With National Canadian Film Day (NCFD) quickly approaching, it’s really the perfect time to dig into the Canadian horror scene for something you wouldn’t expect to find in the genre. The choices available for NCFD are fantastic, but expected. Of the 10 films listed as horror, 4 of those belong to David Cronenberg. While he’s certainly an accomplished director, there are plenty of other options available, and you won’t even have to leave your house to see them.
Head over to Shudder Canada and you’ll be treated to a great selection of Canadian horror films, but it was Funeral Home (originally released as Cries in the Night) that caught my attention. If you were a child of the video store generation, you probably wandered by the cover of this film on the shelves. It was one that I can recall seeing a number of times, but it was one movie that I never had a chance to watch. Even for the time of its release in 1980, Funeral Home is rather tame compared to other films. The lack of gore may leave some horror fans wanting more, but the performances are very good, which is an oddity when it comes horror films of that time.
Lesleh Donaldson (who also appears in Happy Birthday to Me and Curtains) stars as Heather, a 16-year-old who is going to help her grandmother Maud (Kay Hawtrey) turn their old funeral home into a tourist home for the summer. Heather’s grandfather disappeared suddenly a few years before, and Maud needs all the help she can get. Things quickly turn strange though, as guests begin checking out under mysterious circumstances and nobody is quite sure who is to blame. Throw in the fact that Heather keeps hearing her grandmother talking to someone in the basement, and she starts to wonder if her grandfather actually left the house at all.
Really, what sets Funeral Home apart from the other slashers of the decade are the performances. Donaldson is wonderful as Heather, a girl on the verge of becoming a woman, who is slowly pushing back against the rules of her grandmother. Her character isn’t there to simply be hacked up by whatever psycho is rampaging through the film, and she’s one of the great women of horror who must face off against the killer to stop the violence. She fits the final girl trope well, but so do the rest of the cast. Perhaps it’s the fact that this is Canadian, but everybody in the film is terribly polite, and there’s only two characters who even get drunk, and they quickly become the first victims.
Kay Hawtrey really steals the show as Maud. She’s suitably creepy when she needs to be, putting people in their place when she feels their way of life is immoral, and she’s also terribly hurt by the loss of her husband. We can tell she’s doing her best to hide her sadness, but it’s also not hard to see that there’s something else lurking beneath the surface.
It’s not really hard to figure out where Funeral Home is going, even with the addition of a creepy caretaker who is so obviously the killer that you know he can’t be in the end. Where things fall apart for the film is when we finally get to the reveal. It feels as if director William Fruet is taking all his visual cues from Hitchcock, and there are a number of scenes that feel visually pulled straight from Psycho. Just check out that header image and you’ll see it right away. Fruet certainly isn’t the first or the last to find inspiration in the films of Hitchcock, but it’s much too close to really feel original.
Comparisons aside, Funeral Home is still a step above other slashers of the time, and it even managed to pull in 3 Genie Award Nominations in 1982, something you really don’t see happening to horror films very often. The pace is a bit slow, and the gore may not please fans looking for something more intense, but the great performances and subtle, creepy vibe are everything you expect to find in great Canadian horror. You can find it right now on Shudder Canada, but be warned that the quality is a little rough. It would be nice to see this film get an upgrade.