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April 25-May 1, 2007

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Cult Leader

Bob Clark, R.I.P.: 'DeathDream' was the cultiest of cult movies from a true B-movie maestro

By Steve Palopoli

EVERY FILM nerd should be able to name their top five directors. While mine may be idiosyncratic—although, really, shouldn't everyone's?—I don't consider them to be especially controversial: Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Luis Buñuel, Alan Pakula, Bob Clark.

Well, OK, except for that last one, maybe. Clark's work has never been fully appreciated for its range and vision. When he died tragically in the early morning hours of April 5, killed in Los Angeles along with his 22-year-old son when their car was hit head-on by an apparently drunk driver, most obits remembered him for A Christmas Story. God knows he deserves a proper cult-movie tribute for that alone, since the 1983 film is the rare classic that survived as an alternative-holiday cult favorite for well over a decade before fully passing into the mainstream.

But there's so much more to Clark's legacy. Anyone actually outraged to see him on a list of favorite directors probably knows him for 1982's Porky's, his biggest hit. I have to admit, I've never been a fan, and the sequel he wrote and directed the same year as A Christmas Story was even worse. However, it can't be denied that Porky's was groundbreaking in terms of teen sex comedies. Shortly before his death, he was reportedly at work on an updated version with Howard Stern.

Or you may know Clark because the inferior remake of the same name from last year brought some renewed interest in his fantastic 1974 B-horror flick Black Christmas. That film shows off many of Clark's strengths as a director, and it's kind of the evil twin of A Christmas Story—much darker and more cynical in tone, but very similar in superficial appearance. In fact, Clark captures a holiday feel that's even more lush and warm in parts than the one he would famously deliver a decade later. And then drops a homicidal killer into it.

One reason I have such fondness for Clark's work is that to me he was the Billy Wilder of the B-movie—uncommonly versatile, able to craft a minor masterpiece in any genre. Like Wilder, his visual flair was more subtle than that of a Coppola or a Leone, but his eye for composition and atmosphere could catch you off guard at any time.

For my money, no movie better captures Clark's unique vision than 1974's DeathDream, also released under the titles Dead of Night and The Night Andy Came Home. It's the story of a soldier named Andy Brooks (played by Richard Backus) who returns from the Vietnam War, but spooks his family and friends, and needs to give himself injections of blood to stay alive. I first saw this movie when I was a kid, and I wasn't able to forget it. It's a coming-home war drama, a Twilight Zone-type shocker and a zombie movie, all rolled into one.

Recently, I spoke to Will Viharo, better known as "Will the Thrill," who books the Parkway and Cerrito Speakeasy revival theaters in the East Bay. I've enjoyed many a program Viharo put together over the years, but what has always stuck in my mind more than anything is one time he went out of his way in a print interview I read to praise DeathDream. So I called him up to ask him about the movie and Clark's legacy.

"It's the creepy ambience of DeathDream that sticks with you," says Viharo. "It's a great grindhouse experience."

Just as the film reminds me of a great Twilight Zone, it reminds Viharo of Twin Peaks.

"There's this whole kind of malaise hanging over the film," he says. "There's a decay, just like [Andy's] decaying."

Viharo is also a fan of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, Clark's earlier horror film that's even weirder than DeathDream, but also nails a very creepy vibe.

In the end, I hope that everything Clark was able to achieve with these low-budget films becomes part of his legacy. There's so much more to his life's work than A Christmas Story, great though it was. He could surprise you, shock you, scare you, make you laugh and make you think.

Bob Clark, R.I.P.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite Bob Clark movie moment here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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