“What we do know, is that in order to become sick you have to first come in contact with a sick person or something that they touched. In order to get scared, all you have to do is to come in contact with a rumor, or the television or the internet.”
Sound familiar? No, it’s not a ripped-from-the-headlines excerpt from a CDC speech. It’s a quote from “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 all-star “Towering Inferno” of germ movies.
If “Jaws” kept people out of the water “Contagion” should have kept them from touching their faces. The average person touches their face upwards of 3,000 times a day, and in the world of “Contagion” everything that comes in contact with your skin — an elevator button, a glass at an airport, a handrail on a ferry — could be fatal. In our world of big diseases with little names like COVID-19, SARS and H1N1, germs are the new Frankensteins.
The movies have used microscopic germs and viruses as bogeymen for years, leaving us with a plethora of topical films to stream during quarantine and self-isolation.
“28 Days Later” begins with a great horror movie premise. A group of British activists free infected animals from their cages, unleashing a deadly “rage” virus on the human population. It is a full-blown Halloween flick, complete with drooling angry zombies, (although most of the horror here is psychological) but at its core it is also a compelling study of human nature and the will to survive.
“The Crazies,” a remake of a 1973 George A. Romero film, is the story of a virus that turns the inhabitants of a sleepy Norman Rockwell town into koo-koo bananas killers. It’s a classic tale of “us” versus “them”, with an extra “them” thrown in for good measure.
“Pontypool” is about a disease that turns regular people into flesh eating creeps, but it’s more about how they became that way than the eerie aftereffects of the sickness. Set entirely inside a small radio station in the basement of a church, the story focuses on announcer Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and call screener Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) who use eye witness accounts to slowly piece together the horrible story that is happening outside their doors. When the reports turn ominous Mazzy realizes he is at the center of a big story and keeps broadcasting. What he doesn’t realize is that, perhaps, he is helping to spread the disease.
“Pontypool” is a movie set in a radio station that plays like a radio show. By and large the action is described and for once the old cliché that what you can’t see is more terrifying that what you can actually see rings true. Couple that with a mounting sense of doom and you have an edge of your seat thriller.
“Outbreak” features germs of a less speculative type. Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman star in this 1995 film about an outbreak of a fictional Ebola virus called Motaba spread in the States by a white-headed capuchin monkey. If the contagious simian looks familiar, no wonder. It’s Betsy who also appeared as Ross’s pet Marcel on “Friends.” The sitcom spoofed Betsy’s work in the disaster flick by showing the monkey on a poster for a fictional film called “Outbreak 2: The Virus Takes Manhattan.”
Michael Crichton dreamt up the idea for “The Andromeda Strain” when he was still a medical student. The story of a deadly alien virus was inspired by a conversation with one of his teachers about the concept of crystal-based life-forms. His novel was a bestseller and the author — who would later go on to write the sci-fi classics “Westworld” and “Jurassic Park” — actually makes a cameo appearance in the hit 1971 film of the same name. He can be seen in the scene where the star of the movie, Dr. Hall (James Olson), is told to report to the government’s secret underground research facility to study an outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism in Arizona.
More down to earth is “The Cassandra Crossing,” a big budget disease-on-a-train flick. This time it’s not an extra-terrestrial virus, but a plague contaminated terrorist starting all the trouble. Structured like a “Love Boat” episode, with an all-star cast that mixes and matches Sophia Loren with O.J. Simpson, it has none of “Andromeda’s” serious edge, but for sheer cheesy fun it can’t be beat.
Medical mayhem rules in “Warning Sign,” where an experimental virus turns people (including “Law and Order’s” Sam Waterston) into rage filled maniacs, a plot echoed in “Resident Evil” when a virus gets loose in a secret facility. “The T-virus is protean,” says the Red Queen, “changing from liquid to airborne to blood transmission, depending on its environment. It is almost impossible to kill.” “The Thaw” sees Val Kilmer unleash a prehistoric plague when he discovers a diseased Woolly Mammoth carcass. Eli Roth gave new meaning to the term cabin fever in his virus movie of the same name and the film “Doomsday” sees most of Scotland devastated by a deadly germ.
Predating all of them was “Panic in the Streets,” a low-budget film noir set in 1950s New Orleans. In it, a doctor and policeman (Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas) have just 48 hours to track down an illegal immigrant infected with pneumonic plague and stop a possible eruption of Black Death. Made during the Cold War, the rapid spread of the infection plays like a paranoid metaphor for the proliferation of Communist ideology. Despite this subtext, director Elia Kazan said: “This isn’t very deep. It has other virtues. It has lightness of foot, it has surprise, it has suspense, it’s engaging.”
