Fright Club: Best Canadian Horror

There are thousands of horror films that can be called Canadian horror, in that so many movies are filmed in Canada. But we weren’t looking for Hollywood on the cheap. No, we wanted to celebrate the subversive yet polite genre filmmaking flowing from the Canucks themselves. We were looking for films made by Canadians in Canada.

We didn’t want to zero in on just one guy, either. There are so many films by David Cronenberg that could have made the list (indeed – maybe he deserves an entire podcast?!), but we limited ourselves to one so that we could celebrate some of the horror variety you can find bundled up in America’s Hat.

5. Bloody Knuckles (2014)

Canadian writer/director Matt O’s Bloody Knuckles offers a gloriously nasty, Troma-esque mash note to freedom of speech.

Pasty malcontent Travis (Adam Boys) writes the underground comic series Vulgarian Invasions. One inflammatory comic book too many lands him on the hit list of local thug Leonard Fong, who saws off his disrespectful drawing hand. But even if Travis is ready to surrender, that dismembered appendage is not.

The effort and tone are reminiscent of the bargain basement horror comedies of Frank Henenlotter (think Frankenhooker) – good-natured but wildly tasteless. Unlike Henenlotter or the Troma films O so clearly admires, Bloody Knuckles has a point to make. Art should be dangerous. Safety is the refuge of the cowardly.

Most faults can be forgiven this film, especially if you pine for the silly fun of low-budget horror of a bygone time. Or if you just really like free speech.

4. American Mary

Twin sisters, Canadians, and badasses Jen and Sylvia Soska have written and directed a smart, twisted tale of cosmetic surgery – both elective and involuntary.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you don’t want to piss off.

The Soskas’ screenplay is as savvy as they come, clean and unpretentious but informed by gender politics and changing paradigms. They also prove skilled at drawing strong performances across the board. Isabelle is masterful, performing without judgment and creating a multi-dimensional central figure. Antonio Cupo also impresses as the unexpectedly layered yet certainly creepy strip club owner.

Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that pays off.

3. Cube (1997)

Making his feature directing debut in 1997, Vincenzo Natali, working from a screenplay he co-wrote, shadows 7 involuntary inmates of a seemingly inescapable, booby trapped mazelike structure. Those crazy Canucks!

Cube is the film Saw wanted to be. These people were chosen, and they must own up to their own weaknesses and work together as a team to survive and escape. It is a visually awe inspiring, perversely fascinating tale of claustrophobic menace. It owes Kafka a nod, but honestly, stealing from the likes of Kafka is a crime we can get behind.

There is a level of nerdiness to the trap that makes it scary, in that you know you wouldn’t make it. You would die. We would certainly die. In fact, the minute they started talking about Prime Numbers, we knew we were screwed.

What Natali was able to accomplish within the limitations he has – startlingly few sets, a very small cast, a 20 day shoot schedule – is astounding. An effective use of FX, true visual panache, and a handful of well-conceived death sequences elevate this far above Saw and many other films with ten times the budget.

2. Ginger Snaps (2000)

Sisters Ginger and Bridget, outcasts in the wasteland of Canadian suburbia, cling to each other, and reject/loathe high school (a feeling that high school in general returns).

On the evening of Ginger’s first period, she’s bitten by a werewolf. Writer Karen Walton cares not for subtlety: the curse, get it? It turns out, lycanthropy makes for a pretty vivid metaphor for puberty. This turn of events proves especially provocative and appropriate for a film that upends many mainstay female cliches. Walton’s wickedly humorous script stays in your face with the metaphors, successfully building an entire film on clever turns of phrase, puns, and analogies, stirring up the kind of hysteria that surrounds puberty, sex, reputations, body hair, and one’s own helplessness to these very elements. It’s as insightful a high school horror film as you’ll find, peppered equally with dark humor and gore – kind of A Canadian Werewolf in High School, if you will.

1. Videodrome (1983)

Yes, there are many, many Cronenberg films that could have taken this or any other spot on the countdown. Videodrome was the last true horror and truly Canadian film in his arsenal, and it shows an evolution in his preoccupations with body horror, media, and technology as well as his progress as a filmmaker.

