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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwvjfv6C_Qs

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37EjGw7jV98

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.

Fright Club: Best Medical Horror

Where are you most vulnerable, if not in the hands of doctors? You don’t know what they’re doing. It’s likely to hurt. There are needles, saws maybe. Suturs. Staples. Blood. Is there more fertile, gory ground for horror? We say no, and today we celebrate the very best there is in medical horror.

5. American Mary (2012)

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 want to keep on your good side.

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.

4. Re-Animator (1986)

Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator reinvigorated the Frankenstein storyline in a decade glutted with vampire films. Based, as so many fantasy/horror films are, on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain.

Jeffrey Combs, with his intense gaze and pout, his ability to mix comic timing with epic self righteousness without turning to caricature, carries the film beginning to end. His Dr. Herbert West has developed a day-glo serum that reanimates dead tissue, but a minor foul up with his experimentations – some might call it murder – sees him taking his studies to the New England medical school Miskatonic University. There he rents a room and basement laboratory from handsome med student Dan Caine (Bruce Abbott).

They’re not just evil scientists. They’re also really bad doctors.

Re-Animator is fresh. It’s funny and shocking, and though most performances are flat at best, those that are strong more than make up for it. First-time director Gordon’s effort is superb. He glories in the macabre fun of his scenes, pushing envelopes and dumping gallons of blood and gore. He balances anxiety with comedy, mines scenes for all they have to give, and takes you places you haven’t been.

3. Dead Ringers (1988)

This film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Writer/director David Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong.

Take, for instance, the scene with the middle aged woman in stirrups, camera on her face, which is distorted with discomfort. Irons’s back is to the screen, her bare foot to his left side. Clicking noises distract you as the doctor works away. We pan right to a tray displaying the now-clearly-unstable doctor’s set of hand-fashioned medical instruments. Yikes.

Irons is brilliant, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performances you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

2. The Skin I Live In (2011)

In 2011, the great Pedro Almodovar created something like a cross between Eyes Without a Face and Lucky McGee’s The Woman, with all the breathtaking visual imagery and homosexual overtones you can expect from an Almodovar project.

The film begs for the least amount of summarization because every slow reveal is placed so perfectly within the film, and to share it in advance is to rob you of the joy of watching. Antonio Banderas gives a lovely, restrained performance as Dr. Robert Ledgard, and Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes are spectacular.

Not a frame is wasted, not a single visual is placed unconsciously. Dripping with symbolism, the film takes a pulpy and ridiculous story line and twists it into something marvelous to behold. Don’t dismiss this as a medical horror film. Pay attention – not just to catch the clues as the story unfolds, but more importantly, to catch the bigger picture Almodovar is creating.

1. Frankenstein (1931)

Obviously, any exploration of medicine in horror cinema – no matter how amateurish that exploration – must begin with Frankenstein.

James Whale’s genius was in finding the monster fascinating, rather than the doctor. Nearly every other Frankenstein made before or since has been preoccupied with the doctor, but Whale understood that it was this unique beast, baby and man, evil and innocent, that should compel our interest. Who cares about one more doctor with a god complex?

Luckily for Whale, he had Boris Karloff. Karloff’s gift was in seeing the monster as a neglected child. His monster is sweet and tragic, characterized by the terrible freedom of a loosed child full of fear, unbridled excitement, and shame. Karloff nails this childlike energy and ignorance married to a grown man’s strength in a way that no other actor truly has.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McUce_xwxeA

Join the full conversation on the FRIGHT CLUB podcast.

Fright Club: Horror’s Best Female Directors

Sunday, March 8 was International Women’s Day. We thought we’d celebrate by perusing the very best horror directed by women. It’s a much stronger list than many people realize and it includes two of the finest genre works of last year.

5. Near Dark (1987)

Back in ’87, future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow brought a new take on a familiar theme to the screen. A mixture of vampire and western tropes, Near Dark succeeds mostly on the charisma of the cast. The always welcome Lance Henricksen is campy fun as the badass leader of a vampire family, while the beguiling Mae (Jenny Wright) – nomadic white trash vampire beauty – draws you in with a performance that’s vulnerable and slightly menacing.

