners even had its own cute, denim clad version of Daisy Duke.
While Clark wasn't directly credited in the subsequent television show, it's clear that the success of the film was, in no small part, due to its producer. Clark went on to write the third episode produced (fourth aired) "Repo Men" and to write and produce the 2000 TV movie The Dukes of Hazzard: Hazzard in Hollywood featuring the original cast of the TV show.
Things weren't all wine and roses for Clark and the Dukes. In 2005, a Dukes of Hazzard theatrical film was released by Warner Bros. Noting that the film (with no involvement or credit for Clark), like the series before it, relied heavily on Moonrunners, Clark sued Warner Bros. with his partners and won a $17.5 million payout. Thus, Clark ended up making more money from the film he wasn't involved in than most people who made the film, and more money than he had made from previous involvement in the series.
After Moonrunners, Clark returned to Canada (and the director's chair) for Breaking Point (1976), starring Bo Svenson and Robert Culp. Clark continued as producer for that film and his next, 1979's Murder by Decree (a Canadian/ British Sherlock Holmes film) for which Clark won his first Genie Award for Best Achievement in Direction. Clark's 1980 film Tribute was an acclaimed Canadian film which he directed and the film was nominated for multiple awards. Jack Lemon was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his starring role as a terminally ill Broadway agent trying to make amends with family and friends.
After these acclaimed films and, indeed, after the success of the Dukes of Hazzard TV series, Clark would become best known for a different series. That series of films was, shall we say, much less of a hit with critics but was remarkably successful with audiences.
Bo Svenson in Breaking Point (1976) (IMDB)
That film was called Porky's (1981). Credited as launching the teen sex comedy craze, Porky's was arguably more directly influential than Black Christmas was on slasher films. While Porky's isn't Clark's most critically acclaimed film, it may well be his most personal. The ideas for Porky's had been formulated by Clark as early as 1972, during production of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things and Deathdream. Basing the adventures of the leads on his own experiences as a high schooler in mid-1950s Florida, the semi-autobiographical script was dictated into a tape recorder for his Breaking Point collaborator, Roger Swaybill. This unconventional cooperation was necessary due to Clark's somewhat appropriate illness with mononucleosis (aka "The Kissing Disease") during the authorship of this raunchy film.
Ironically, every major studio in Hollywood initially turned Porky's down. Undaunted, Clark returned to his friends in Canada and took advantage of the government benefits there. Yes, Porky's, although written, shot and set in the American state of Florida, was made under a tax shelter in Canada by Canadian company Astral Media.
The joke was on Hollywood because, in spite of its mixed reviews (Siskel and Ebert called it the worst film of 1982), Porky's was an enormous hit. Its initial theatrical run didn't end until 1983, two years after its November 1981 release, it was the third highest grossing film of 1982, became one of the 25 highest grossing films of all time (at the time) and went on to gross more than any other English language Canadian film. Estimates for Porky's haul go as high as $200 million. Just as Black Christmas influenced the successful Scream series (among other slasher hits), Porky's launched the teen sex subgenre of comedy and the ripples of the successful Porky's films continued to be felt throughout the popular American Pie films, beginning in 1999.
Not content to let his imitators have all the glory, Clark teamed up with both Alan Ormsby and Roger Swaybill to write Porky's II: The Next Day (1983), which Clark, again, directed. Although the sequel made only a fraction of the money that its predecessor grossed (and achieved even worse reviews, not to mention Clark's first Stinker's Bad Movie Award nomination), with its budget of a mere $7 million, its $55 million haul was success enough to warrant a second sequel in 1985's Porky's Revenge, which had little direct involvement by Clark. This would have remained the worst-grossing Porky's film, had it not been for the 2009 remake Porky's Pimpin' Pee Wee, which Clark had zero involvement in.
Clark stayed in the teen sex comedy genre even for less time than he remained in the horror genre. After completing Porky's, Clark again went as far in the other direction as possible for his next film which he wrote, directed and produced. Clark teamed with Leigh Brown to adapt Jean Shepherd's books, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters. Shepherd also received a co-writing credit.
The resulting film became known as A Christmas Story, starring Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon and Peter Billingsley, and was released on November 19, 1983. Yes, the same guy who made Black Christmas made 1983's A Christmas Story, the film with little Ralphie in the pink bunny pajamas that nobody can resist in re-broadcasts each holiday season.
Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story (1983) (IMDB)
Eventually, A Christmas Story would become Clark's most acclaimed and well-loved film. The same Roger Ebert who called Clark's Porky's the worst film of 1982 gave A Christmas Story four stars out of four and added the film to his list of "great movies". The film went on to win multiple Genie Awards and was a modest success for its time, earning over $20 million from a $3 million budget. However, A Christmas Story was released on home video and broadcast on television and found new life. It has since become a Christmas staple, broadcast as a special each year and watched and loved by millions every holiday season. In poll after poll, A Christmas Story continues to be named the best holiday film of all time and is frequently shown for 24 full hours on Christmas by cable channel TNT.
This is probably as far a far cry from the theme and influence of Black Christmas as one can get, yet one man is responsible for both films.
By this time, Clark had redefined multiple genres with his successful films and it seemed that he was on a winning streak. (See The Next Reel's "Out of Sequence: The Saga of Hollywood's Hidden Sequels" for more on that story.) Indeed, Clark was tapped to direct Sylvester Stallone's next film as both star and screenwriter. That film was called Rhinestone (1984) and Stallone's co-star was no less a celebrity than superstar Dolly Parton. Parton and Stallone were on career highs, similar to Clark's and being a country-music themed film (the musical genre which propelled Parton to superstardom) a hit was most assuredly in the cards. Stallone had passed on Romancing the Stone and left the production of Beverly Hills Cop (both also 1984) to focus on Rhinestone. That's how high the hopes were for the comedy.
But the winning streak didn't continue for the trio. Although Stallone calls Rhinestone "The most fun I ever had on a movie", he now indicates he regrets having made the film and he places quite a lot of the blame for its failure squarely on Clark, who replaced Stallone's original choice of director, Mike Nichols.
Rhinestone failed to make back its $28 million budget (by several million dollars) and currently holds a 15% rotten rating on RottenTomatoes. By way of comparison, the critically reviled Porky's maintains a 36% rotten rating.
Needless to say, Clark was in need of a big hit with audiences and critics after Rhinestone to get him back to the glory of A Christmas Story. He thought he found such a hit in the comedy action-drama Turk 182 (1985) in which he cast Timothy Hutton, Robert Urich, Kim Cattrall, Peter Boyle & Robert Culp. Although the vigilante film received some positive notices, it was ultimately a critical failure, receiving zero stars from Gene Siskel and earning less than $2 million from a budget of $15 million.
Clark went back to the known with From the Hip (1987), which he directed, produced and co-wrote with none other than David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice, Big Little Lies). Clark reteamed with Darren McGavin and cast stars Judd Nelson, Ray Walston, Elizabeth Perkins and John Hurt in this courtroom comedy.
How could Clark go wrong? Well, unfortunately, he did go wrong and although the film has some good laughs and even surprising drama, it was panned by critics and barely made its budget back.
Had Clark simply peaked with A Christmas Story or was the issue that after his monster hits, the man who influenced multiple genres as a true independent was now part of the Hollywood system and subject to interference from other producers and studio heads? Whatever the reason, the next big hit continued to elude Clark.
With co-writing by Richard Matheson (Trilogy of Terror, The Omega Man, The Legend of Hell House) and popular and lauded stars Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd, not to mention the production of Aaron Spelling, Clark's next film as writer and director, Loose Cannons (1990) had all the markings of a hit but received universally negative reviews and earned under $6 million from its $15 million budget.
Clark reteamed with Alan Ormsby to executive produce the Ormsby-penned slasher flick Popcorn (1991) which Ormsby was slated to direct. Unfortunately, Ormsby was replaced as director by Mark Herrier a few weeks into filming (retaining credit for the films-within-the-film). In spite of its memorable marketing campaign, Popcorn failed to seriously impress critics and was not a box office success, although it did receive some decent returns on home video.
However, in spite of the lack of initial success, Popcorn marked another instance in which a Clark film was influential, especially on the slasher genre. Popcorn was one of the first of the post-modernist, self-aware horror films that became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its influence can be felt on Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) and, once again, Scream (1996).
