Before 1960, the only thing horrific about Canada would have been the cold, winter months. Documentaries were the main focus when the National Film Board of Canada was formed in 1939, and it wasn’t until the late ’50s when fictional film productions really started. The first horror films would still be a few years away, starting in the early ’60s, but the output was minimal.
Things may have gotten off to a slow start in the ’60s, but in 1975, when the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA), a tax shelter where investors could deduct their investment in a certified Canadian film from their income, was raised from 60% to 100%, a boom in film production occurred. This huge tax break lasted until 1982, and is the biggest reason for so many Canadian horror films during that time. The slasher sub-genre kept things moving nicely in Canada during the late ’80s, but in the ’90s, things began falling apart. The direct-to-video market resulted in rushed, low budget horror films that just weren’t good. The entire genre of horror wasn’t doing very well until Scream was released in 1996. At this point, horror had become ‘cool’ again. Once we passed into the new millennium, independent horror films seemed to spring up everywhere, creating a Canadian horror film industry that, in my opinion, is the most interesting in the world.
Nightmarish Beginnings – 1960s
The Mask is frequently regarded as the first Canadian horror film. Directed by Julian Roffman in 1961, this is an incredible start for terror in Canada. A psychiatrist, Dr. Barnes (Paul Stevens), comes into possession of an ancient mask. The mask speaks to him, commanding him to put it on. When he does, the doctor is transported to a fantastic 3-D world full of demons and ghouls. The mask seems to control the doctor, causing him to murder anybody he comes across.
What’s so fantastic about the film are the 3-D sequences when Dr. Barnes puts the mask on. When the doctor puts the mask on, viewers also put their 3-D glasses on and are transported to world that looks like a Salvador Dali painting of hell. The 3-D is very effective, and the film also happens to be much better than a lot of the horror films making the rounds in the early ’60s.
The only other offering worth mentioning from the ’60s is a film called Playgirl Killer. Seemingly impossible to find now, the film follows psychotic artist Bill (William Kerwin). Bill has been having terrible dreams of three women drowning while a fourth woman shoots a strange figure with a bow and arrow. All he wants to do is paint this vision, but can’t find models to sit still, so he takes it upon himself to make sure they won’t be moving at all. This film sounds more interesting for the fact that Neil Sedaka is in it, than for anything else.
Cannibals, Christmas, and Cronenberg – 1970s
In 1973, director Ivan Reitman dove into the horror genre with the film Cannibal Girls. Starring pre-SCTV members Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin, the film is a funny and creepy tale. Cliff (Levy) and Gloria (Martin) wind up in the small town of Farnhamville. On vacation from Toronto, the couple listen to the story of three cannibal girls who used to live in the town. Their former home is now a restaurant, run by the charming, but creepy character, Rev. Alex St. John (Ronald Ulrich) and his three beautiful female waitresses. It’s not hard to imagine where things go from there. It may be a bit light in the blood department, but they don’t hold back on the nudity, and the hilarious chemistry between Levy and Martin is enough to keep things going.
The ’70s also delivered the most famous aspects of Canadian horror. In 1974, Black Christmas was released, easily the most recognized Canadian horror film. One year later, David Cronenberg began frightening audiences with Shivers. Cronenberg continued through the decade with Rabid and The Brood. I only briefly mention these films because later in the month, Toronto Film Scene will feature articles on the work of David Cronenberg, as well as Black Christmas.
Another notable film from the ’70s is Deranged, Canada’s take on the Ed Gein story. With a little touch of Psycho, and a dinner scene that seems to come right from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deranged is a disturbing film. This is thanks to a wonderful performance from Roberts Blossom in the lead role.
Teen Terror – 1980s
During the ’80s, slasher films saw a huge explosion in Canada. Prom Night, Terror Train, Happy Birthday To Me, and Visiting Hours are just a small sample. My Bloody Valentine is one of the best films of the bunch. They don’t get more Canadian than this one. Filmed in Nova Scotia, the film tells the story of Harry Warden. After being trapped in the local mine, Harry went insane, killing his supervisors on Valentine’s Day. The town banned all Valentine’s activities, but twenty years later, the celebration is back; and so is Harry. Censors forced the filmmakers to remove almost all the gory moments, which have been restored for the latest DVD release. Of course, Cronenberg continued his work with classics like Videodrome and the incredible remake of The Fly.
The Slump – 1990s
The horror industry in Canada hit a slump in the ’90s. With direct-to-video becoming a popular format, the age of low budget quickies had arrived. Trying to find a well done Canadian horror film from the ’90s is an exercise in terror itself. Sequels to Prom Night (parts three and four were released in the ’90s) and the third Witchboard may be the only recognizable names. Gaining a bit of a cult following is the 1995 film, Blood & Donuts. Determined to take on our ideas of what makes a vampire, the film features very little blood, causing the vampire to be a rather anemic character. It’s also difficult to watch when Louis Ferreir, who plays a cabbie, sounds like Christopher Walken impersonating a French Canadian.
Back From The Dead – 2000s
Indie features have become a big part of the Canadian film landscape now, and local festivals like Toronto After Dark showcase some of the best Canadian genre output on a yearly basis. With films like Hobo With A Shotgun, Monster Brawl, and instant classics like the Ginger Snaps series, Canadian’s have plenty to choose from. From the most basic splatter film like Father’s Day, the zombie comedy of Fido, or the extremely intelligent Pontypool, the new millennium has shown that Canada can create some of the best horror around. There’s never been a better time to be a horror fan in this country.