James Woods plays sleazy TV programmer Max Renn, who pirates a program he believes is being taped in Malaysia – a snuff show, where people are slowly tortured to death in front of viewers’ eyes. But it turns out to be more than he’d bargained for. Corporate greed, zealot conspiracy, medical manipulation all come together in this hallucinatory insanity that could only make sense with Cronenberg at the wheel.

Deborah Harry co-stars, and Woods shoulders his abundance screen time quite well. What? James Woods plays a sleaze ball? Get out! Still, he does a great job with it. But the real star is Cronenberg, who explores his own personal obsessions, dragging us willingly down the rabbit hole with him. Long live the new flesh!

Listen to the whole conversation on the FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.

Day 31: It Follows

It Follows (2015)

David Robert Mitchell invites you to the best American horror film in more than a decade.

It Follows is a coming of age tale that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed. He has passed on some kind of entity – a demonic menace that will follow her until it either kills her or she passes it on to someone else the same way she got it.

Yes, it’s the STD of horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted yet another cautionary tale about premarital sex.

Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.

And though the entire effort boasts the naturalism of an indie drama, this is a horror film and Mitchell’s influences are on display. From the autumnal suburban loveliness of the opening sequence to the constantly slinking camera, the film bears an unabashed resemblance to John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Mitchell borrows from a number of coming of age horror shows, but his film is confident enough to pull it off without feeling derivative in any way. The writer/director takes familiar tropes and uses them with skill to lull you with familiarity, and then terrify you with it.

Maika Monroe – hot off an excellent turn in The Guest – anchors a cast of believable teens, absent mindedly bored with their adolescence. The performances across the board are fresh and realistic. The gang of buddies movies languidly toward adulthood in a time outside time – their lives speckled with TV antennas and wall phones but also e-readers. This inconcrete time period allows the film a nostalgic quality that any audience can tap into.

The shape shifting entity itself appears in a variety of forms, each a more lurid image direct from some nightmare.

Mitchell’s provocatively murky subtext is rich with symbolism but never overwhelmed by it. His capacity to draw an audience into this environment, this horror, is impeccable, and the result is a lingering sense of unease that will have you checking the perimeter for a while to come.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

I Throw Food in Your General Direction


by George Wolf

What was once Adam Jones is now Burnt, a film that, by any name, will quickly be forgotten.

Bradley Cooper stars as Mr. Jones, a once-respected American chef in Paris who lost it all to drugs. After getting sober and doing penance by shucking a million oysters in New Orleans (seriously, one million, he counted), Jones heads to London to round up old friends and get back on top!

Despite the gorgeously photographed cuisine, much of what Burnt serves up is strictly processed, pre-packaged and overheated.

Screenwriter Steven Weight sports an impressive resume (Locke, Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises), which makes this clunky script a curiosity. Early exposition is hurried and obvious, where lines such as “But I said to myself, you’re a lesbian, so…” and “We were like brothers!” put characters in shallow, easily accessible boxes.

After a roundup of crew members (Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl) that comes dangerously close to the Blues Brothers putting the band back together, everyone falls in line with Jones’s plan for a posh new eatery and a wish to cook food that “makes people want to stop eating.”

Wait, wouldn’t that be bad for business?

Director John Wells (The Company Men) supplies montages aplenty along the route to a destination that is never in doubt. Jones hurls food, breaks plates and screams at his staff while battling demons and learning to look beyond himself.

It’s all mildly entertaining, but a waste of the talent involved. Cooper and Miller both dig in, their performances all the more impressive for how they in no way resemble the same humans who co-starred so magnificently in American Sniper just last year.

Mainly, Burnt feels lazy, as if a good character study was here at some point, but too many focus group edits whittled it down to something that doesn’t aspire past “good enough.”

Check please.


Be Prepared

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

by Hope Madden

“Do you know what’s cooler than cool? Scouting!”

OK, maybe not, but Boy Scouts are exactly the people you need on your zombie survival team. Who doesn’t know that? They know how to tie knots properly, they can forage, find their way around in the woods, and they’re handy. They’re prepared. Duh.