The most fun, though, is Bill Paxton as the truest psychopath among the group looking to initiate a new member. All the film’s minor flaws are forgotten when you can watch an unhinged Paxton terrorize a barful of rednecks. Woo hoo!

4. American Mary (2012)

A masterful 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 want to keep on your good side.

Writer/director/twins Jen and Sylvia Soska offer a screenplay that is as savvy as they come, clean and unpretentious but informed by gender politics and changing paradigms. 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. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has made the world’s first Iranian vampire movie, and though she borrows liberally and lovingly from a wide array of inspirations, the film she’s crafted is undeniably, peculiarly her own. The film is simply, hauntingly gorgeous.

Set in Bad Town, a city depleted of life – tidy yet nearly vacant – Girl haunts the shadowy, lonesome fringes of civilization. The time is spent with singular individuals – a prostitute (a world-wearied and magnificent Mozhan Marno), a drug addicted father (Marshall Manesh), a street urchin (Milad Eghbali), a pimp (Dominic Rains), and a rich girl (Rome Shadanloo). Two people weave in among these players – the handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), and a lonesome vampire (Sheila Vand).

Vand’s Girl is the constant question mark, and that – along with the eerie, sometimes playful camerawork – is what makes the film unshakably memorable. I promise the image of a vampire on a skateboard will stay with you.

2. The Babadook (2014)

You’re exhausted – just bone-deep tired – and for the umpteenth night in a row your son refuses to sleep. He’s terrified, inconsolable. You check under the bed, you check in the closet, you read a book together – no luck. You let him choose the next book to read, and he hands you a pop-up you don’t recognize: The Babadook. Pretty soon, your son isn’t the only one afraid of what’s in the shadows.

Like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, simplicity and a child’s logic can be all you need for terror. Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s film is expertly written and beautifully acted, boasting unnerving performances from not only a stellar lead in Essie Davis, but also the alarmingly spot-on young Noah Wiseman.

The film’s subtext sits so close to the surface that it threatens to burst through. Though that does at times weaken the fantasy, it gives the film a terrifying urgency. In the subtext there is a primal horror, a taboo rarely visited in film and certainly never examined with such sympathy. Indeed, the compassion in the film may be the element that makes it so very unsettling.

1. American Psycho (2000)

American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan Patrick Bateman.

There’s an elegant exaggeration to the satire afoot. Bateman is a slick, sleek Wall Street toady, pompous one minute because of his smart business cards and quick entrance into posh NYC eateries, cowed the next when a colleague whips out better cards and shorter wait times. The more glamour and flash on the outside, the more pronounced the abyss on the inside. What else can he do but turn to bloody, merciless slaughter? It’s a cry for help, really.

Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well it does because of the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane and yet somehow empathetic. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.

Halloween Countdown, Day 24

American Mary (2012)

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

Rex Reed said of American Mary, “The acting is uniformly dreadful. The level of incompetence in both writing and direction is a scream.”

Rex Reed is high. You should see American Mary.

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 want to keep on your good side.

Isabelle is masterful, performing without judgment and creating a multi-dimensional central figure. As the film opens, Mary is a character on the verge. The Soska sisters deftly explore that moment, full of anxiety and thrill, where anything could happen. This being horror, though, it doesn’t all go quite as well as Mary originally hoped.

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. Antonio Cupo, in particular, 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.

The images are bright, crisp and classy and at the same time so very wrong – just like Mary. Like fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, the Soskas care not for traditional scares, preferring unsettling images and nightmarish circumstances. And though the film owes a debt to Cronenberg – particularly his magnificent corporeal nightmare Dead Ringers – it certainly carves out its own niche in the bodily horror genre.

The film is an accomplished effort from the relative newcomers. Stylish and fresh, smart and creepy, it’s an excellent addition to any Halloween viewing.