Bob Clark Horror Collection – Blu-ray Review

Bob Clark Horror Collection

Directed by Bob Clark.
Starring John Saxon, Margot Kidder, Alan Ormsby, Jane Daly, Lynn Carlin, Richard Backus, John Marley, Anya Ormsby, Olivia Hussey, Art Hindle, Douglas McGrath.


Box set featuring three 1970s horror classics from cult filmmaker Bob Clark.

Bob Clark is not really a name you see bandied around in discussions about horror directors that often. This is most probably because the late director is best known for making ‘80s teenage sex comedy Porky’s, its sequel Porky’s II: The Next Day and gentle family comedy A Christmas Story (as well as the awful Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton musical Rhinestone, but we won’t hold that against him) but back in the mid-1970s Clark cut his teeth directing three horror movies that gave him some serious genre credibility, most notably in the case of the third movie in this unrelated trilogy, and thanks to 101 Films these three movies have been put together in a rather swanky Blu-ray box set.

First up is Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things from 1972, and on paper this movie sounds a lot more exciting than it actually is as the plot is basically a group of young hippies muck about with daft rituals and unwittingly raise the dead. However, this was only Clark’s second directorial feature and it is clearly the work of a filmmaker still finding his feet as, despite the simple plot and the chance to make an impression in a post-Night of the Living Dead landscape, the lacklustre pacing and awful script make its 86-minute running time a chore to sit through.

None of this is helped by the irritating cast of characters that make their way to the small island in order to perform the occult ritual. Led by the arrogant Alan (played by Bob Clark’s co-screenwriter Alan Ormsby), the group are a theatre troupe and are on the island for a night of scary games, with Alan holding court and pretending to be some sort of master in the occult. This is, of course, nonsense as Alan has already set up some actors made up as zombies to jump out on his unsuspecting colleagues, but when one of the troupe recites a certain ritual reading the dead that populate the cemetery outside do start to rise and go on the attack.

But you have to wait for over an hour to get to that attack, by which time you will be rooting for the undead to finish off the irritating actors. Looking at it now, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things was probably more shocking in 1972 as it was in colour – as opposed to Romero’s black-and-white zombie opus – and the zombie make-up isn’t that bad considering the miniscule budget. However, the movie is billed as a horror-comedy and it doesn’t score highly in either department, especially when viewed through a modern lens, resulting in a competently made but ultimately dull zombie movie where the humour nowadays is derived from the costumes and the terrible acting. Still, the Blu-ray picture looks very good considering the original materials it was shot with, and the colours do pop nicely when all the carnage does eventually start.

Next up is Deathdream, a.k.a. Dead of Night, from 1974 and you can see the growth in Bob Clark’s style as this is a much more confident and well put together movie. Written by Alan Ormsby, Deathdream is basically the full-length version of the Timmy Baterman part of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, albeit just under a decade before King wrote it, and the Clark/Ormsby team was clearly on a creative roll.

Richard Backus plays Andy Brooks, a young man who is fighting in the Vietnam war. His parents Charles (John Marley) and Christine (Lynn Carlin) receive an official letter informing them that Andy has been killed in action – which we see onscreen – but as the family, including Andy’s sister Cathy (Anya Ormsby), grieve for him, Andy returns home, albeit more withdrawn than he was before he left, but the family put that down to the things he saw during the war.

However, all is not well as Andy shows increasingly bizarre behaviour, and after Charles witnesses his son strangle the family dog with one hand, things deteriorate to the point that bodies start appearing all over the town. Charles knows who is responsible but Andy’s doting mother Christine will hear none of it, forcing Charles to do what no father should have to do, only Andy has other ideas.

A lot tighter than Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Deathdream is a huge leap forward, both stylistically and technically. The acting is of a much higher standard – probably helped by having noted character actor John Marley (The Godfather) in the lead – and Richard Backus, despite not actually having to perform much, is the perfect blend of controlled rage and creepy tension as he smirks and throws death stares at his co-stars. It isn’t really a spoiler to say that Andy is a zombie – albeit a zombie with vampiric tendencies, as he needs blood to keep looking young – but the reasons as to why and how are never really given; he just is and that is all we need to know, which adds another level of fear because not everything in a movie needs to be explained (although it is surprising some executive somewhere hasn’t greenlit a prequel, but give it time).

