I have chosen a sampling of 13 for your Halloween viewing pleasure, from Bob Clark’s perennial favourite, Black Christmas, which some consider the first “slasher” film, to David Cronenberg’s early works, which earned him the reputation as the “Baron of Blood,” to the offbeat zombie films Fido and Pontypool, to werewolves (Ginger Snaps), ghouls (Silent Hill) and demons from Hell (The Gate) – a veritable smorgasbord of fright, blood and gore. So warm up the DVD player or order from your favourite VOD supplier and enjoy.
[My own personal favourite, David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, is the director’s masterful re-imaging of the 1958 original. Although it was shot in Toronto with Cronenberg’s regular creative team, it was financed by American producer/comedian Mel Brooks and does not qualify as a Canadian film.]
Black Christmas (1974) with Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea and Margot Kidder. As the holiday season approaches, one by one the residents of a sorority house are brutally slain by a heavy-breathing maniac armed with plastic wrap and some serious childhood traumas. The film acts as a somewhat less-than-graphic precursor to the impending run of slasher films in the later 1970s and 1980s (such as Friday the 13th and Halloween), offering a preview of conventions such as the prowling, subjective camera, menacing phone call from inside the house, the slaughter of sexy but dumb young women and the uncertain death of the killer. Black Christmas is a rarity among Canadian films. It was remade in 2006. In that version, the backstory of the killer is fleshed out with scenes of incest, cannibalism and butchery, which provide the only really interesting drama in this otherwise predictable chopping shop of a movie. Andrea Martin, who appeared as one of the sorority sisters in the original, is recast as the housemother, a part that went to Olivia Hussey in the original.
The Brood (1979) David Cronenberg scored a major commercial breakthrough with this, a painful divorce psychodrama masquerading as a horror flick. Samantha Eggar plays Nola, a woman whose rage at the break-up of her marriage manifests itself physically. Whenever she is especially upset, murderous little imps in anoraks go after her nearest and dearest with mallets. By prying into her unconscious, a psychiatrist (Olivier Reed) only exacerbates her anguish. Cronenberg has described The Brood as his riposte to Kramer vs. Kramer, although it is hard to imagine Meryl Streep eating her afterbirth; entertaining but gruesome.
The Changeling (1980) with George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas. Scott plays a music lecturer/composer who buys a grandiose Seattle mansion to recover from a personal tragedy (his son was killed in a horrific traffic accident). The house turns out to be haunted by the avenging spirit of a child whose murder was covered up by a ‘changeling’ (Douglas), who grew up to inherit a fortune and became a powerful industrialist and senator. This middling haunted-house tale is well shot and nicely designed, with a few good moments but uneven performances by the veteran Hollywood leads.
Fido (2007) with Carrie-Anne Moss and Billy Connolly. Just when you thought there was no way to spin a fresh zombie story, along comes the quirky Fido. In a black-and-white set-up, we learn that “space particles” descended on earth, re-animating the dead and leading to zombie wars. A scientist invents a device similar to a dog collar, which, once placed on the zombies, makes them quiet harmless. Timmy is a shy boy who lives in a small town right out of Blue Velvet. His mother (Moss) buys a zombie (Connolly) to keep him company. After initial hesitation, Timmy warms to his new friend, whom he names Fido, but things go horribly wrong when Fido’s collar goes on the fritz. Through a series of complications, this eventually leads to a localized outbreak of rampaging zombies, but all ends happily ever after. Fido is a hybrid: part horror film, part social satire and a rather odd remake of Lassie Come Home.
The Gate (1987) A storm brings down an ancient tree in the backyard of a Spielbergian suburban family home, and as soon as the parents leave for a long weekend, demons from Hell are unleashed on the unsuspecting teens (including a young Stephen Dorff). The Gate, a horror flick in the vein of Poltergeist, concentrates on the traditional fears of children – strange noises in the night, moving shadows, the death of a family pet, a monster in the closet – and although the happy ending is predictable, there are some truly frightening moments. The pint-size, flesh-eating demons (created by special effects wizard Randall William Cook) are particularly spooky and unpleasant.
Ginger Snaps (2001) A sophisticated attempt at grafting teen angst onto a werewolf tale, Ginger Snaps shows off plenty of mood, spirit and shrewd intelligence. Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) are smart teenage girls who have somehow avoided the onset of menstruation. The night that 16-year-old Ginger finally gets her period, she ends up doubly cursed by being attacked and mauled by a wolf. The film offers bursts of graveyard humour and revenge-of-the-repressed thrills, but as a genre picture it has too much on its mind and sometimes forgets to be scary enough to give basic horror thrills. It’s success rated a sequel, Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed (2004), but the third installment, Ginger Strikes Back: The Beginning, (2004), went directly to DVD.
