13 Creepy Canadian Films
Article By: Tony Timpone
The South Park gang said we should “Blame Canada,” so when it comes to chronicling some of the most interesting horror films of the last 40-plus years, we will. Gladly. Our cousins up north didn’t dive into horror till 1961’s 3D treat The Mask, but government tax breaks in the 1970s-’80s unleashed a surge of “Canuxploitation” slasher, ghost and creature movies to make up for lost time. The period also witnessed the rise of Toronto-based bespectacled auteur David Cronenberg, who helmed some of the best genre films ever made. So today Chiller picks our favorite Canadian Chillers for the Friday 13, with exclusive quotes from many of the creators themselves. And not a hoser in the bunch! (Titles arranged according to year of release.)
1. Black Christmas (1974)
Four years before Michael Myers stalked Haddonfield, director Bob Clark’s seminal slasher created the template. During winter break, a mysterious prowler menaces a group of sorority sisters with lewd phone calls and violent visits. Clark wanted to combine comedy with the horror, along with realistic characters.
“For human beings on almost all levels, humor is a significant part of our lives. Even in some of the most gruesome moments,” Clark told this writer before his death in 2007. “We’re talking about college students, boys and girls, and one of my main objectives was to show how sexual girls are, how often they used the ‘f’ word, because people simply hadn’t done it yet; they were still doing Beach Blanket Bikini. Margot Kidder was outrageously funny and clever, and being funny is a natural thing for young people. These characters are bright, they’re clever, they’re not Beach Blanket Bikini at all.”
2. The Brood (1979)
Medical quack Oliver Reed’s rage experiments spawn deadly mutant children in David Cronenberg’s third shocker. “Despite the subject matter and mood of The Brood, David was always upbeat and usually very humorous,” recalls actor Art Hindle, who played the divorced dad struggling with the malevolent entities birthed by his disturbed ex-wife. “Although when he had to be very, very focused, those traits only set him apart from the mediocre directors. I sometimes think and worry about how those kids in the classroom scene remember that [bloody] day. Some of them were very upset. Usually I try to block out those miserable days on set when gruesome shit is going on. I always remember David’s recurring director comment: ‘More blood!’”
3. The Changeling (1980)
While making this quintessential haunted house movie (about a grieving composer trying to solve the mystery of a murdered child), director Peter Medak dealt with his own issues of loss and sorrow. “I spent a lot time alone in the dark after shooting in that incredible house in Vancouver, a composite set of interiors and exteriors,” he says. “So I would sit in the dark imagining things and trying to connect with my dead brother, Thomas. He was two years older than myself and very sadly passed away when I was 14. I also tried to connect with my first wife, who also passed away at a very early age. I used both of their names indirectly in the film without anyone knowing about it. These things made The Changeling a very personal journey of my own life and made all the difference to me.”
4. Prom Night (1980)
Halloween starlet Jamie Lee Curtis faces another slasher who turns out to be her brother in this disco-flavored horror hit, that also features Naked Gun funnyman Leslie Nielsen as the principal. Michael Strong, who played the revenge-seeking killer, retains fond memories of his beloved co-stars.
“First time I met Jamie, she insisted we get to know each other so our brother/sister relationship would be stronger,” Strong recalls. “We went to a local shopping mall and hung out. We were in a department store, in the women’s clothing section, when she grabs a bra, holds it up and asks me, ‘Does it fit, baby brother?’ What would any hormonal 17-year-old male do…I leered!
“The day I met Leslie, he introduced himself to me while letting go with one pretty loud fart!” Strong laughs. “He had this little machine he would hide in his hand that would make ‘farting’ noises. It was a part of his persona; a part of the legend that was Leslie Nielsen. He was a truly class act in all regards. I recall a friend of my mom’s coming over for dinner during the shooting of the film. She was a massive fan of Leslie’s, and we all thought what a blast it would be if Leslie walked into my parents’ house that night. So I asked him! He came over and hung out for the evening. Barbecue hamburgers, baked beans, corn on the cob…and vodka on the rocks. My mom’s friend was completely beside herself that night.”
5. Scanners (1981)
Cronenberg followed up The Brood with this even more ambitious SF/horror-tinged espionage tale of good and evil telepaths tussling for world domination. “David’s enthusiasm was infectious and that played a large part in my work,” says actor Lawrence Dane, who played corporate creep Braedon Keller, one of the film’s chief baddies. “At the time, his gift was already in the air. He validated that in the finished film. He also had a decisive vision; he created a working atmosphere conducive to stimulating a performer’s creative juices. What more can an actor ask for? The good news—I actually got paid. The bad news—I never got to work with David again.”
