Happy Canada Day! As a Canadian, I can pride in knowing that we have given our neighbour to the south high-quality beer, maple syrup, The Tragically Hip, hockey, and Ryan Reynolds. I disavow all responsibility for Justin Bieber and Nickelback.
Canadians have also delivered some fantastic horror films over the years. Thus, to celebrate this Canadian holiday, The Chopping Block features some of the best or criminally underseen horror films produced in the ‘Great White North’.
Put on your dancing shoes and best polyester disco suit – Canada is indeed responsible for the original Prom Night. Aside from the film’s bizarre 5-minute disco dance interlude, Prom Night was among the better of the early 1980’s slasher film craze. While the killer’s appearance is fairly unremarkable, the tragic backstory that inspires their killing spree is certainly one of the more compelling in slasher film history. The killer also has a pretty creepy ‘killer voice’, if that’ the best expression for it. There are a couple of decent stalking scenes. Prom Night also starts ‘ Scream Queen’ Jamie Lee Curtis.
A Canadian-American co-production, starring a young Stephen Dorff, The Gate is a lean, fun, low-budget horror outing. Its story about two young, lonely boys who conjure a ‘gateway’ to hell with a heavy metal record and a hole in one of the boy’s backyards is a ‘good’ gateway into the horror genre for young viewers. Contemporary audiences may see some similarities to Stranger Things, which isn’t surprising. When The Gate was released it drew some comparisons to Spielberg and Stephen King. Admittedly, the special effects are dated, but The Gate is still a fun Canadian horror film.
American Mary isn’t a scary movie as much as it is gory, suspenseful tour through the underworld of body modification. Directed by Canada’s up-and-coming auteurs, The Soska sisters, American Mary deserves mention on this list for anticipating the #MeToo movement a few years before it emerged. It’s story of a young woman in medical student, exploited and assaulted by a mentor, touches a nerve with its exposure of the misogyny with which women are too often confronted. The Soska Sisters capture their cathartic violence with flair, and Canadian horror queen Katharine Isabelle stuns as the title character.
No list of Canadian horror films would be complete without some mention of legendary director David Cronenberg. I opted to go with one of his early, low-budget Canadian efforts – Rabid. Even when he’s limited by budgetary constraints, Cronenberg still delivers his own unique twist on vampire and zombie mythology. Following a tragic motorcycle accident, a young woman develops a taste or blood after receiving skin grafts. What follows is a deadly, gory plague that culminates is a pessimistic conclusion.
Not necessarily the best of Cronenberg’s early work (see either Shivers or The Brood), Rabid is still bloody, low-budget fun and an interesting window into a developing talent.
Before the Saw films in the 2000’s, there was Cube. Several strangers wake up in an industrial cube-shaped room with no memory of how the arrived. Each wall, as well as the ceiling and floor, has a hatch that leads to another cube-shaped room. Some hatches are rigged with elaborate traps designed to kill. To escape what appears to a government experiment, the strangers must set aside their suspicions of one another and decipher the Cube’s puzzle.
Cube is a fascinating science fiction-horror film that combines psychological elements about human nature with mystery and gory horror traps. It was a movie that popped up frequently on Canada’s speciality Space Channel, slowly gaining a cult following. Released in the late 1990’s, Cube was eventually followed by two decent sequels, but the original stills stands as an absolutely unique viewing experience. I strongly recommend a viewing of Cube.
Back in May, I wrote a piece in The Vault about the underrated Ginger Snaps. Canada’s offering to the werewolf film, Ginger Snaps is a smart, relevant, and innovative horror film that is perhaps more relevant today than it was back in the early 2000’s. Performances from Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins as awkward, outcast sisters ground the film’s supernatural elements. Its feminist spin on werewolf mythology is whip-smart. Most importantly, Ginger Snaps is a genuinely scary film that delivers on the werewolf blood and viscera.
Director Bob Clark doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves. Best known for the seasonal classic A Christmas Story and raunchy 80’s sex comedy, Porky’s, Clark’s Black Christmas arguably had nearly as much impact on the development of the slasher genre as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween. Regardless of where it’s situated in horror history, there’s no denying that Black Christmas is a terrifying film.
In addition to introducing a few slasher film tropes, Black Christmas features arguably one of the scariest killers in slasher film history. Unlike the awful brain-dead remake, Clark’s original Black Christmas understands that not knowing ‘why’ far more frightening than an elaborate backstory. Black Christmas is chilling regardless of the time of year.
I’m actually quite surprised that The Changeling hasn’t had as strong a critical reception as other classic horror films. This Canadian gem, starring George C. Scott, is one of the better haunted house films. With a simple premise and filming approach, The Changeling has a story that twists and turns while the aesthetics conjure up the best of haunted house tricks. From demonic wheelchairs to eerie music boxes, The Changeling does trade on familiar haunted house tropes, but the execution is damn good. Throughout the film, you are engaged or alternately gripping the arm of your chair. Scott grounds the proceedings with a strong, believable performance.