Halloween and October seems to bring out the desire to make ‘horror movie’ lists on the various film related sites out and about. And like a good and contented little zombie, I will follow the herd. In the spirit of Row Three and its Canadian-Content-BiasTM (stemming from the fact that over half the contributors hail from the Great White North) here is a list of spooky and disturbing Canadian horror flicks. Five well known ones, and, because Canada was a tax-shelter haven in the form of trashy exploitative fare (no not 300, The Incredible Hulk and Battlefield Earth), also included are five not so well known ones. Although your mileage may vary, considering Canadian cinema along with The Tragically Hip and the maple-flavoured ‘Oreo,’ does not seem to penetrate into other countries all that well.
The 5 ‘Mainstream’ Canadian Horrors:
I am a sucker for interesting monster movies. I’m a sucker for Canadian genre cinema. So how can these twin weaknesses dovetail together so sweetly? John Fawcett’s feminist werewolf film Ginger Snaps which elegantly equates lycanthropy with puberty. Too obvious you say (as each symbol is parsed in slow motion)? Well, how could they not when the moon is the central link to both? Frankly, I’m surprised it took 100 years of movie making and nearly 60 years since The Wolf Man since someone made that particular connection on celluloid (perhaps Neil Jordan’s In the Company of Wolves comes closest…). Suffice it to say that the film is a winner for a number of reasons including great acting, a solid story foundation and some impressive practical make-up and prosthetic effects. It is also scary, funny, dramatic and in the end, oddly touching. And major kudos to the drop dead opening credits sequence.
I could put any number of great David Cronenberg films on this list. He is after all the patron saint of Canadian arthouse Horror and all around sexual ickiness. But it something about The Brood and its marauding demon children therein that makes it the perfect Halloween flick. A metaphor on the horrors of divorce, and the nasty effects it has on children, The Brood has been said to have a strong autobiographical component, as Cronenberg went through a nasty divorce (and custody battle) himself. Fine performances from Samantha Eggar and a bombastic Oliver Reed (You have got to love the use of the word “psychoplasmics” – more films need psychoplasmics!) compliment the great effects work, and snowy Canadian tone. Over the years, this one has been gaining more culty stature, and while it will likely never hit the critical highs of Videodrome or Dead Ringers in terms of academic ink, or the mainstream love of The Fly and Scanners, it is a compulsively watchable horror flick.
A charming addition to the ever increasing number of ways to put zombies on celluloid, the phrase RomZomCom immediately comes to mind, but here Canadian director Andrew Currie has made the first Douglas Sirk inspired zombie film. Not only does Fido exude the faux-technicolor look from Todd Haynes “Far From Heaven” but also features a no-touch romance between a suburban housewife (Carrie-Anne Moss doing Jane Wyman as good as Julianne Moore) and a hired gardener (Billy Connolly). The gardener in question here however just happens to be an undead “pet” purchased for the family from Zomcon, the gigantic corporation who domesticates zombies after the space dust starting the dead rising back from the grave. Fido takes place in the in the 1950s which are, er, well, a gleefully subverted notion of that decades stereotypes: children are trained how to deliver head shots to their pets if their ZomCom-controlling collars get out of control. Fido is very much a boy-and-his-dog type of movie. Lassie and Spielberg’s ET are referenced more than once. And yes, there is a scene where little Timmy runs through a green meadow with his zombie shambling after him. While the satire is a bit lightweight, going more for belly laughs over deadly barbs, the inspired touch of contrasting the undead and the living in post 911 Patriot Act security paranoia and consumer conformity all filtered through a 1950s aesthetic is an original enough take for Fido to stand on its own. The movie is handsomely shot as well. The suburban production design is every bit as good as Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Props also to another fine supporting role from Canada’s own Dylan Baker. When the WASP-ness of Greg Kinnear is not creepy enough, you have to go to Dylan Baker who turns the 1950s dad (Ward-Cleaver) stereotype on its head with a funeral fetish and a vague combination of indifference and menace.
Can we talk about Pontypool enough on this site? No Sir. We’ll talk you right into a zombie like state before you try to rip out our throats and we are forced to shoot you dead (or talk some more.) From the opening monologue to War of the Worlds ‘end of times’ broadcasting to the non sequitur credit-cookie, Pontypool is thoughtful, funny and entertaining. A combination that we happen to like around here. Seeing someone start to lose their ability to speak, in the form of a babbling breakdown, is as creepy as losing sight, hearing or going numb, and this is milked quite effectively here. As the film runs its course, the balance of engaging ideas, chills, thrills and even laughs make this one of the more effective genre-mashing films to come along in a while. And it should be mentioned that Stephen McHattie’s gravelly voice alone is worth the price of admission.