And acting alongside evil Scanner Michael Ironside? “Intense, in a good way,” Dane adds.
6. My Bloody Valentine (1981)
Major fan Quentin Tarantino himself called this prime example of Canuxploitation the “Deer Hunter of slasher films,” a term that certainly fits. A Valentine’s Day-hating maniac, dressed as a pickaxe-wielding miner, preys on the people of an impoverished blue-collar town. “What makes My Bloody Valentine unique is the hybrid structure,” says director George Mihalka. “While it follows the slasher tropes, it also incorporates an almost Agatha Christie-like classic mystery style of who is the killer amongst many suspects.
“Another aspect that has helped the movie stand the test of time is its strong sense of reality and attention to character,” adds Mihalka, whose film inspired an effective 3D remake in 2009. “The people are real, the situations are real, there is no supernatural or super-powered villain. It’s about ordinary folks facing an extraordinary situation with a real sense of panic and confusion. None of them turn into heroes; they all have their flaws. The characters are not cookie-cutter teenage Barbies and Kens in some bland suburbia. These are young working class adults with real-life problems in a hardscrabble small town working for a living the best they can. It also has a very subtle but effectively subversive subtheme: The characters are aware of the fact they have no future and jobs are scarce. It is also a metaphorical revenge against the ruling class. It was management that neglected the safety of the workers that caused the original tragedy. Harry Warden is the symbol of revenge of the working class for the criminal negligence and exploitation by the bosses.”
7. The Gate (1987)
Kids left home alone unwittingly open up a demon portal in their backyard in this ’80s hit (directed by Tibor Takacs) that surely inspired the Stranger Things team. “There are a couple of things I’ve learned as a writer, and one of them is that specifics can be universal,” notes Gate screenwriter Michael Nankin, today one of the TV industry’s busiest producers (The Exorcist, Van Helsing, Defiance). “Many of the details in The Gate are specific to my own childhood, but they speak of many of the primal fears of childhood: abandonment, growing up too fast, sibling issues and living in a dangerous world. Children can be consumed by thoughts and emotions, much as the characters are threatened by demons, etc.
“So much of The Gate is a result of working out the terrors of my fearful childhood,” Nankin continues. “I had a friend, Terry, with whom I generated a lot of trouble. We actually dug a big hole in the yard but, instead of demons coming out, the gardener fell in. The outcome for us was a bit worse than for the heroes of The Gate. The story of the workman in the wall was also from my childhood. I wrote the script very quickly, and mostly at night, during a dark period of my life. I had to give form to a lot of general fears and doubts.”
8. Pin (1988)
This underrated psychological thriller, scripted by director Sandor Stern (Amityville Horror scribe) from the Andrew (Devil’s Advocate) Neiderman novel, details a teenage boy’s dangerous obsession with the titular life-size medical mannequin. “It was my first leading role so I was generally terrified!” recalls actor David Hewlett, who went on to appear in Cube (see #9), Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and the sci-fi short Hewlogram (see here https://www.redgiant.com/film/hewlogram/). “I read the book, and back before the Internet, spent days at the reference library here in Toronto researching various potential profiles for Leon. The research was a real trip too; some very dark places.”
Digging for other anecdotes on the creepy film, Hewlett adds, “Other than Pin being a total prima donna, I seem to remember him costing a fortune to build. So nobody was allowed anywhere near him unless they were in a scene with him.”
9. Cube (1997)
Six disparate strangers find themselves trapped inside a giant cube and must traverse a trap-laden maze to live. Director Vincenzo (Splice) Natali and co-writer André Bijelic conceived a smart and surreal mindbender with bravura splatter scenes that the Saw series owes a huge debt to.
“Cube is about navigating a hostile world, which unfortunately is something that feels easily relatable to in the 21st Century,” says Natali, now finishing up the Tremors reboot. “Also, at its core is the archetype of the maze, something that has its roots in ancient myth. And it’s about the need for people to collaborate in order to survive. These are all notions that are timeless and universal. Lastly, the setting is completely without context, so you have to search hard to identify when the film was made, so I don’t think it dates like other movies.”