These days watching the news can feel as though we’re watching a scene from one of these fictional bacteriological horror movies come to life. As alarmist as the films may be, they occasionally offer up some good, simple advice in the face of a pandemic: “Stop touching your face, Dave,” says Dr. Erin Mears in “Contagion.”
Where would Canadian horror movies be without St. Valentine’s Day? In 1981 My Bloody Valentine, a creepy little slasher flick shot in Cape Breton, ran afoul of the ratings board but has since gone on to become a cult classic. Now a new type of terror rears its ugly head on the day Hallmark created. In Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool, the townsfolk of a small Ontario town are infected by a deadly virus on St. Valentine’s Day. A God Bug that turns them into flesh eating zombies. Not even Cupid with a quiver full of arrows can keep this town safe.
In the film’s opening minutes we meet Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a down-on-his-luck talk radio host. He’s a former big market jock reduced to working in Pontypool, a backwater station far from his last big gig. Stopped at a crosswalk on his early morning drive to work the silence of the small town is interrupted by a strange woman pounding on his passenger side window, speaking nonsense. Perturbed, he continues on to work and turns the strange encounter into a topic for his show. “When do you call 911?” Soon though, troubling reports of rioting in the town’s core start pouring in. When the reports turn ominous Mazzy realizes he is at the center of a big story and keeps broadcasting. What he doesn’t realize is that, perhaps, he is helping to spread the disease.
To call Pontypool a zombie movie isn’t quite accurate. Sure the movie is about a disease that turns regular people into flesh eating creeps, but it’s more about how they became that way than the eerie aftereffects of the sickness. Set entirely inside a small radio station in the basement of a church, the story focuses on Mazzy, his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and call screener Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) who use eye witness accounts to slowly piece together the horrible story that is happening outside their doors.
We’re barely given a glimpse of the zombies, which is good for those with weak stomachs, but may disappoint hardcore George A. Romero fans who expect blood and guts. MacDonald, however, has reinvented the wheel by replacing the gore with brain matter, but the kind you think with, not eat. MacDonald captures horror in mostly subtle ways. In his film a broken window with blood dripping from a shard of glass becomes a chilling symbol of the violence that we never see.
At the center of Pontypool’s cerebral thrills is Stephen McHattie. The actor best known for playing Dr. Reston on four classic episodes of Seinfeld carries the entire picture on his back and it is his intense performance that makes up for the lack of gory thrills. As the grizzled Mazzy his face is so lined, so etched with life experience that lost travelers could use it as a road map. It’s not the face of a hero and that edge gives the film some of its great moments. This is a guy who drinks scotch in his morning coffee and likes to break the rules. How he will react in the face of a virus spread by the spoken word when all he really knows how to do is talk keeps the story unpredictable and compelling.
Pontypool is a movie set in a radio station that plays like a radio show. By and large the action is described and for once the old cliché that what you can’t see is more terrifying that what you can actually see rings true. Couple that with a mounting sense of doom and you have an edge of your seat thriller.
There’s plenty to be afraid of in Canada — and no, I don’t mean Quebec’s mythical werewolf, the loup-garou or Dalton McGuinty’s proroguing of the legislature. We may be known as a mild mannered people, but put us in front of a camera and all of a sudden we turn into creepy Canucks.
The Great White North has a blood splattered cinematic tradition, dating back to The Mask, the first Canadian film widely distributed in the United States.
A low budget 3D thriller about an archaeologist who believes he is cursed by a mask that causes him to have weird nightmares and even murder people, the movie was a cheapie knocked out to cash in on the 3D 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 coupled tried-and-true 3D with experimental electronic music to heighten its spooky effect, Canadian filmmakers have been scaring the toques off their countrymen and women.
Where would Canadian horror movies be without Valentine’s Day? In 1981, My Bloody Valentine, a creepy little slasher flick shot in Cape Breton, ran afoul of the ratings board but has since gone on to become a cult classic.
In 2008, a new type of terror reared its ugly head on the day Hallmark created. In Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool, the townsfolk of a small Ontario town are infected by a deadly virus on Valentine’s Day — A God bug that turns them into flesh-eating zombies. Not even Cupid with a quiver full of arrows can keep this town safe.
Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, an Ottawa-shot chiller, has cult hit written all over it. Breathing the same fetid air as genre classics Dead Alive and Demons, it has all the earmarks of a midnight movie in the making — humour, a tormented anti-hero, crazy creatures, gallons of guts and goo crowned by an over-the-top performance from horror legend Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund.
No look at Can Con chills would be complete without at least one David Cronenberg movie. The Brood stars Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar and Black Christmas (another great Canadian horror) star Art Hindle in a story about a brood of mutant children. Writer Ken Hanke called it one of the director’s most “unsettling” films, which is really saying something if you’ve seen Rabid, Shivers or Videodrome.
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.”