Director Christopher Landon, working with a team of writers, puts this wickedly logical premise into action with his new horror comedy Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.

The only three scouts left in Scout Leader Rogers’s (a characteristically wacky David Koechner) troop are at a crossroads. Augie (Joey Morgan) thinks scouting is the best. “Scouts forever!”

Carter (Logan Miller) wants to ditch the uniforms and badges before their high school reputations are ruined forever. “Junior year is the year all the girls become sluts!”

Ben (Tye Sheridan) is torn between both really convincing arguments.

And then zombies overrun the town and they’re glad 1) they weren’t invited to the super-secret cool kids’ party, and 2) they have mad scouting skills.

After a series of really impressive dramatic turns (The Tree of Life, Mud, Joe), Sheridan shoulders the lead in this coming-of-age comedy quite well. He’s a talented actor, able to fill out what could have been a one-dimensional good guy role.

Both Miller and Morgan fit the bill as the goofball sidekicks, while pros like Koechner and Cloris Leachman fill out the rank and putrid ensemble. (Not the actors – their characters.)

The film will win no feminism badges, but a story told from the point of view of three 15-year-old boys should probably be preoccupied with boobs and other assorted whatnot.

This is not a family film, though – make no mistake. This is definitely an R-rated movie, but for all its juvenile preoccupations and vulgar body horror, a childlike sweetness runs through it that keeps it forever fun to watch.

Says Augie upon entering a girl’s bedroom, “It smells like pixie stix and hope in here.”

Cleverly written, directed with a keen eye toward detail and pacing, brimming with laughs, gore, friendship, and dismembered appendages – but utterly lacking in cynicism or irony – it’s a blast of a film with a lot to offer.


Simply Complex

The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers

by George Wolf

Director Richard Trank follows up 2013’s The Pioneers with part two of his The Prime Ministers documentaries, Soldiers and Peacemakers, a less theatrical but equally determined look at Israeli history.

In truth, it is a film which stretches the definition of “documentary” to the breaking point. Calling it a lecture or presentation might be more suitable, as it consists entirely of thoughts from Israeli diplomat and author Yehuda Avner punctuated with historical still photos and news footage.

Trank eschews the celebrity voiceovers he utilized in The Pioneers for a more basic approach, which amounts to both a positive and a negative. While there’s no distracting gimmickry of Sandra Bullock providing the voice of Golda Meir, hearing from anyone other than Avner eventually becomes long overdue.

From the creation of separate Jewish and Arab states in 1947 to more latter-day tensions with Syria, Avner, and only Avner, dissects how the different Israeli Prime Ministers have made their historical marks.

That’s not to throw shade at his credentials, but when you hear Avner stress how complicated the Middle East situation is, you realize a great way to illustrate that would be to include other viewpoints.

Trank doesn’t, and Soldiers and Peacemakers becomes a detailed, overlong sermon to the choir.








Day 30: The Exorcist

The Exorcist (1973)

For evocative, nerve jangling, demonic horror, you will not find better than The Exorcist.

Slow-moving, richly textured, gorgeously and thoughtfully framed, The Exorcist follows a very black and white, good versus evil conflict: Father Merrin V Satan for the soul of an innocent child.

But thanks to an intricate and nuanced screenplay adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, the film boasts any number of flawed characters struggling to find faith and to do what’s right in this situation. And thanks to director William Friedkin’s immaculate filming, we are entranced by early wide shots of a golden Middle East, then brought closer to watch people running here and there on the Georgetown campus or on the streets of NYC.

Then we pull in a bit more: interiors of Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) place on location, the hospital where Fr. Karras’s mother is surrounded by forgotten souls, the labs and conference rooms where an impotent medical community fails to cure poor Regan (Linda Blair).

Then even closer, in the bedroom, where you can see Regan’s breath in the chilly air, and examine the flesh rotting off her young face. Here, in the intimacy, there’s no escaping that voice, toying with everyone with such vulgarity.

The voice belongs to Mercedes McCambridge, and she may have been the casting director’s greatest triumph. Of course, Jason Miller as poor, wounded Fr. Damien Karras could not have been better. Indeed, he, Burstyn, and young Linda Blair were all nominated for Oscars.