Not even returning to the safest possible bet proved to bring Clark back to major hit-maker status. 1994's It Runs in the Family (later renamed My Summer Story, for obvious reasons) was the official sequel to A Christmas Story and again featured the co-writing of Clark, Brown and Shepherd (and the droll narration of Shepherd). Again, the film focused around the character of Ralphie Parker, now played by Kieran Culkin and his parents (played by Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen) but this time the reviews were decidedly mixed.
This is possibly because Shepherd approached the project, admittedly, just for the money. Other films in the "Ralphie Saga", Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss (1988), The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982) and The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976) were made for television (specifically PBS) and netted Shepherd quite a bit less than A Christmas Story in royalties, so he set out, with Clark, to replicate the success of their biggest film.
While it didn't quite match A Christmas Story in acclaim or monetary returns, It Runs in the Family did manage to make over $70 million from a $15 million budget.
Baby Geniuses (1999) (IMDB)
Clark wasn't out yet and Hollywood came calling again with Baby Geniuses (1999). From a screenplay co-written by Clark and based on a story co-written by Clark, with Clark directing, Baby Geniuses starred Kim Cattrall, Christopher Lloyd, Kathleen Turner, Peter MacNicol, and Ruby Dee. Baby Geniuses had a $12 million budget, much of which was spent on synthesizing human speech with CGI (i.e., they made the titular infants "speak" much like the farm animals in 1995's Babe). While the film earned back more than double its budget (pulling in over $36 million) but became Clark's worst reviewed film to date, "winning" Clark the Stinkers Award for Worst Sense of Direction.
No, Clark wasn't a "stinker". In fact, his next film, 1999's I'll Remember April (starring Haley Joel Osment) received relatively good reviews and awards nominations while his 2002 romance Now and Forever was popular with audiences and won a number of respectable awards.
Clark continued to run in different directions with his career, returning in 2004 to the Baby Geniuses franchise with Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2. This one, however, was not a surprise hit and made back less than its $20 million budget. Further, Superbabies was nominated in almost every category for both the Golden Raspberry Awards and the Stinkers, is now considered one of the worst films of all time and holds a very rare 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Superbabies was the last film Clark directed in his lifetime and it was a hell of a sendoff.
Over the years, Clark had been successful making television movies like 2004's The Karate Dog but most were lightweight compared to some of his earlier output.
After the successful lawsuit over The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) and the production of 2006's Black Christmas remake, not to mention a string of big films, both successful and unsuccessful, Clark was a multimillionaire, thinking of his next moves in the movie industry, including remakes of Porky's (with Howard Stern producing) as well as remakes of Deathdream and Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things.
Tragically, Clark's career ended there and these remakes were not to be. On April 4, 2007, Clark and his youngest son Ariel (22) were driving on Pacific Coast Highway when an SUV crossed the median and hit their car head-on, killing both Clarks. The driver had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit and was driving without a license. Due to a plea bargain of no contest, the man who killed Clark served six years in prison.
A cursory look at Clark's career shows many ups and downs and an ending on a decidedly low note, with Superbabies topping many "worst movie of all time" lists. However, looking at his career this way misses the most important aspect of Clark's career. He died in 2007 but his legacy rolls on.
No history of slasher films is complete without a mention of the influence Black Christmas had on Halloween and the genre at large. Porky's influence may be almost as large, albeit on a less respected genre than splatter pictures. Clark's independent productions like Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Deathdream and Deranged are considered horror classics to this day, as is Black Christmas. The Dukes of Hazzard maintains a loyal fanbase even now and would not exist without Clark having brought Moonrunners to production.
Had that been all, Clark would still be considered an influential legend in multiple genres, but it is almost impossible to measure the unprecedented success of A Christmas Story. Few films are so beloved after multiple viewings and few films have been successful with multiple generations of viewers. To this day, A Christmas Story is an annual staple of holiday programming and families huddle around the television to watch and quote the lines every single year.
The influence and legacy of Clark is virtually incalculable and few artists have had such influence on as many genres as Clark has had. You may not remember all of Clark's films as classics but it's a safe bet that you remember more of his films than you realize he made and his influence is felt across many unrelated films.
Remember Bob Clark for his legacy. There is no other artist quite like him. Wherever you look in film, his influence is there, a lot or a little. Remember that.
See you in The Next Reel.