Roger Ebert once described Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed as a film “[…]about a necropheliac, but in its approach, it could be about spirituality or transcendence.” Stopkewich chose to portray a female protagonist, while approaching morbidly taboo material with a gravity that defied its potential for controversy. Thus critics like Ebert came to this conclusion, that the film exceeds the confines of its material, allowing a kind of spirituality to shine through – a notion which speaks to the majority of Canadian cinema from the mid-80s to the early ‘90s.
With the birth of Telefilm Canada in 1984, and the beginning of the Ontario Film Development Corporation (OFDC) in 1986, the independent film scene in Canada blossomed.
The first success of the OFDC was I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, the first feature film by renowned filmmaker Patricia Rozema in 1987. It was met with outstanding praise, and in 1993 was included in the Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) list of the top ten Canadian films of all time. It’s widely considered one of the most important Canadian films ever made.
1987 saw other interesting entries into the Canadian canon, including Family Viewing, the second feature film from Atom Egoyan, Loyalties, the third feature film from Anne Wheeler, and Un Zoo La Nuit, the first feature film from Jean-Claude Lauzon.
Through the late ’80s we saw a last dying gasp of Canuxploitation tax shelter films. A subgenre of horror that blends Canadian culture with exploitation cinema, Canuxploitation began in the early 1900s with films like Back to God’s Country in 1919. Over time, the term has come to refer to Canadian horror in general, bringing films like Ginger Snaps (2000) into its definition, as well as classics like Black Christmas (1974, often considered North America’s first slasher film), and George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine (1982).
In keeping with the exploitation genre, they’re all extreme, not usually well written, but always fun to watch. Hal Holbrook had starred in one of the great Canuxploitation films from the ‘70s, Rituals (1977, AKA The Creeper).
In 1987, we were given Storm, a film about two med students on a weekend camping trip who run into some aging criminals on the hunt for their treasure they’d buried decades earlier. In 1988, the “gem” The Carpenter, about a carpenter who comes back from the dead to finish working on his dream house, only to find another family already living there. In 1989, the often hunted for Things, a film that has acquired a cult following, and become the stuff of z-film legend due to its obscurity.
The term “Canuxpliotation” refers to films made about Canadian life and culture that try to succeed financially by exploiting genres, current trends, and lurid subject matter.
“Canuxploitation” is thought to have derived as a term in the 1999 Broken Pencil article “Canuxploitation! Goin’ Down the Road with the Cannibal Girls that Ate Black Christmas. Your Complete Guide to the Canadian B-Movie”.
1988 did see the adaptation of a novel by The Devil’s Advocate scribe Andrew Neiderman. That was Pin, a Canadian horror film that has now become a cult classic. The film centers around Leon (David Hewlett), a schizophrenic who finds solace in befriending his father’s old medical anatomy doll. He uses the doll to cope with his psychological issues, and to carry out his violent predilections.
That same year saw one of David Cronenberg’s most critically acclaimed films in Dead Ringers. With phenomenal performances from Jeremy Irons as the Brothers Mantle, Dead Ringers has gone on to become one of the best Canadian horror films of all time. It’s been included on TIFF’s 2004 list of the top ten Canadian films of all time, where it still holds a firm position at number seven on their current roster from 2015.
Other films that still grace this highly regarded list include 1989’s Jesus of Montreal by the acclaimed Denys Arcand. In the same year, we saw Roadkill, the feature film debut from Bruce McDonald, as well as Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts.
Director, artist, and author Guy Maddin made his feature film debut in 1988 with the heavily stylized 16mm-shot Tales From the Gimli Hospital. It was because of its distribution by John Waters’ champion, Ben Barenholtz, that the film succeeded on the festival circuit, affording Maddin larger budgets from then on. His follow-up feature, 1990’s Archangel, mirrored the part-talkie style of filmmaking.
Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo was the last film from this acclaimed filmmaker, being heralded as one of the most important Canadian directors of the time
1991 brought about more work from Bruce LaBruce, often thought of as the John Waters of Canada, with No Skin Off My Ass. McDonald’s Highway 61, the unofficial sequel to Roadkill, also hit theatres. Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991) would come to be included on TIFF’s top ten list of Canadian films in 1993, and Deepa Mehta made her feature film debut with Sam and Me (1991).