The Mask 3D (1961) The Mask has a number of firsts to its credit. It was the first Canadian feature to be distributed in the U.S. by a major studio (Warner Bros.) and is Canada’s only contribution to the 3D craze of the 1950s, although it was released four years after the trend had died out in Hollywood. Movie patrons were given cardboard masks with built-in 3D glasses that they were instructed to wear whenever a character in film said: “Put the mask on… now!” The plot involves an ancient Indian ritual mask that drives those who wear it to murder.
Prom Night (1980) with Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen. Fresh from the success of Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis cemented her early reputation as the “screen queen” with this slasher tale of revenge. Four witnesses to a young girl’s accidental death years ago are targets of a stalking killer on the night of the high school prom. While definitely inferior to Halloween and Carrie, the two films that provide the framework for this low-budget knock-off, Prom Night survives as a cult favourite in the genre, and is the subject of a trivia question in Wes Craven’s Scream. A sequel, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II followed seven years later. Prom Night III (1989) and Prom Night IV (1992), went directly to video.
A multinational co-production, the Resident Evil franchise, based on the best-selling video game and staring Milla Jovovich, was launched in 2002. The second installment and No. 4 and No. 5, were shot in Canada, making them official Canadian co-productions. In Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) the ghosts are undead cannibals, released from the underground laboratories of a crazy biotech corporation to lay waste to a place called Raccoon City (for which Toronto does the stand-in honours). In the end, Toronto gets nuked. Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D (2010), the fourth installment, which was shot with same 3D technology used by James Cameron in Avatar, produced a worldwide gross of over $296 million, making it, for now, the top-grossing Canadian film of all time. In Resident Evil: Retribution 3D (2012) Alice (Jovovich) continues her battle against the undead in this fifth outing. The film has the distinction of being the first Canadian-produced film to open No. 1 at the North American box office during its first weekend of release.
Pontypool (2009) In this low-budget, one-set entry from Bruce McDonald, set in the Ontario hamlet of the title, a grizzled DJ (Stephen McHattie), prone to quoting Roland Barthes and Norman Mailer holed up in his church basement broadcast studio along with his two production assistants, starts his morning show with reports of riots and cannibalism spreading throughout the countryside. More of a psychological thriller than a true zombie film, in officially bilingual Canada, the English language has become infected with an alien virus.
Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) David Cronenberg’s first two features remain unsettling benchmarks in the history of apocalyptic, low-budget, anti-establishment 1970s indie horror. Shivers is an over-the-top gruesome tale of a sexually transmitted disease that literally drives people crazy, and Rabid (1977) is about a woman (porn star Marilyn Chambers) whose plastic surgery operation leads to her being stung by a wicked bloodlust (much like a vampire), infecting her victims with a form of rabies. Both include some of the director’s more unpleasant obsessions, some rather campy gore and dark, subversive humour while he was working with cheaper budgets. Not for all tastes, undoubtedly, but essential viewing for enthusiasts of David Cronenberg.
Silent Hill (2006) is a multinational co-production shot in Canada and based on the popular, violent Japanese game manufactured by the Konami Corporation, the world’s fifth largest producer of video games. Rose (Radha Mitchell) desperately searches for her lost daughter (Jodelle Ferland) in the mysterious and terrifying town of Silent Hill, where they are both trapped. When dad (Sean Bean) arrives with officer Gucci (Kim Coates) in tow, we discover Silent Hill exists in a parallel universe full of demons, ghouls and creepy crawlies. Directed by Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf), it’s sequel, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (2012), opens wide just in time for Halloween.
Visiting Hours (1982) with Michael Ironside, Lee Grant and William Shatner, is a nasty thriller about an outspoken feminist journalist (Grant) who decides to take a public stand against domestic violence. Unfortunately, her television rants attract a woman-hating psychotic (a very menacing Michael Ironside) who attacks and rapes her in her home. She ends up in a hospital, and her would-be killer soon follows to finish the job. William Shatner makes an appearance as Deborah’s concerned boss. Distributed in the U.S. by 20th Century Fox, this low-budget movie proved to be a box office success and launched Ironside’s career Stateside.
Wyndham Wise is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Take One: Film in Canada. He is a contributing editor with Northernstars.ca and consultant with The Canadian Encyclopedia online. Visit wyndhamsfilmguide.ca.