A woman wearing a devil mask stands in some grotty looking basement hanging towels. A schlubby dude with his jeans up past his belly button comes in and declares that he wants her to have his baby. She proceeds to take off her clothes and as he comes closer she grabs a carriage from a shower stall. “I’ve already had your baby,” her otherworldly voice states. Sticking his finger in the carriage, a creature leaps out and attacks him. He wakes up; it was all a dream… or was it? This is madness. This is the opening of Things.
Things is possibly the most glorious example of DIY film making to ever emerge out of Canada. In the 1980s, Cape Breton-raised Barry J. Gillis met Andrew Jordan in Toronto and they bonded over their love of horror movies. Eventually they wanted to make their own, co-writing a screenplay together. They raised some money from various different sources after putting together some test footage and went about creating their masterpiece. Gillis would star and Jordan would direct, shooting on Super 8 film, a unique format for something aiming for a public release. And when it was done in 1989, it remarkably became the first Canadian film made for the VHS market, appearing in video stores all over North America.
To describe the plot of Things is fruitless; it doesn’t make any sense. Initially, it’s sort of an Evil Dead rip off, where two hosers, Don (Gillis) and Fred (Bruce Roach), go up to a remote cabin where Don’s brother Doug (Doug Bunston) lives with his wife. The fact that the cabin is obviously just a suburban house outside Scarborough is the first in a series of charming aspects of the production design. Bummed out by the lack of a party that they were apparently hoping to encounter, they find a tape recorder and a book about satanic cults in the freezer(?) and when they play the tape, they hear voices speaking in tongues. All of this is quickly forgotten as we soon learn that Doug and his wife recently went to a suspicious doctor when they couldn’t conceive and now she’s feeling super-sick. So in short order, she ends up giving birth to a host of large papier-mâché insects with fangs that terrorize the three guys throughout the night.
So far, so typical. What sets Things far, far apart from any other low budget horror movie, however, is that until the very end, the characters are all completely nonchalant about everything that happens. They spend at least two-thirds of the movie either sitting in the kitchen drinking beer and telling bad jokes to each other (sample: “How do you get paper children?” — “From a bag lady”) or wandering around admiring paintings on the wall or looking for snacks.
This is exactly what makes Things such a revelation. Whether intentional or not (probably not), Jordan and Gillis kind of brilliantly subvert genre conventions. Everything you expect the characters to do in these situations, they do the exact opposite of, often to frustrating extremes. Mere matters of narrative cohesion are not what Things is interested in. As it states at the end, right before the credits roll, Things is an experience. In one scene, Doug beams a flashlight back and forth across the ceiling of the bathroom for what seems like ten minutes. At around the halfway mark, Fred disappears from the kitchen they’re in and Don thinks he knows what happened to him. “Spontaneous combustion,” he states. “I read about this crap.” Then Don and Doug promptly forget about him until he returns out of nowhere wielding a chainsaw half an hour later. And for a left field casting choice, porn star Amber Lynn mysteriously appears in wraparound segments as a news anchor confusingly commenting on a police search for our missing heroes in between other irrelevant news items. When watching Things, you have to just sit back, open your mind, and take it in. In terms of logic, it’s legitimately the closest representation of a nightmare that I’ve ever seen on screen. I imagine David Lynch would be a big fan.
The technical aspects add to the surreal atmosphere. Sure, you can dismiss it as cheap or incompetent, but that would be overlooking what the stylistic choices actually contribute to the vibe. The Super 8 look is rough and fuzzy, accentuated by ubiquitous red and blue throw lights that create an effective hell house. There is almost no location sound either, so it’s a smorgasbord of post-dubbing. While the over-the-top voice acting and foley effects are genuinely hilarious, it also enables a weird, disembodied, dream-like state. It almost has a Twin Peaks-red room feel (Lynch again!). I love every second of the score, a mix of Casio keyboard experimentation and tunes from synth-bands called Stryk-9 and Familiar Strangers. The music cuts in and out with no rhyme or reason, seemingly satisfying whatever Jordan and Gillis felt like listening to while editing. There’s actually some pretty gnarly gore here too, especially in a random scene in the doctor’s lab where an eyeball is plucked and a head decapitated among other cheesy atrocities.
Alright, so not everyone is going to be into Things. I can begrudgingly understand that. But you can’t deny what an inspirational success story this is. It’s the ultimate homemade movie. Jordan and Gillis decided one day to pick up a camera and shoot a movie in whatever house they had access to, something many of us have done. They took it one step further though, and somehow got a recognizable porn star to act and then hustled their movie into a nationwide release from a professional distribution company—and it’s still available on DVD today for the whole world to discover.
Gillis and Jordan parted ways after Things, but Gillis kept on trying to make films. He wrote, directed and starred in Wicked World, a film that started shooting right after Things but was only finished a few years ago. His new film, The Killing Games, is attempting to make the festival rounds right now. I was unable to track down copies to watch before writing this but if anyone has them, drop me a line; I’d love to check them out. Barry Gillis, if you’re reading, I’m looking at you.
In conclusion, I truly think the importance of Things to Canada’s cinematic history cannot be overstated. Get some beers, gather with some friends in your mom’s basement and let Things wash over you. It’s the patriotic thing to do.
And if I haven’t convinced you, let Barry Gillis do it himself in this 1980s local news piece on the film.
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