With a similar running time to the previous movie in the set, Deathdream fills that time well, being deliberately paced but the tension is building all the time, coming to a climax in the final ten minutes that may feel a little underwhelming when compared to today’s more apocalyptic zombie movies but that probably comes down to budget more than anything else, although Bob Clark’s ability to end a film without dragging things out needlessly is in full effect here.

And finally, we come to what many will see as the best movie in this set, Black Christmas. Also released in 1974, Black Christmas is nowadays viewed as the original slasher movie, coming four years before John Carpenter’s Halloween (but also fourteen years after Psycho, so it really depends on your definition), and there is certainly a claim to make about its influence over the genre that blew up in the wake of Carpenter’s movie, but that is a discussion for another day. In the context of this box set, Black Christmas represents the point where Bob Clark became a fully-fledged genre director.

You probably know the plot by now, given that this movie is nearly fifty years-old and has spawned two remakes, but just in case, the movie is set in a sorority house as the students are getting ready for Christmas break. Unfortunately for the young ladies of the house, there is a psychopath who keeps plaguing them with explicit phone calls, and once the students start getting killed off the police get called in, and as the cops are led by John Saxon you think that everything will be okay, but this is a Bob Clark movie so maybe not.

What often gets overlooked in Black Christmas is how transgressive it is compared to the endless cycles of teenagers-in-peril movies that came in its wake, especially post-Friday the 13th. Here the characters are clearly defined, with Bob Clark taking the time to build them up from when we first meet them. The main characters of Jess (Olivia Hussey) and Barb (Margot Kidder) would be among the first to be slaughtered in any 1980s slasher, especially Barb as she is the mouthpiece of the group but, far from being fodder for a deranged maniac, both characters are given stories and situations away from the main crank caller plot, which makes them relatable and sympathetic. Even the police officers that are always a couple of steps behind the action are more than just your typical bumbling cops, with John Saxon and Douglas McGrath providing some gravitas and the occasional light relief in roles that were fairly thankless given the input the characters actually have but come off much better thanks to clever writing and solid performances.

As with the other two movies in this set, Black Christmas is very much a slow-burner and a film that takes a couple of viewings to really sink in, especially if you go into it expecting wall-to-wall blood and guts, but if you put it on, turn down the lights, soak up the atmosphere and appreciate the craft that has gone into making it then it does hold up as a slightly more intellectual horror thriller than the films it inspired. And despite the relative lack of gore and nudity, Black Christmas still has some effective scares thanks to Bob Clark’s inventive camerawork – those infamous slasher movie POV shots started here – and is the pinnacle of everything the filmmaker had learnt to that point – the mainstream clearly beckoned.

Overall, despite the differing qualities of each movie, this wonderful box set showcases the evolution of a filmmaker with a vision and style that saw him embracing what had gone before but mixing in what was then contemporary and also showing where the horror genre would go over the next decade. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things is the weakest of the movies here, but that does not mean that its inclusion is not without merit as it gives you a starting point for Bob Clark and his career (plus, out of the three it is the best looking as it isn’t as grainy and that cheap make-up is lit very well), and as it is the first then things only get better, providing you watch the movies in chronological order.

Each disc comes with its own set of extras, including audio commentaries and retrospectives from cast and crew. The best, though, is Dreaming of Death, a feature-length documentary included on the Deathdream disc that covers Bob Clark’s horror movies; obviously the three included in the set but also touching on 1979s Sherlock Holmes story Murder By Decree and the grindhouse classic Deranged, which Clark did not end up directing but he was involved in the early stages. There are also reversible sleeves for each disc, plus a collector’s booklet and a rigid slipcase to house it all in, so 101 Films have really gone to town to present Bob Clark’s work in the best way possible, and they succeeded as not only are these the definitive presentations of these movies but this aesthetically-pleasing box set is one that collector’s will want to own and, more importantly, return to again and again, as Bob Clark’s filmography is certainly one worth revisiting.

Flickering Myth RatingChildren Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Flickering Myth RatingDeathdream – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Flickering Myth Rating Black Christmas – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Chris Ward


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