I should probably clarify, before I begin, what I mean by “forgotten gems”. I don’t really mean amazing films that are well written and executed and should be remembered in the annals of history as finely crafted pieces of cinema. And I don’t mean films that are “so bad they’re good”, either, because I really don’t believe in that concept. The argument against it was articulately (and touchingly) stated by Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson recently in an article for Wired. Carlson condemns what he calls the “point and laugh” habit of watching films in order to mock them, and suggests something revolutionary: if a movie entertains us, then it’s good. That’s right, not “so bad it’s good”, but just actually good.
There is no shortage of Canadian horror films, especially from the VHS glory days of the late ’80s and early ’90s that could easily fit into the “so bad it’s good” category. They’re not expertly made. The dialogue is clunky and the production values often leave a lot to be desired. And yet many of these films are incredibly enjoyable and totally worth digging up in these last few days before the Halloween season is over. This short list includes a few of my personal favourites, collected over years of rooting through VHS bins. There’s no real connection between these films other than the fact that they’re largely forgotten. They aren’t necessarily well made, and they’re not notable either for being particularly good or for being tax shelter era curiosities. The late ’80s are, in a lot of ways, the lost years of Canadian horror, as our own writer William Brownridge noted in his cover story earlier this month on the history of Canadian horror. And yet, there’s a lot of charm to some of these films, if you’re willing to go down the rabbit hole.
One of the best-worst movies of Canada’s late ’80s horror past is the shot-on-Super 8 gore shocker Things. The term “cult classic” gets thrown around a lot, but if it applies to one title in this article, it’s probably the bizarrely and infamously awful Things, which is so notorious, it received a collectible limited edition VHS release from Mondo in 2011 (full disclosure: I have that VHS on my shelf). Things almost defies description, but its confoundingly illogical and surreal plot sort of centres on two friends in a remote cabin plagued by a monstrous horror (there’s a terrifying womb involved). On top of this, the film’s sound quality and cinematography are amateurish, at best. And yet, Things is somehow fascinating and imminently watchable, perhaps because it’s more outsider art than anything we usually think of as cinema. Things feels like it was made by people who have never seen a movie before, and somehow, I mean that as a compliment.
Another gem of the era is Richard Martin’s 1988 film Matinee (or Midnight Matinee, depending on who you ask) is a really fun meta-horror movie about a cinema where, during the screening of a horror marathon, some teens are killed by a real life psycho. A couple of years later, the unfortunate theatre is being reopened with (shocker!) another horror marathon. Matinee is interesting because the fake films being shown in the theatre’s horror marathons feature the kind of over the top gore that the “real” story tries hard to avoid. The film is also unabashedly Canadian, even featuring a poster for Pin* on one of the walls. The best of several films that used a similar premise (including the also entertaining but sadly not Canadian Movie House Massacre), Matinee is an enjoyable whodunit (and should not be confused by the Joe Dante film by the same name which came out in 1993).
What’s better than a heavy metal horror film? That’s a rhetorical question, because obviously the answer is “nothing”. Rock n Roll Nightmare is, similar to Things, definitely one of those films that can be called a legitimate cult classic, in part due to its awesome metal-ness, but probably even more so due to the fact that it’s really ineptly made in a way that’s great fun to watch. Chances are, not many of you remember the Canadian hair metal band Thor, but lead singer Jon Mikl stars in this film which is unsurprisingly chock-full of Thor songs, as well, though in the film they’re called The Tritons. The basic plot is this: a family mysteriously disappears at an old farmhouse. Years later, the barn has been turned into a recording studio (yep) and a metal band comes to record an album there. Hijinks ensue.
* As a bonus, and since it was briefly mentioned in my description of Matinee above, I’d like to recommend Pin: A Plastic Nightmare. It’s also from this era, but is actually well made and well acted. However, since the film hasn’t made it into anyone else’s articles here at Toronto Film Scene during Canadian Horror month, I can’t resist tossing it in. The superbly creepy and disturbing Pin, stars a very young David Hewlett as a boy who becomes unhealthily obsessed with an anatomical dummy named Pin that his doctor father (Terry O’Quinn) uses to teach his young patients about health, sex and their bodies.
If there’s one thing I can leave you with at the end of this article (other than some amazing film recommendations) it’s the hope that you’ll come away feeling, as I do, that there really isn’t much “bad Canadian horror”. Just horror that needs to be enjoyed differently. Like, while eating chips, drinking pop (or beer) and with a group of enthusiastic pals. Which, come to think of it, is how pretty much every film should be enjoyed.
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