10. Ginger Snaps (2000)
This modern classic subverts the traditional werewolf saga for an allegory of sexual awakening. Goth-lovin’ teenage sisters Brigitte and Ginger (Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle) won’t let boys, the end of puberty or a little lycanthropy upset their sibling bonds.
“Director John Fawcett and I worked very closely on our respective ambitions for this script,” says screenwriter Karen (Orphan Black) Walton. “John brought the body horror bar, and the challenge to push both ‘teen world horror’ and the werewolf tropes into something special, something uniquely our own. I really wanted to go after traditional portrayals of young women and their relationships in horror, and of course present bluntly an experience I myself recognized about coming of age in the suburbs, coming of age as an outsider, coming of age as a person who identifies as female, socially and bodily. I wanted emotional truth and a relationship I really cared about, right to the end.
“This combination of ambitions kept us both upping the irreverence,” Walton continues, “and stoking a sort of giggling ruthlessness for how we approached anything that felt too familiar in the traditional werewolf tales: break all the rules, find a strong metaphor, build something new from the well-worn expectations, to say something true, tell our own story, our way. I’m not sure that’s anything new or different in horror as a genre, but we definitely wanted to take what people thought werewolves could be, and shake it up—and laugh hard doing it.”
11. Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (2007)
In this terrific creaturefest, a young plumber (Trevor Matthews) with anger-management issues must save the day when monsters overrun his night school. Director Jon Knautz says he enjoyed working with horror royalty Robert Englund, who transforms into an ogre-like beast in the film. “Shooting the giant ‘Prof-Monster’ that Robert turns into was harder than expected,” says Knautz, whose latest horror flick, The Cleaning Lady, opens next year. “The whole thing was essentially a huge puppet and it took a number of people to operate the thing. Getting what I wanted was not easy. Working with Robert was a dream come true, though. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. My best memories of him are actually the stories he told of Hollywood back in the ’70s and ’80s. He lived through it all and he paints an amazing picture when he recounts his tales. He’s truly entertaining both on screen and off.”
12. End of the Line (2007)
In this Montreal- and Toronto-lensed chiller from writer/director Maurice Devereaux, the Apocalypse unfolds on a stalled subway car besieged by murderous religious nutjobs and subterranean creatures. “I have always been scared of organized religion, cults, anything that demands blindly following a ‘leader’ who will brainwash you into believing he is speaking in (whichever) God’s name!” says Devereaux. “I had seen movies about Charles Manson and Jim Jones as a child on TV, and they had left quite an impression on me. As an adult, my thought has always been if a preacher says God talks to him, he is either a con man who wants your money or sex or whatever else. Or he is crazy and even more dangerous. Those are the only two options, and they both suck!
“So following the Heaven’s Gate comet cult suicides, the Sarin gas attacks in Japan by the Aum Shinrikyo members, and of course 9/11, these fears all gelled together and the story came to me all at once,” Devereaux continues. “I had a crystal clear image of the ending, the set-up and the location. The script was written in a few weeks with few changes over subsequent drafts. People ask me if Death Line or Creep were inspirations, but I had not seen those before making End of the Line. The films of George Romero were my biggest influence.”
13. Pontypool (2008)
In this offbeat zombie movie (adapted by Tony Burgess from his novel and directed by Bruce McDonald), the virus is spread by the English language! Trapped inside his radio studio with a small staff, sardonic DJ Grant Mazzy (played by character actor Stephen McHattie) remains tongue-tied on how to survive the dangerous outbreak. Pontypool’s cult cred continues to grow, which McHattie attributes to the script. “Because it was so well written, and we stuck to the reality of the situation that the characters were placed in and did it as straight as possible,” says McHattie, who drew inspiration from ’90s CBC broadcaster Lister Sinclair for Mazzy. “Everything about working with Bruce McDonald was memorable. One of the best things that has happened to me was meeting Bruce and being lucky enough to work with him.”
We could easily nominate another 13 Canuck classics, but for now just add to your chopping list Happy Birthday to Me (1981), The Incubus (1982), Wolf Girl (2001), They Wait (2007), Martyrs (2008), Suck (2009), Bite (2015), The Void (2016) and anything David Cronenberg ever did! Any others we missed? Tell us on our Facebook page or go on Twitter using #Friday13.
Tony Timpone recently joined Horror Equity Fund as the start-up company’s Vice President. Learn more here.