So was Friedkin, the director who balanced every scene to expose its divinity and warts, and to quietly build tension. When he was good and ready, he let that tension burst into explosions of terrifying mayhem that became a blueprint for dozens of films throughout the Seventies and marked a lasting icon for the genre.

Remember the stories of moviegoers fleeing the theatre, or fainting in the aisles midway through this film? It seemed like hype then, but watch it today, experience the power the film still has, and you can only imagine how little the poor folks of the early 1970s were prepared.

Even after all this time, The Exorcist is a flat-out masterpiece.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

So Much for Brand Names

Our Brand is Crisis

by Hope Madden

In 2005, with her film Our Brand is Crisis, documentarian Rachel Boynton unveiled the puppeteering that American political-strategists-for-hire undertake the world over. Her film followed James Carville’s team as they set their sights on putting their candidate in office during Bolivia’s 2002 presidential elections. With insight, cynicism, mirth and horror she detailed their “no wrong but losing” efforts – and its bloody aftermath – breathtakingly painting the way competition utterly eclipsed the good of a nation.

Director David Gordon Green takes a stab at updating Boynton’s tale, adapted by the generally quite wonderful Peter Straughan (Frank, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). They enlist Sandra Bullock as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a longtime political strategist who, after a series of embarrassing losses and a spate of even more embarrassing behavior, has retired from the biz.

But she’s pulled out of retirement – What? No way! What’s the lure? It’s not the lame duck Bolivian presidential candidate supported by former colleague Nell and her partner Ben (Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie – both embarrassingly underused). No, it’s the involvement of old nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton – the spitting image of Carville), lead strategist for the leading candidate.

An unkempt Bullock and slickly creepy Thornton offer fiery chemistry, and as long as they share the screen, Our Brand is Crisis captivates. But the film can’t decide whether it’s a political comedy, a change-of-heart drama, or an underdog thriller.

While Straughan is an almost sure bet, Green’s unpredictable thumbprint as director is more of a question mark. His best films blend comedy and drama with an almost poetic balance, but he cannot find his footing here.

Straughan’s uncharacteristically muddled writing sinks sharply comical jabs at our political machinery with an undercooked conscience, a patronizing representation of Bolivians, and an oh-so-tired White Savior routine.

Although Scoot McNairy is a hoot.

In retrospect, it’s hard to explain the hot mess that is Our Brand is Crisis. It had all the elements it needed to be a winner – talented director, wonderful writer, heavy-hitting cast. Sometimes, though, even a sure bet comes up a loser.


Day 29: The Woman

The Woman (2011)

OK, Halloween’s almost here. It’s time to get real. And by that we mean real nasty.

There’s something not quite right about Chris Cleese (an unsettlingly cherubic Sean Bridgers), and his family’s uber-wholesomeness is clearly suspect. This becomes evident once Chris hunts down a feral woman (an awesome Pollyanna McIntosh), chains her, and invites the family to help him “civilize” her.

The film rethinks family – well, patriarchy, anyway. Notorious horror novelist and co-scriptor Jack Ketchum may say things you don’t want to hear, but he says them well. And director Lucky McKee – in his most surefooted film to date – has no qualms about showing you things you don’t want to see. Like most of Ketchum’s work, The Woman is lurid and more than a bit disturbing. Indeed, the advanced screener I watched came in a vomit bag.

Aside from an epically awful performance by Carlee Baker as the nosey teacher, the performances are not just good for the genre, but disturbingly solid. McIntosh never veers from being intimidating, terrifying even when she’s chained. Bridgers has a weird way of taking a Will Ferrell character and imbibing him with the darkest hidden nature. Even young Zach Rand, as the sadist-in-training teen Brian, nails the role perfectly.

Nothing happens in this film by accident – not even the innocent seeming baking of cookies – nor does it ever happen solely to titillate. It’s a dark and disturbing adventure that finds something unsavory in our primal nature and even worse in our quest to civilize. Don’t even ask about what it finds in the dog pen.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Miss Wiig If You’re Nasty

Nasty Baby

by George Wolf

So, does Nasty Baby live up to its title?

