Canadians enjoy being scared. The remake of Friday the 13th has pulled almost $4 million out of our collective pockets since opening at number one four weeks ago and My Bloody Valentine 3-D raked in another $3 million recently. This weekend a homegrown horror, Pontypool, the story of a language-based virus that turns people into bloody crazed zombies, hopes to match those numbers.
Canadians, it seems, not only like being scared at the movies, we also like making horror movies. The first Canuck film widely distributed in the United States was The Mask, a low budget 3-D thriller about an archaeologist who believes he is cursed by a mask that causes him to have weird nightmares and even murder people.
The Mask was a cheapie knocked out to cash in the 3-D craze started by movies like House of Wax. Although it missed that movement by a few years it may have inadvertently started a new trend. Since the release of The Mask, which used the tried-and-true 3-D but coupled it with experimental electronic music to heighten its spooky effect, Canadian filmmakers have taken traditional horror concepts and made them their own.
Take for instance Ginger Snaps, the 2000 werewolf story starring Katharine Isabelle as a young girl who morphs into a werewolf. It adroitly plays against the usual horror movie conventions when it comes to portraying teenagers.
The nubile scream queens of Final Destination and Urban Myth are nowhere to be found. Ginger and sister Brigitte are late-bloomers, goth girls who are entering adulthood and experiencing all the traumatic transformations that go along with it. The film’s best piece of dark teenage humour is the use of menstruation as a metaphor for turning into a werewolf.
How many hack comics have joked about the beastly effects of PMS? Ginger Snaps takes those jokes one step further in a wickedly humorous allegory. It’s funny, feminist horror. Other examples of distinctive CanCon horror include Black Christmas, a movie shot in Toronto that set the template for most of the slasher films of the 1980s and ’90s; Cannibal Girls, an early horror comedy, and I could write an entire article on David Cronenberg’s work alone.
So why does Hollywood North have such a unique take on horror? I asked Pontypool screenwriter Tony Burgess.
“Horror fans are always seeking newness and originality and that’s what keeps good horror culture working hard,” he said. “In Canada, films tend to have much smaller budgets than in the States, and that means originality has to be found in the story elements as opposed to buying a giant kit of tricks. It’s the old cliché about imagination thriving under restrictions.”