Canadian horror — and I don’t mean when a Zamboni breaks down just before your ice time, but the kind of scary movies we make — tends to go against the grain. Movies like Ginger Snaps, Cannibal Girls and the squirmy body terror of David Cronenberg bring fresh points of view to established mythologies to breathe new life into old genres.
In 2008 director Bruce McDonald did just that with the bio-terror freakout, Pontypool. The story of a God Bug that turns people into zombies barely gives us a glimpse of the walking dead, instead replacing the gore with brain matter, making it one of the smartest undead movies in years.
He’s genre-bending again, this time in Hellions, a home invasion survival tale with a demonic twist. McDonald says Canadian filmmakers mess with traditional formulas for two reasons. The first is practical.
“The script, when I first read it, read easily like a 40-day shoot, $5-million movie,” he says. “But then you get the news that you only have 20 days and less money. There’s no choice but to subvert and say, ‘We have to now begin with this established premise and show a world we kind of know, but subtly we have to make some different kinds of choices.’
“Hellions was much more of an action picture, in a sense, but you need time to make action. A sequence will work much better in 25 shots than in three shots. That’s the practical nature of handmade Canadian cinema. We don’t have the big machine but we do have some smart people and we know how to do it. That does create a spin on things. You’re outside the gates of Hollywood and when the parents are away the kids will play.”
The second reason? “Canadians are naturally mischievous and like to f— with people,” he laughs.
McDonald’s extensive resume includes Canadian classics like Hard Core Logo and Highway 61, but it’s not heavily weighted to horror, even though he says Oct. 31 gave him his “Mr. Entertainment Gene.”
“I have loved Halloween more than any other holiday since I was young,” he says. “I think it was my first theatre. My first way into this entertainment world I love so much. I wasn’t Catholic so I didn’t get to the ceremonies of the Catholic Church and the robes and the incense and the priests and visions of hell. For a little Protestant kid from the suburbs, Halloween was the best.”
Canadian horror, and I don’t mean Tim Horton’s running out of Timbits just before your coffee break, but the kind of scary movies we make, tends to turn convention on its head.
How many hack comics have joked about the beastly effects of PMS? “Ginger Snaps” takes those jokes one step further in a wickedly humorous feminist werewolf allegory. 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 don’t even get me started on the squirmy body terror of David Cronenberg.
“Hellions,” a new film that smashes up “The Brood” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark,” is a fresh look at the Devil Child genre.
Chloe Rose is Dora, a pregnant high schooler left home alone on Halloween. She’s waiting for her boyfriend (Luke Bilyk) to come over but before he gets there kids in creepy costumes come to the door. At first it seems harmless, but when the same kids reappear, this time with Dora’s boyfriend’s head in their candy sack, things take a terrifying turn for the macabre.
Director Bruce McDonald, working from a script by “The Colony” screenwriter Pascal Trottier, has made a film hat is short on actual hardcore scares, but long on unease. McDonald uses visual tricks—nightmarish red and pink colour palettes, slow motion and inky darkness—dreamy sequences and a spooky children’s chant to underline Dora’s mounting fear.
“Hellions” isn’t the kind of slice-and-dice movie we’ve come to expect from home invasion movies like “You’re Next.” Instead it’s a loosely plotted, hallucinogenic horror that is more weird than scary.
Hollywood loves pointing the camera on itself but not since The Player has the selfie provided such a wonderfully sadistic portrait of Tinsel Town. At the centre of David Cronenberg’s film is a Hollywood family — played by John Cusack, Olivia Williams and Evan Bird. Orbiting them are a former big name actress (Julianne Moore) and a burn victim (Mia Wasikowska), whose presence threatens to expose closely guarded secrets. The terrific performances and decidedly un-Hollywood feel of this, the most Hollywood of Cronenberg’s films, make Maps a compelling psychological thriller.
Hollywood — self-obsessed child that it is — enjoys turning the camera on itself, but with Maps to the Stars, director David Cronenberg uses the city as a palette to paint a picture of the stupid, venal and stratospherically self-involved behaviour that goes on behind the scenes in Beverly Hills’s gated communities and back lots.
At the centre of the film are the Weisses, a Hollywood family (John Cusack, Olivia Williams and Evan Bird) with more secrets than TMZ’s too-hot-to-handle file, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a former big name actress who is now as messed up as she is washed up and Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a burn victim with schizophrenia whose presence threatens to expose closely guarded secrets.
This may be the most sun-dappled film Cronenberg has ever made, but don’t let the light fool you; it’s also one of his darkest. I say one of his darkest because the 71-year-old director has frequently visited what Victor Hugo called “night within us,” provoking Village Voice to call him, “the most audacious and challenging narrative director in the English-speaking world.”
Spider, a trip into the mind of a severely mentally disturbed man starring Ralph Fiennes, is a case in point. Called “Cronenberg’s most depressingly bleak film,” by critic Ken Hanke, the 2002 film sees Fiennes deliver a virtually dialogue-free performance as the title character. But it is Miranda Richardson as several characters — all the women in Spider’s life — who really steals the show. It’s a spooky, cerebral thriller.
The Brood is probably Cronenberg’s most traditional horror film. Featuring murderous psychoplasmic kids, experimental psychotherapist Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar as a fetus-licking mother, it is the very stuff that nightmares are made of. It’s lesser seen than The Fly or Dead Zone and way more down-and-dirty, but for sheer scares it’s hard to beat.
