As we enter the holiday season many of you will undoubtedly be tuning in to watch the beloved film A CHRISTMAS STORY (most likely because the film's as hard to avoid as a tryptophene-induced coma), and some know-it-all will inform everyone that this delightful family movie was directed by the same guy who did PORKY'S. Well, if you really want to mess with your loved one's minds, after Ralphie shoots his eye out with his Red Ryder pop in this underappreciated 1972 gem, one of three low-budget horror films Bob Clark made to hone his movie-making skills.
Using NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a template, this horror-comedy deals with a theatrical troupe (led by co-writer and make-up chief Alan Ormsby as the egotistical, tyrannical director Alan, in the loudest pair of pants ever put before a camera) traveling to a burial island off the Florida coast to take part in a vaguely-defined performance. (Most of the cast shares the same name as the character; either for convenience or a deliberate stylistic touch I don't know, but it does help build a sense of camaraderie among them, and makes them appear more real.) Said performance, though, involves digging up a corpse named Orville and using it as a centerpiece for a quasi-satanic ritual, as Alan hams it up for his underlings (exactly why he's compelled to do this is never explained; does he truly believe in what he's doing, or merely stroking his own ego?) . However, the dead take offense at the disrespect, and rise en masse to voice their disapproval.
Horror and humor can work well together, but it takes a skillful hand to play one against the other to achieve success. Usually, the laughs wind up contradicting the scares and the finished film doesn't work on either level. Clark doesn't fall prey to this trap, though it seems he may in the film's beginning, as the cast trades various quips and one-liners. Surprisingly, the jokes don't detract from the classic Gothic atmosphere--with its fog-swept cemeteries and decrepit buildings--Clark establishes in the opening scenes. Even more is impressive is how seamlessly the humor segues into horror, as zombies rise from the ground (a well-executed sequence in its own right) to close in on the cast, now spilling guts instead of busting them.
The build-up to the zombie attack is rather slow, but the performances and scare-promising mood keep the proceedings from being boring, though the story does feel a little too padded around the mid-point as Alan retreats from the graveyard to indulge in some rude, vaguely-necrophilic hijinx with Orville. Clark lets his story turn unexpectedly dark as the dead close in on the cast, borrowing liberally from Romero's playbook for the uncompromising climactic assault; he then caps it off with Orville's revenge, a quietly effective epilogue that grows stronger after repeat viewings.
Sadly, Bob Clark was killed earlier this year in a collision with a drunk driver. Among the projects he had in development was a remake of CHILDREN, and though I'm sick to death (sorry) of retreads these days, I must admit to be somewhat fascinated by the possibilities; though much of the movie's strength comes from the low-budget, home movie-like atmosphere, revisiting the material after the mainstream success of, say, A CHRISTMAS STORY would make for an interesting film (maybe one of the zombies can get their eye shot out with a BB gun?). I guess now we'll never know.