04 April 2007

The Legacy Of Bob Clark (1941-2007)

Bob Clark, the veteran director who created a great many of Canada's most successful feature films, died today in California under truly tragic and senseless circumstances: while driving with his son Ariel (just 22 years old) on the Pacific Highway at about 2:30 am, Clark's vehicle was struck head-on by an SUV that swerved into his lane. Clark and his son were both killed, while Hector Valazquez-Nava--the driver of the other vehicle--lived, only to be arrested for gross vehicular manslaughter, driving without a license, and driving while under the influence of alcohol.

(This comes on the heels of outrage across Canada over the wrist-slap handed to Peter Leon Howe of New Brunswick, who in July of last year, drank an entire case of beer and a half-bottle of whiskey and slammed his car into cyclist Robbie McRitchie, killing the 23 year old. Howe, with a blood alcohol level of 140 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood--nearly twice the legal limit--fled the crime scene, and was sentenced to a mere two years of house arrest, a long way from the maximum sentence of 14 years in prison...)

While most of Clark's most famous works were produced in Canada under the "tax shelter" system of the 1970s, the man himself was a native of Louisiana, who was educated in Michigan and then Miami, where he met his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Alan Ormsby.

His early successes were in the horror genre, beginning with 1972's "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things" (his onscreen credit read: "Benjamin" Clark), starring co-writer Ormsby as a director who leads his cast and crew to a secluded island to enact a satanic ritual, only to inadvertently raise the dead who, of course, are hungry for the usual stuff. An obvious response to George A. Romero's "Night Of The Living Dead"--it achieved nowhere near the cult status of its inspiration, but it's a lot of fun and surprisingly low-key by today's standards (gotta admit, as a kid, "Orville" freaked me out).

His followup was the darker, and more politically-charged, "Deathdream" (1974), one of the first films of its era to respond to the subject of the Vietnam War explicitly. An update of Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw , it dealt with a family whose son perishes in the war overseas and is brought back to life with the expected gruesome results. It featured the first onscreen work of makeup/FX legend Tom Savini, who would later collaborate with Romero on "Dawn Of The Dead" and many of the 1980s' more notorious splatter films, including the first "Friday The 13th" entry. A coproduction between the U.S. and Canada, "Deathdream" was shot in Florida but its post-production was done up north. When Ormsby struck a deal to finance a new thriller, Clark brought the production to Canada to piggy-back on the "Deathdream" arrangement and save some money.

That film was 1974's "Deranged", which Clark produced (Ormsby directed) in Oshawa, Ontario (standing in for Michigan, although someone forgot to remove the Ontario plates from all the vehicles). The loose biography of Ed Gein--the serial killer/cannibal who inspired Robert Bloch to created "Psycho"s Norman Bates-- is largely a one-man show for Roberts Blossom (you might remember him from "Christine" as the old coot who sells Keith Gordon the car), who gave a memorable, totally out-there performance as the troubled "Ezra Cobb" in a truly disturbing entry that combined graphic violence with a documentary style.

Clark stayed in Canada to direct his next shocker, one that became a pioneering classic: "Black Christmas", shot at The University Of Toronto, starred Olivia Hussey, then newcomer Margot Kidder, and "2001"s Keir Dulleau. Chances are you already know it, and while often-imitated, IMHO it's lost none of its power or innovation: one of the first uses of the roaming POV shot, the taut cross-cutting between the sorority girls under seige and the cop hot on the killer's trail, and the sucker-punch "twist" ending in which the maniac gets away. According to Clark, a young John Carpenter did meet with him to conceive a sequel that would be set on, you guessed it...October 31st. Whether Carpenter truly cribbed from his style guide or not, Clark regarded "Halloween"s apparent homages and blockbuster success with humour and humility...

"Murder By Decree" (1979), is, IMHO, Clark's "other" true masterpiece, the Genie-award winning thriller that had Sherlock Holmes and Watson on the trail of Jack The Ripper and in the process expose a conspiracy involving the Freemasons and the British monarchy. Evocative period detail, some truly knuckle-whitening suspense set pieces, and superb performances across the board--esp. leads Christopher Plummer and James Mason--make this one a unique and complex spin on some familiar lore and a true benchmark in Canadian cinema.

"Tribute" followed the next year, to equal acclaim. A drama based upon the play by Bernard Slade, it was lauded for its fine performances between estranged father and son Jack Lemmon and Robby Benson (Lemmon was nominated for a Genie, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe, winning for the former).

Clark's next was a change of genre that became his biggest sensation, and one of my least favorites of his (which I know puts me in the minority): "Porky's", shot in Florida in 1980 with Canadian funds and suffice to say it became an inexplicable hit the size of which filmmakers can only dream about, no matter what country they work in. One of the first in the tiresome 80s "coming of age" sex romps (you know, the kind that frequently cast 30-year olds as horny teenagers), it spawned two sequels and Howard Stern has been planning a remake for years. (Updated April 4/07: This week's issue of "Entertainment Weekly", in a grim coincidence, features a lengthy article on the "Porky's" series)

Clark returned to Toronto in 1982 for another complete 180 in tone and subject matter: "A Christmas Story"--the delightful first-person account of a boy's surreal Yuletide misadventures based upon the tale by Jean Shepherd (set in Cleveland, some exteriors were shot there) which, despite lacklustre box-office became a perennial holiday classic.

He worked in the U.S. for the remainder of his career, ping-ponging between forgettable (and regrettable) mainstream comedies like "Rhinestone" (yes, Sly and Dolly's C&W effort), "From The Hip", "Loose Cannons", and the--ulp--"Baby Geniuses" saga. He contributed to special edition DVDs of his early thrillers and seemed content to crank out works that many of his fans felt were beneath his gifts. Clark acted as executive producer to studio fare like "The Dukes Of Hazzard" remake and the recent "re-imagining" of his own "Black Christmas", and was prepping a remake of "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things" that was due to shoot this spring.

I prefer to remember Clark for his hits rather than his misses, as a genre pioneer, and an inspiration to those of us who feel that Canadian cinema can aspire to more than dreary period melodramas and tiresome arthouse fodder. Even in his sloppiest work, he trusted his instincts, experimented in different genres, never forgot his audience, and managed to create a classic or two along the way.

(I'm indebted to Caelum Vatnsdal's fine book "They Came From Within: A History Of Canadian Horror Cinema" for details on the production of "Deranged" and "Black Christmas").