A director best known for B-level horror pics and one T&A sensation might not sound like a promising source of Christmas cheer. Yet when Bob Clark died in 2007, he left behind two films that deserve a place alongside Yuletide classics like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life.
What ties Black Christmas (1974) and A Christmas Story (1983) together is director Bob Clark’s healthy skepticism about the holidays, coupled with a genuine fondness for his characters.
Bob Clark’s films Black Christmas (1974) and A Christmas Story (1983) have become staples of holiday TV, and both have been re-released on DVD this season. A long-time cult favourite, Black Christmas was made possible by Canada’s tax-shelter allowances of the ’70s and early ’80s, and was shot in various recognizable Toronto locations (among them, the University of Toronto).
Black Christmas begins during a party, as a bunch of sorority girls celebrate the upcoming holiday break. During the festivities, a killer manages to slip into the Pi Kappa Sig house attic unseen. When the girls receive a series of disturbing, profanity-laden phone calls and one of their housemates disappears, they turn to the police for help. While the psycho dispatches his victims one by one, three of the spunkier co-eds — Jess (Olivia Hussey), Phyl (SCTV’s Andrea Martin) and Barb (a scene-stealing Margot Kidder) — try to survive long enough for the local police chief (John Saxon) to trace those increasingly menacing calls.
After a decent theatrical run in Canada, Black Christmas was DOA on American screens and dismissed by critics as a cruddy, low-rent slasher film. Thanks to word of mouth, the odd midnight screening and the internet (where one die-hard Canadian fan has created the popular fansite called Itsmebilly.com), the film has attracted a number of passionate devotees over the years, including Steve Martin, Elvis Presley (!) and countless film geeks who have pronounced it a groundbreaking entry in the horror film canon.
I am firmly in the geek camp on this one. While undeniably low budget, Black Christmas was innovative in both plot and style. The movie’s subjective camerawork (from the killer’s point of view), claustrophobic setting, creepy sound effects and the showdown between the crazed killer and a "final girl" would eventually become staples of the slasher genre. As Clark acknowledges on one of the DVD extras, the climactic moment in 1979’s When a Stranger Calls ("The call is coming from inside the house!") was a blatant ripoff of his film. Given Clark’s friendship and brief collaboration with director John Carpenter, horror aficionados also maintain that Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) was inspired by the heavy breathing and stalking camerawork pioneered in Black Christmas.
After Black Christmas, Clark forged an unpredictable career filled with diverse projects and about-faces. Instead of continuing in the horror vein, he established a reputation for directing A-list actors in classier, award-winning fare like Murder by Decree (1978) and Tribute (1980). In 1982, however, he changed course yet again, releasing the semi-autobiographical teen exploitation romp Porky’s. Critically maligned but astoundingly profitable, Porky’s enabled Clark to obtain U.S. funding for his next film, A Christmas Story (1983), which was based on the writings of American humourist Jean Shepherd.
If a feel-good holiday movie seems out of place in Clark’s resumé, one need only listen to his DVD commentary on A Christmas Story: Ultimate Collector’s Edition. In it, he gives a rhapsodic account of the first time he heard Shepherd on the radio; it suggests that A Christmas Story was no money gig — it was a labour of love. Based on Shepherd’s novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the film unfolds as a series of nostalgic vignettes with one central plot line: young Ralphie Parker’s (Peter Billingsley) determination to receive a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas (despite his mother’s warning, "You’ll shoot your eye out!").
What drew Clark to Shepherd’s work was its tone, which Clark described as "classic Americana without sentimentality." A grown-up Ralphie (Jean Shepherd) narrates, Wonder Years-style, while his onscreen nine-year-old self daydreams, fends off school bullies and endures a truly bizarre (and politically incorrect) family Christmas dinner involving a "Chinese turkey."
Some of it comes off as precious, but Clark was careful to season the movie with enough realism and edge to keep things interesting. The scene where Ralphie accidentally utters the "F-dash-dash-dash word" and is treated to a mouthful of Lifebuoy soap is instantly relatable; so is a moment where Ralphie and his two pals, Flick and Schwartz, engage in a schoolyard game of "triple dog dare" with disastrous results. For a movie that’s become a family crowd-pleaser, A Christmas Story features some surprisingly dysfunctional elements, including an ongoing, passive-aggressive parental feud over a leg lamp to a visit with one of the creepiest mall Santas ever.
A Christmas Story was well received in Canada, and it earned Clark two Genie Awards (for best director and screenplay). Like Black Christmas, the movie was stalled by a truncated theatrical release in the U.S., and only achieved popular acclaim when it became available again via TV broadcasts and VHS tapes years later. A Christmas Story now has such a rabid following that the TBS cable network plays 24-hour marathons of it every Christmas Eve. To mark the movie’s 25th anniversary, thousands recently made a pilgrimage to the Cleveland home where some of the film’s exteriors were shot.
What ties these seemingly disparate films together is Clark’s healthy skepticism about the spirit of the holidays, coupled with a genuine fondness for his characters — the same "warmth and affection" he adored in Jean Shepherd’s fiction. It’s there in Marian Waldman’s hilarious portrayal of Mrs. Mac, the boozy housemother in Black Christmas. It’s also present in A Christmas Story’s final scenes, which involve a shambolic, last-minute detour to the Chop Suey Palace. Reflecting on their unorthodox turkey dinner, the entire Parker family erupts in delirious laughter, which fills the restaurant. The moment feels joyous and entirely unscripted — and is precisely the sort of thing that sets Clark’s holiday films apart from the rest.
Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.