1941 - 2007
Teen sex comedies. Cheap kiddie fantasy films. Sherlock Holmes pastiches. YA fiction adaptations. Transvestite melodrama. Jack the Ripper fiction. Vulgar star vehicle musicals. Misguided '80s concept comedies. Slapstick comedy about dogs. Babysploitation. These are a few of my favorite things, these subgenres that are not as splashy and sleazy as those that jump immediately to mind in discussions exploitation cinema, but at heart they are exploitation movies nonetheless. Bob Clark gave the world memorable entries in all of these maligned genres. In more popular, flashier junk cinema, Clark was a titan, directing key titles in those evergreen genres that define exploitation: slashers, rape-and-revenge, zombies, Bo Svenson vs. Mafia.
On a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, in Pacific Palisades, filmmaker Bob Clark, 67, and his son Ariel Hanrath-Clark, 22, died in a collision with a drunk driver, April 4, 2007.
I strongly suspect you will be reading a lot of memorials today that read like this one: "Bob Clark had his one great, shining moment. He directed A Christmas Story." It seems Clark's holiday film touches a lot of viewers deeply, and for them I am happy; for me, it is like watching Russ Meyer's The Seven Minutes: it is passably entertaining, it bears the stylistic stamp of its director, but it is the work of a great exploitation filmmaker trying to go legit, and avoiding what he does best. What's the funniest movie Bob Clark ever made about growing up? Oh please: see the poster at the top of this post.
A Christmas Story, coasting on someone else's empty nostalgia, smearily photographed to signify a cliched period feel, wildly uneven in its internal reality, condescendingly narrated by the smarmy Jean Shepherd... The only Bob Clark movie ever to gain respectability, the only one many audiences love, is the only one I have no time for. And I've made a lot of time for Bob Clark.
Two related, never separated, always complicated modes of art appreciation are the principle attitudes with which we watch films of limited budget, resource and class: the ironist stance and the true believer stance. The ironist may be located anywhere along the appreciation/derision spectrum, from camp appreciation to "So Bad It's Good" to "Laughing At, Not With". And the true believer, for whatever you make of it, finds satisfaction in "So Crazy, I Can't Believe It".
"So Crazy" is the more interesting, for it encompasses the artistic idiosyncrasy, the unique bad taste, antisocial attitude, and transgression, the brutal honesty about what entertains us, and absence of pretension, that are rare animals in mainstream film. The B movie, the drive-in, the grindhouse, the Wizard Video catalogue, whatever you want to say about them, they do not pretend. With more frequency than the mall multiplex, do they deliver: So Good It's Good. The exploitation true believer knows something about acquired taste, as well as the art house devotee, as well as the student of the avant garde.
And this weekend, when you're watching Grindhouse, and if you're reading reviews of Grindhouse, don't listen to any critic with a history of shitting on junk-genre movies, who suddenly pretends to be an expert on their appeal: It's bullshit. Go ahead. Read Owen Gleiberman's review. It's right here, loves the movie and is full of shit. And back to Mr. Clark, unfortunately, the vast majority of obits this weekend? Are going to be bullshit. He was by every report, an uncommonly nice man, and made one movie everyone and grandparents love, but the rest of his filmography, they hate.
So Black Christmas (1974), bloody and foul is also a taught, tense thriller, a bona fide, acknowledged classic of a slasher picture, because it does those things that slasher pictures do best, without shame or disguise. And so likewise the creepazoid Deathdream (1974) does for zombie ickiness and 'Namsploitation. And Porky's obviously struck a nerve with audiences and signals a minor paradigm shift in teen sex comedies. Why not admit it: Baby Geniuses is great at what it does, and most audiences are too cool to enjoy a totally committed, bizarre comedy about CGI-enhanced babies. At some point, you must meet the genre halfway. Baby Geniuses is, as they say, what it is, and if we can get into what it is, not what you hate it for being, it is impossible to deny the film's fevered grotesque hilarity. It's almost like no movie about super-babies was going to please you people! Likewise, The Karate Dog. It is as genuine, nutty and gooney movie about a karate dog as you could want. If you didn't want it, that's your problem. Not "kitsch", not "camp", not "making fun of" can make you enjoy it, if you aren't ready to watch a talking dog do karate.
Horror aficionados will have an easier time 'fessing up to an enthusiasm for zombie comedies. But what about "zombie comedy" is inherently more respectable or even "cooler" than "dog comedy"? A: Nothing. And Bob Clark made a a zombie comedy almost as low-budge inventive as Dead/Alive, which walks the scary-funny line in a more interesting way than Shaun of the Dead. The movie is Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972), which is not as funny as King of the Zombies (1941), but is surely an all time top-five zombie comedy.
Bob Clark was not among the most stylish technical filmmakers, nor the wild and woolliest storyteller. Clark brought instead a full, unironic investment in the genre to every movie he made, and that is what makes them so solid and fun. Murder by Decree (1979), his Holmes vs. Ripper tale, is as classy and British as he can muster, and more successful on those terms than Hollywood's stabs at the characters. His 1995 Judy Blume TV adaptation, Fudge-A-Mania, bolstered by Darren McGavin's reliable charm, is better, funnier for an adult audience than the book. As totally tacky, starstruck musicals go, Rhinestone (1984) has more charismatic performers and better songs than Dreamgirls. Given that filming Bo Svenson kick ass is an honorable cinematic goal unto itself, 1976's Breaking Point can't really go wrong (though few films can live up to its tagline: "Innocence and Fury Don't Mix... THEY EXPLODE!").
My favorite Clark film, besides Black Christmas? 1967's She-Man (DVD available from Something Weird). Why would an upstanding Army man start dressing up as a woman? Because he's being blackmailed by a cross-dressing dominatrix named Dominita, and must be her slave or she will rat him out for deserting the Korean conflict, that's why. And you know, when it comes to young exploitation directors who start their careers with black and white cross-dressing melodrama? Bob Clark's isn't the craziest, most pathological, the greatest, or the most notorious, but it's one of the most solidly entertaining and good-natured.
And in the end, all Karate Dogs go to Heaven.