by Joe Fay
Name me a holiday film made in the last fifty years that’s scarier than Black Christmas. Well, ever, actually. Forget the last fifty years.
I’ll help you out a little: there are none.
When I stopped laughing, I thought again about the dichotomy of two Christmas movies (one of which is A Christmas Story) that are so wildly different from each other that they defy comparison, but whose sole link is the man who directed them both, and about how, well, absolutely weird that still seems to me. So, I thought I’d share that here.
Bob Clark’s directorial resume reads like a schizophrenic’s list of favorite movies. Select highlights include exploitation schlock like She-Man: A Story of Fixation and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things; ‘70s shockers Black Christmas and Murder by Decree; ‘80s teenage craziness like Porky’s AND Porky’s II: The Next Day; “real” Hollywood movies like A Christmas Story and Rhinestone (yes, the Sly Stallone-Dolly Parton one); and then later pure family entertainment like The Karate Dog and BOTH Baby Geniuses films.
This is the kind of varied career resume that is hard to find amongst film directors. Clark seemed to handle drama, mystery, camp, horror, low comedy, and children’s themes with equal aplomb. In other words, he was a director’s director, not confined or exiled to one genre or another. And, to me, there is no better proof of this than that he directed both Black Christmas and A Christmas Story.
Black Christmas (also called Silent Night Evil Night in Canada) has the reputation among serious horror film scholars as The Horror Movie That Most Directly Influenced John Carpenter’s Halloween. Back-to-back viewings of the two films reveal a number of noteworthy similarities, the most obvious being in the use of the camera in presenting a first-person point-of-view of the killer. It is a frightening horror film about a group of sorority sisters menaced by an unseen slasher. The film stars a laundry list of halfway-recognizable B- and C-list actors who avail themselves quite well of a scary and taut little script.
A Christmas Story has the reputation among almost all who have seen it as one of a handful of quintessentially CHRISTMAS-Y Christmas movies. Its uber-nostalgic, even hazy recollection of Christmases past (made physical in the use of optical filters that give a snowy, wintery haze to the edges of the frame) seems to work its way into the hearts of most people who watch the movie. It is a heart-warming tale of one boy’s quest for the perfect Christmas present. The film stars a laundry list of halfway-recognizable B- and C-list actors who avail themselves quite well of a wonderful and extremely funny little script (penned by Clark alongside Jean Sheperd).
The first time I saw Black Christmas was at a film festival hosted by Quentin Tarantino. I remember exactly where I was (the original Alamo Drafthouse in the row behind Tarantino), and when it was (1999). I’ve watched the movie at least a dozen times since then.
I don’t remember a time when I don’t remember A Christmas Story. I must have seen Ralphy’s misadventures with his 200-shot, range-model air rifle as soon as it was released in 1983. But I’ve seen it so many times on video and cable since then that it doesn’t matter when I saw it for the first time. To paraphrase Dan Aykroyd from Dragnet, “I don’t have to read it to ya, mister, I can quote it to ya.”
The two films couldn’t be more unlike each other. They were made just nine years apart, but are miles away from each other thematically and technically. And yet, one man is responsible for making both of them. Simply amazing.
Bob Clark was killed by a drunk driver on the Pacific Coast Highway in 2007, depriving the world of however many more brilliant films: poignant, scary, both, or otherwise. But his legacy is secure, at least with me. He holds the distinction of directing not just my favorite Christmas horror movie, but also my favorite Christmas movie, period. And that, my friends, is a Christmas miracle!
Oh, and I bought original posters for both films in Heritage weekly movie poster auctions. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!