A Dangerous Mind, the tautly told story of two psychoanalysts you’ve heard of, Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), plus one you’ve probably never heard of, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), sees Cronenberg combine a love story and birth of modern analysis.
The almost total lack of physical action means the focus is on the words. Some will see a film rich with dialogue, others will see it as verbose. But that’s the kind of duality the movie explores.
Finally, in Cosmopolis, Cronenberg takes us along for an existential road trip through the breakdown of modern society. Based on a novel by Don DeLillo and starring Robert Pattinson as a controlling and self-destructive billionaire money manager, the movie covers the gamut of human experience, from haircuts, money and infidelity to asymmetrical prostates and mortality.
Richard: I am an unabashed fan of David Cronenberg. I felt like a kid in a candy store — or should that be an entomologist at a larvae convention? — at the exhibition and I regularly revisit his movies on DVD. One that always gets overlooked is Spider, a trip into the mind of a severely mentally disturbed man starring Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is great in a virtually dialogue free performance but it is Miranda Richardson as several characters — all the women in Spider’s life — who really steals the show. It’s a spooky and cerebral thriller.
Mark: Spider was never one of my favourites although it does have a great twist ending. My thoughts on the Cronenberg oeuvre — and they’re almost all great — is how ahead of his time he’s been on our relationship to technology. When Videodrome came out, it was dismissed by a lot of critics. Now we live its reality every day. Same with Existenz. Both visionary films that prove how far ahead of the curve the director can be. But I think the quintessential Cronenberg film is Dead Ringers — a creepy Hitchcockian thriller that has Third Reich overtones of medical experiments and twins — and also because Cronenberg himself looks like a gynecologist harboring a terrible secret.
RC: I also have a soft spot for The Brood. It’s probably Cronenberg’s most traditional horror film, and I take delight in loving a movie Leonard Maltin rated a “Bomb.” Featuring Oliver Reed as an experimental psychotherapist, Samantha Eggar as a fetus-licking mother and murderous psychoplasmic offspring, it is the very stuff that nightmares are made of. It’s lesser seen than The Fly or Dead Zone and way more down-and-dirty, but for sheer scares it’s hard to beat.
MB: I like the brood but I prefer the Dead Zone even though legend has it that Cronenberg regretted doing a movie with all the incumbent studio interference. Know what? It still works. But Cronenberg will forever be one of my favourite directors if for no other reason than breathing life into Naked Lunch. A book I should have loved but could never get through — until I saw the film.
RC: He’s audacious. He made an unfilmable book filmable and opened a lot of people’s minds to reading author William S. Burroughs.
MB: He did the same thing with Cosmopolis, although I must say I didn’t need to see Rabid to appreciate Marilyn Chambers.
They grow up so quickly, don’t they? One day they are slimy bipedal creatures who look like a cross between Yul Brenner and a slug, the next they are flesh eating, underwater breathing alien looking supermodel types. At least that’s the way it is in “Splice,” a new sci fi thriller starring Sarah Polley and Oscar winner Adrien Brody, about a creature who goes from newborn to troubled teen in a matter of weeks.
Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Polley) are bio chemists (and boyfriend and girlfriend) who develop a splicing technology which binds the DNA from multiple animals to create new life and, possibly, cures for everything from Parkinson’s to cancer. It’s the medical breakthrough of the century. The next logical step is to fuse human and animal DNA but despite their success in the lab, their employers, the evil conglomerate Newstead Pharma, is wary of the publicity such a radical step would incur. Secretly the pair go rogue, continue their experiments, and give “birth” to a new life form they dub Dren (that’s “nerd” backwards), a tailed creature resembling a bald dinosaur. Clive, conflicted by the ethical and moral issues of cloning, wants to kill the creature but Elsa won’t have it. “Human cloning is illegal,” she says, “but this won’t be entirely human.” Dren develops at a rapid pace, changing from unrecognizable organism to something akin to a humanoid kangaroo. Soon though problems arise. The creature becomes Daddy’s little… whatever, leaving Elsa to deal with Dren’s difficult puberty.
Like the hybrid creature at the center of the action “Splice” is a cross of genres—part b-movie sci fi and part body horror à la David Cronenberg. Liberally mixing “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” “Frankenstein” and “The Brood,” “Splice” examines ideas of life and death, of playing God, of what is human (and what is not) and even touches on Woody Allen style relationships. There are plenty of moral concepts to chew on, many ruminations to be had on what it is to be human, but only if you look past the b-movie thrills director Vincenzo Natali slathers on with a trowel.
Splice goes places that bigger budget science fiction wouldn’t dare to tread. This isn’t the enviro-friendly sci fi of James Cameron or the space opera of George Lucas. No, this has more in common with the exploitation films of Roger Corman. There’s an icky creature, some scientist sexy time and loads of crazy science. Corman might not have been as successful at layering in the love, jealousy and real human emotions Natali heaps on his characters but I think the b-movie king would approve of “Splice’s” overall tone. It’s doesn’t skimp on the blood and guts but it’s funnier than you think it is going to be, wilder than expected—Sarah Polley’s maternal instincts towards Dren are right out of “Mommie Dearest”—and takes several unexpected twists and turns.
“Splice” is giddy good fun, the rare sci fi flick that revels in its b-movie roots while also offering up something to think about over a beaker of coffee afterward.