Arts

Homegrown horror: 5 Canadian scary movies you need to watch this Halloween

Despite our cultural tendency to never want to make anyone feel bad, our cinema doesn't always have to be feel-good.

A CanCon canon of terror!

Bob Clark's Black Christmas, which was inspired by a series of murders that took place in Montreal's Westmount neighbourhood. (Ambassador Films)

The Canadian film sector is largely famous for spectacular documentaries, ill-conceived romantic comedies and Xavier Dolan. When it comes to the genre of horror, however, most Canucks would struggle to name solid examples from our national cannon. But unbeknownst to many, The Great White North actually has a substantial  though often-ignored — history of terror-inducing flicks.

Much of this work comes from a period known as the Tax Shelter Era. From 1974 to 1982, a glut of American producers came north to shoot movies, which — for a complicated set of reasons relating to Canadian tax law at the time — were actually intended to be money losers.

The northward rush spawned unexpected Oscar nominees The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Lies My Father Told Me, as well as the hugely successful sex comedy Porky's. But owing to the growing appetite for drive-in-ready scream fests, the bulk of output during this period was horror.

One of the era's most enduring films is Paul Lynch's Prom Night. Staring Jamie Lee Curtis (fresh off of John Carpenter's Halloween), the film follows a group of high school seniors pursued by a masked killer as revenge for their part in the death of a younger girl years earlier.

No only is Prom Night a Canadian production, but Jamie Lee Curtis even received a Genie Award nomination for her performance. (AVCO Embassy Pictures)

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Toby Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre are sometimes cited as starting points for the slasher genre. But as writer Matt Barone has pointed out, they don't technically adhere to the formula, which requires the killer to stalk his victims rather than having them come to him.

Along with Friday the 13th, Prom Night had a role in establishing the genre's structure. While less sophisticated than some of its later counterparts, it's charming for its lack of cynicism — not to mention its post-Saturday Night Fever embrace of disco culture.

Another surprise success was Black Christmas. Inspired by a series of murders in Montreal years earlier (according to a segment on the 2008 Blu-Ray edition), Bob Clark's 1974 film follows a group of sorority sisters as they are gradually picked off by a psychotic killer.

Where Prom Night helped inch the genre forward, Black Christmas was foundational in establishing many of its tropes. Its killer's preemptive threatening phone calls, the late in the game realization "the calls are coming from inside the house!" and the incompetent police officer character have been pilfered by screenwriters for decades since.

As we approach the spookiest night of the year, it's worth remembering that despite our cultural tendency to never want to make anyone feel bad, our cinema doesn't always have to be feel-good.

He's gone on to the upper echelons of cinema with History of Violence and Eastern Promises, but David Cronenberg spent his early years dedicated almost exclusively to horror. Produced mostly within the tax shelter period, the beginning of his oeuvre included Scanners, The Brood and Rabid.

One of his more ignored works is 1975's Shivers. Set in a Montreal high-rise, it follows a group of residents infected with a slug-like parasite that causes them to go into a mad sexual panic, screwing everything in sight. Many horror films centre on evil being done to bodies, but Cronenberg's obsession has often been evil coming from within the body.

Though it was his third film, Shivers was the first to receive major attention — largely for the wrong reasons, however. Writing for Saturday Night, Robert Fulford not only slammed the film's content — he also attacked it for receiving public funding, typified by the title of his review: "You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is, You Paid For It."

Coming just a few years before the AIDS crisis and the waves of outrage over public money supporting sexually explicit art, the debate around Shivers serves as an oddly prophetic discussion around morality, arts funding and freedom of expression.

David Cronenberg's Shivers, which notably had the original shooting title Orgy of the Blood Parasites. (Cinépix Film Properties Inc.)

The Burning may be best known for its not-yet celebrity players Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander, as well as Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who served as screenwriter and producer respectively (their first project as Miramax).

Tony Maylam's 1981 film follows a group of sex-crazed teenagers hunted down by a former groundskeeper, hideously disfigured five years earlier in a prank gone wrong. Like Black Christmas, The Burning marks a critical point in the development of a subgenre. What the former did for sorority houses, the latter did for summer camps.

Like Shivers, The Burning received public condemnation, in this case for its heavily gory elements. Some of its more shocking scenes actually had to be cut (no pun intended) before it was released. It even received an X rating in the UK, a feat normally limited to porn films.

Disturbing as it was, pushing the envelope was instrumental to the genre, leading directors to go further and further in their attempts to shock. Initially dismissed by critics and largely ignored by audience, in recent years it's become known as one of the genre's best by horror aficionados.

Did you know Peter Medak's The Changeling beat Meatballs to become the first ever winner of best picture at the Genie Awards? (Associated Film Distributors)

In contrast, The Changeling is perhaps one of the least gory horror films every made. But Peter Medak's 1979 contribution to Canada's cannon of terror swept the first ever Genie Awards and consistently ends up on "scariest movies of all time" lists.

His story of a composer who moves into a haunted Victorian-era mansion after his wife and daughter die in a traffic accident is psychological horror at its best. Coming amidst the slasher heyday of teens being hacked to death by freakish psychopaths, The Changeling offered a very different template for on-screen terror. Monsters didn't need to rip your body apart; they could simply mess with your mind.

While Canadian cinema is often dedicated to more positive messages, a handful of contemporary directors like the Soska Sisters, Jon Knautz and Maurice Devereaux are establishing themselves and pushing the limits of the horror genre. As we approach the spookiest night of the year, it's worth remembering that despite our cultural tendency to never want to make anyone feel bad, our cinema doesn't always have to be feel-good.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.