Benjamin ‘Bob’ Clark could have been one of the leading lights of the horror genre after making a series of popular and critically acclaimed shockers during the 1970’s. Yet despite being as prolific (often more so) than the likes of Wes Craven, George Romero, Tobe Hooper and David Cronenberg, he never had the same fan following, and was able to leave the genre behind at the end of the decade whilst other directors found themselves pigeon-holed.
Clark made his movie debut in 1967 with the incredibly obscure She-Man, a strange comedy about transvestism which has now vanished without trace. Around the same time, he had been working with writer Alan Ormsby, who he met at the University of Florida. The two of them worked on several plays together, taking it in turn to write and direct, with Ormsby also acting in many of them.
When the two met again in 1971, Clark revealed that he had raised a tiny budget to make a horror film. His story, entitled Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, was an unashamed rip-off of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which had been a major hit a few years before despite having been made on a low budget. Hoping to capitalise on the success of that film, Clark had written a story which took many of the elements which made Night so successful and reworked them into a comedy-flavoured story. Ormsby would add his own contributions to the story, and also took the lead role.
Although Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things didn’t match the critical or financial success of Night of the Living Dead, it was popular, and quickly gained a cult following. Noting the popularity of the film, a group of Canadian producers invited Clark and Ormsby to travel North to make another horror movie. This time, Ormsby wrote the screenplay, initially called The Veteran but eventually released in different territories as Deathdream and Dead of Night in 1972.
Deathdream eschewed the comic elements of Children… and instead offered a downbeat, bleak and subtle twist of the old Monkey’s Paw story which illustrated the old adage ‘be careful what you wish for because it might happen’.
In this case, a woman who’s son has been killed in Vietnam wishes him to return to life – he does, but as a bloodthirsty zombie. Critically praised, Deathdream remains one of the sleeper classics of Seventies horror cinema.
In 1974, Ormsby and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things co-star Jeff Gillen made the Ed Gein-inspired Deranged. Although not credited, Clark served as a producer on the film.
His next film as director would be the influential Black Christmas, again shot in Canada in 1974. This psycho movie predated Halloween yet had many of the same elements, and boasts a genuinely unnerving ending, where the unidentified killer is still very much at large. It reinforced Clark’s growing reputation as a horror movie director amongst hardcore fans.
In 1976, he had a change of pace with the thriller Breaking Point before helming the popular British/Canadian co-production Murder By Decree in 1979. This moody gothic piece had an all-star cast and successfully combined the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes with the all-too-real serial killer Jack the Ripper. The two characters had met before in 1965’s A Study in Terror, but Clark’s film was in a class of its own. One of the very best Holmes movies (and almost certainly the finest Ripper film) it boasted a fine performance by Christopher Plummer as the great detective, and is unquestionably Clark’s best work.
Clark may have looked set to continue on the path of urban gothic horror during the 1980’s, but his career instead took a very different turn as he directed the huge hit Porkys in 1981. This immature sex comedy was a huge hit, spawning sequels and imitations throughout the decade, and its success propelled Clark very much into the Hollywood establishment. He never made another horror film (although he was an uncredited producer on 1991 movie Popcorn, written – and initially directed – by Alan Ormsby).
Instead, his career varied from comedies like Loose Cannons (1990), action movies (Turk 182 – 1985) and syrupy family films (the perennial favourite A Christmas Story, 1983). These films have had varied levels of critical and commercial success, and few of them suggest the work of an auteur – rather, Clark seems very much like a director for hire, a safe pair of hands who can make all types of movies, even if they are The Karate Dog and Baby Genuises 2 – Return of the Super Babies, his two 2004 productions that would be, tragically, his final films.
Clark intimated in interviews around the time that his early films began to appear on DVD that he planned remakes of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and Deathdream. Sadly, he was killed, along with his son, in a head-on collision in Los Angeles in April 2007.
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