Ever wanted to take a class on horror films? Here’s your chance, Toronto. Some profs and scholars might scoff at the very idea; but not writers Paul Corupe and Andrea Subissati, the curators of The Black Museum: Lurid Lectures for the Morbidly Curious , a series of intimate and informal lectures and screenings on the horror film genre. I recently got the chance to sit down with Paul and enjoyed picking his delicious brain about horror, and where us Canucks fit into it.
The Black Museum, Corupe tells me, “is a chance for people who are interested in horror or have some kind of familiarity with it and want to go a bit deeper than just, wow that was a cool moment where the guy got decapitated.”
The idea for the lecture series arose after Corupe taught a 10-hour class on horror last year with the Miskatonic Institute of Horror , at the now defunct theatre Blue Sunshine, in Montreal. Corupe was referred by a fellow Rue Morgue writer to Subissati, who was just as enthusiastic about the idea. But instead of teaching a 10-hour class, they decided to spread it out into a more easily digestible lecture series, hosted by the Projection Booth. The debut lecture featured the Toronto-based Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube and Splice . However, Corupe stresses, it’s not just about the big names. “[Vincenzo’s] obviously the biggest draw, so we want to see what kind of audience we can get for the rest of the series when it’s not a celebrated Toronto director doing this.” Corupe tells me the rest of the lectures will feature a wide variety of writers and directors, the common ground being that they are all passionate about horror.
Their hope is to increase people’s appreciation of the much-maligned genre. “Although attitudes about horror as a film genre have been evolving in the last few years,” says Corupe, “many people can’t get past the misguided idea that horror doesn’t offer anything but explicit murders and the degradation and torture of women. There’s also still a pop culture notion that violent entertainment is linked to violent behaviour…some people feel it’s not worthy of proper praise…and I don’t believe that at all. I believe that horror films and genre films are even more reflective of their time and place than an art house drama, only because they’re so beholden to the audience, and they’re trying to scare the audience with what scares audiences in that culture right now. That’s why you can watch a ’50s horror film and it’s the fear of nuclear war, that’s why you can watch a ’70s horror film and see the fear of crime and criminals taking over, and disease, the rise of AIDS…sometimes it takes 10 years to look back and understand why that is so powerful to audiences.”
So where does Canadian horror fit into all this? What even counts as Canadian horror? For Corupe, the definition is simple. “The rule I go by,” says Corupe, “is who are the producers. I mean, was it made in Montreal by Cinepix, or by Astral? Was it made by Quadrant in Toronto…really, that’s the only way you could do it because…it’s so informed by Hollywood and American filmmaking that it’s oftentimes barely distinguishable.”
Nonetheless, there are still a few interesting differences. He tells me about historical events of “medical terror” that have had an impact on Canadian horror film. One such event, Corupe tells me, involved a Montreal-based psychiatrist named Donald Ewen Cameron, who was carrying out CIA-funded experiments on people in the 1960s. “[Cameron] called it “˜positive brainwashing’,” says Corupe, “tests on people where he would give them electric shocks and LSD and bring them into insulin comas…the idea was to take a schizophrenic person and wipe their brain of the sickness and rebuild it without bad behaviour patterns. But of course he was giving way too much electric shock and he was basically destroying people.” This idea keeps appearing in Canadian film and not as much in American film. “For example, I’ll be comparing the depiction of doctors in Canadian horror films versus American horror films. In American films it’s always the secluded mad scientist out to build an army of supermen to take over the world. In Canada it’s guys like the doctor in the MK Ultra experiments who thinks he’s doing good, but he’s actually harming people and doesn’t quite realise the results of his actions.” Just watch David Cronenberg’s The Brood and Shivers , and you can see what Corupe’s talking about.
Another recurring trait is the use of–and what would anything Canadian be without it– the natural environment. “There are a lot of Canadian horror films that take place in a forest, such as The Dark Hours ; they’re very low-budget and they just kind of use those natural surroundings to create that menacing atmosphere, which, you know, you see in American films too, but definitely in a lot of low-budget Canadian films.” Okay, perhaps a little more than barely distinguishable. But despite a handful of recurring themes and figures, Canadian horror is still a varied landscape, according to Corupe. “I’ve been writing about Canadian film for 13 years and…it really is amorphous, and you think it’s one way and then you watch another film and you’re like “oh that’s totally different.” The genre-mixing work of Vincenzo Natali is another case in point.
These ideas and more are what you can look forward to in The Black Museum, reminding audiences of how rich and fascinating horror can be, and that Canadian filmmakers have helped to make it so. “It really is about film and education and bringing people together, for us. That’s the most important thing.”
If you are indeed morbidly curious, the next lecture is titled Unearthed: A Cultural History of the Zombie , delivered by Andrea Subisatti, on October 11,2012 at the Projection Booth. For more details, visit the Black Museum website.