From the 1970s The Sentinel to 2009’s The Hole, the ‘gateway to hell’ movie has been with us for some time. This 1980s version, The Gate, starring a young Steven Dorff, features stop-motion animation, little demon thingies, and a lot of heavy metal music. The poster was one I have strong memories of (along with another Canuck horror picture “Death Ship” and oddly Neil Jordan’s “In The Company of Wolves”) for the fact that it hung in independent video shops (and they all were in Canada in pre-BlockbusterVideo days) for ages. I can’t say I remember all that much about the movie other than it had great effects and was a lot of fun. As a bonus, the film just appeared on DVD this year, so a re-visit is certainly in order.
The 5 ‘Off the Beaten Path’ Canadian Horrors:
Oh my glory years of trashy VHS tapes. Pin, A Plastic Nightmare is the story of a Leon who is both obsessed and terrified of an anatomy dummy. The tone is sort of a Canadian version of the Ozploitation classic, Patrick. Both have an inanimate ‘villain’ in the film. Tasteless sex, creepy non-reaction shots and children are the order of the day with this exploitative little gem. This is the film what Lars and The Real Girl should have been, you know the version that is merged with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. A side note for Lost fans, there is a young Terry O’Quinn in there as the good Doctor who named the dummy (as Pin is short of Pinocchio).
Bob Clark is probably best known for his kid friendly and not-so-kid friendly comedies, A Christmas Story and Porky’s. He also pretty much brought the Italian Giallo aesthetic to North American (Beating out John Carpenter’s Eyes of Laura Mars and Halloween by a couple of years) with Black Christmas. But his crude debut was with a Zombie film (Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things) followed by this ‘zombie-mystery’ with a fair bit of social commentary injected for good measure. Death Dream has grown in cult status over the years. Canuxploitation puts it best in the following paragraph “Part of the reason that Death Dream has captivated audiences throughout the last thirty years is the understated and creepy way in which it unfolds. Although evident from the first few scenes, the film never explicitly reveals that Andy is actually dead until more than halfway through, adding a level of ambiguity to his sinister actions. This charges the film with a sense of mystery and encourages the audience to piece together the plot themselves. “
Theirry finds red-heads creepy normally: It is their pale skin. (Note that the translation of Quebe title, La Peau Blanche is “The White Skin”). He meets a red-head student which he becomes irrationally attracted to despite his aversion. La Peau Blanche is one of the stranger meditations on racial relations that I’ve seen. A country-boy Quebec university student and his roommate, Henri (Montreal born, but Hatian background) take a night on the town in Montreal. This leads to an amorous encounter with two prostitutes which turns violent for Henri. After leaving the hospital, Henri tells his family that they were assaulted by skinheads. Theirry is uncomfortable with this, but supports his friends desire for discretion. What connects these two events results in a departure from the first acts drama, headlong into horror territory. There is an offkilter beat to the way the film plays out that just works for those who do not like their movies to do the expected.
The debut film of the great character actress, Carol Kane, Wedding In White, features her being raped by her brothers best friend and then blamed and ostracized for it. Directed by William Fruet the screenwriter of one of the most iconic Canadian films, Goin’ Down The Road (that films lead, Doug McGrath has a role here), with supporting duties from genre-mainstay Donald Pleasance (years before John Carpenter’s Halloween) it is also a period piece, Canadian Gothic, not the kind of fun-halloween feature that dominates this list, but one that crawls under your skin with its own intrinsic ugliness. It was released on DVD (a rarity for Canadian films like this) in 2002, but is currently (not surprisingly) out of print.
No not the Clint Eastwood weepie. Like David Cronenberg’s Crash, this superior film had its title supplanted by a much more popular film. The Changeling is a stylish ghost story, filmed in 1980 with some serious star power in the form of Patton himself, George C. Scott. Shot in Toronto and Vancouver (with American Money) by a Hungarian Jew who inspired a sequel from horror jack-of-all trades director Lamberto Bava, it may be a stretch to call this one Canadian, it is rather a global beast. Either way it is fondly remembered in some circles and ages since I’ve seen it (something I’ve been meaning to correct actually). Dr. John Russell, a composer living in New York City, who moves cross-country to Washington State following the tragic deaths of his wife and daughter in a traffic accident while on a winter vacation in upstate New York. In suburban Seattle, Russell rents a large, old, and eerie-looking Victorian-era mansion and begins piecing his life back together. However, Dr. Russell soon discovers that he has unexpected company in his new home when the ghost of a long murdered child haunts the house, shattering windows, abruptly opening and shutting doors, and manifesting itself during a seance. Russell investigates and finds that the mystery deepens.
I should make mention of both my March 2007 piece for Twitch also titled Blood and Donuts, which featured notable and upcoming Canadian genre directors, as well as the mighty fine site dedicated to Canadian exploitation cinema, Canuxploitation!. Might be a fine time to throw in yet another recommendation for the upcoming Vincenzo Natali flick Splice while I’m at it, because it surely would have made the list above if E1 will ever get around to releasing the movie.