1991 also saw the landmark film Stones at the Max, a documentary by Julien Temple about the European leg of the Rolling Stones’ 1990 Urban Jungle tour. This was one of the first mainstream feature films to be shot using IMAX technology.
Most notable from that year was Cronenberg’s idiosyncratic, anti-biopic adaptation of Beat author William S. Burrough’s most notorious novel; Naked Lunch. A profoundly dizzying literary experience, often thought to be unfilmable, the 1959 work of fiction was created without the knowledge of its author. Burroughs describes the book in its foreword as follows:
“I awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five, calm and sane, and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive The Sickness. Most survivors do not remember the delirium in detail. I apparently took detailed notes on sickness and delirium. I have no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch. The title was suggested by Jack Kerouac. I did not understand what the title meant until my recent recovery. The title means exactly what the words say: Naked Lunch: a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”
Hal Holbrook stars in one of the great Canuxplotiation films Rituals in 1977
And so Cronenberg set out to film the unfilmable details of The Sickness. What resulted is one of the most fascinating anti-biopics ever made. The film weaves aspects of the novel with Cronenberg’s own interpretations of the work, and anecdotes from Burroughs’ life. The William Tell act that cost Joan Vollmer, Burroughs’ wife, her life. Dr. Benway, his former, crazed physician. His lasting friendship with fellow beat authors Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. It’s all there, intricately recreated with shocking accuracy and enticing perversion.
In 1992 we saw the last of director Jean-Claude Lauzon’s work with Léolo. Heralded as being one of the most important Canadian directors of the time, he died tragically in a plane crash with his girlfriend, Marie-Soleil Tougas, in 1997. He was starting work on his third feature film at the time.
1993 gave us the magnificent opus to eccentric composer and musician Glenn Gould that is 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. The feature film debut of The Red Violin (1998) filmmaker, François Girard, it plays on the various quirks the notably difficult pianist embodied. Girard aimed to bring as much of Gould to life as possible. In his mind, this meant various shorts, which could depict the man from all angles, adding dimension to what would otherwise have been a flat portrayal.
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould
In 1994, playwright and actor Robert Lepage made his cinematic directorial debut with Le Confessional, starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Mina Shum’s charming feature directorial debut, Double Happiness, brought Sandra Oh to the big screen. As a Chinese Canadian 20-something desperately trying to please her traditional, immigrant parents, Oh’s Jade Li strives for her own happiness in the form of Mark, a white University student.
1996 ends this decade with a crash and a bang. Cronenberg’s provocative psychological thriller, Crash, stunned audiences with its audacity. Boldly portraying symphorophilia, or car-crash fetishism, Cronenberg’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel caused a slew of controversy and mixed critical reception. It was branded with an NC-17 rating, while simultaneously released in an R-rated cut. Though it was met with great disdain initially, Crash has gone on to be held in very high regard, ranking 8th in a poll by Cahier du Cinema for the greatest films of the 1990s, and 21st on Total Film’s list of the greatest films of all time.
Bruce McDonald released his now-iconic mockumentary Hard Core Logo. The film caught the eye of Quentin Tarantino, who later bought the rights under his Rolling Thunder label for US distribution. Robert Lepage’s second feature film, Le Polygraphe, was well received, and Deepa Mehta debuted Fire, the first in her Elements trilogy.
Finally, we have Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed. The film about a necrophiliac funeral home worker that’s more about love and its transformative power than it is about the grotesquerie behind a morbid fascination with the dead. An ethereal film, with almost angelic properties, Kissed far exceeds the boundaries we might feel inclined to impose upon it.
Like I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Dead Ringers, Jesus of Montreal, Naked Lunch, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, Double Happiness, and most other films from this decade, Canadian cinema had a certain quality to it that managed to surpass its superficial intentions. It tackled the bold, humane, transgressive, and absurd with a stylistic quality and deft hand, allowing audiences to be immersed in its content in an earnest, and honest way without feeling put upon. It engrossed us, and enraptured us, and in many cases continues to do so.