No, not really.

You won’t find any devil child on a bloody rampage, or any precocious toddler cracking dirty jokes with the help of a celebrity voiceover.

Instead, writer/director Sebastian Silva (The Maid, Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus) delivers a semi-autobiographical slice of adulthood that keeps you cleverly off balance until it makes a drastic narrative decision that is likely to win it as many detractors as it does converts. Indeed, Silva has said the Toronto Film Festival was so turned off by the third act, it rejected the film entirely.

The “Nasty Baby” is actually a video project that Freddy (Silva) is hoping to debut at a New York gallery. But lately, he’s been trying to secure a different sort of arrival.

Freddy and his live-in boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) want a baby, and their friend Polly (Kristen Wiig) wants to help, but after several tries at artificial insemination, Freddy’s sperm count is found to be a bit low. The obvious answer is for Mo to step up, but he is having reservations about such a commitment.

Meanwhile, a small annoyance in their Brooklyn neighborhood is slowly turning into something bigger. A local resident who calls himself “The Bishop” is making noise much too early in the morning, shouting at Freddy, and getting aggressively friendly with Polly.

Is he a harmless nut fighting gentrification, or a potentially dangerous threat?

The gradual manner in which The Bishop affects the lives of the three main characters is Silva’s skillful device for upsetting the conventions usually seen in this genre. Nasty Baby may be a difficult film to love, but that is precisely what makes it effective.

A loose, improvisational script, subtle direction and finely drawn performances draw you into a recognizable neighborhood where you feel comfortable – until you don’t.

There are countless films you want badly to like, but know in your heart they don’t earn it. Nasty Baby sits proudly on the opposite pole, inviting your scorn until you realize it’s gotten completely under your skin.



… or Consequences


by Hope Madden

James Vanderbilt’s Truth is hardly the first film to point out the folly of marrying journalism and profit. From Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece Network to last year’s creepily spectacular Nightcrawler, cinematic history is littered with brilliant examples of this disastrous partnership.

Truth stands apart for two reasons. 1) The recent history lesson is, in fact, a real life event, and 2) Cate Blanchett stars.

The film is at its best as an excavation of the bits and pieces of a 2004 story produced by Mary Mapes (Blanchett) and reported by Dan Rather (Robert Redford) for Sixty Minutes II, a now-defunct Wednesday night airing of the CBS news program.

In 2004, Mapes – having recently broken the story of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse – chose to dig in to George W. Bush’s less-than-impressive Texas Air National Guard records. It was the middle of an election during which his opponent John Kerry’s military record was being “swift boated.” It was also the dawn of an age in journalism: make enough noise about an inconsequential detail and the story itself becomes nothing but background noise.

Vanderbilt’s screenplay, based on Mapes’s book “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power,” chronicles both the details of the reporting and the larger machinations of political power-wielding and corporate gutlessness, landing on some tragic consequences for a population interested in the truth.

Conservative bloggers insisted Mapes used forged documentation – a fact that could never be 100% corroborated or dispelled – and in one of the ugliest scenes of corporate media overreaction and cowardice, CBS fired Mapes and her team and forced Dan Rather into disgraced retirement.

Like Vanderbilt’s screenplay for the David Fincher film Zodiac, Truth is alive with details. Unfortunately, Fincher’s skill behind the camera gave Zodiac the compelling pull of a mystery, where Vanderbilt’s focus waffles between minutia and big picture without an elegant flow.

There are moments of real greatness here, especially as the story begins to crumble before Mapes’s eyes, and decisions made in the heat of story construction come back to haunt her. Basically, Blanchett is perfect, even when the writing fails her, even when the direction feels underwhelming. She’s fiery and raw, creating a character who is naturally in battle at all times.

Redford, on the other hand, comes casually to Dan Rather. He does not look the part. He looks like Robert Redford, which is curious given that he’s playing a public figure. But it isn’t long into the performance that you find an understated, dignified man whose professionalism and scruples have fallen out of fashion.

The film is a scary, flawed, but fascinating look at a frighteningly flawed and fascinating business.