April 19th is Canadian Film Day, so I thought this would be the perfect day to take a look at some of the most innovative and influential horror movies that Canada has to offer. Canada is home to a bevvy of wonderfully talented horror movie makers, from directors like David Cronenberg and the Soska Sisters to horror-focused production companies like Black Fawn Films and Raven Banner Entertainment.
Horror has a home in Canada. When you look at some of the themes found in horror – cold isolation (Black Mountain Side, Pontypool), transformative identity (Bite, Afflicted), and the terror of creatures unknown (The Void, Silent Hill) – these are challenges that Canadians can identify with. We all know that winter is a bitch, we struggle with our cultural identity, and we have a lot of temperamental wildlife.
But part of the brilliance of Canadian horror is that much of it actually defies the typical themes. Videodrome focuses on the affect of violence and sexuality in the media. Cube explores paranoia and how our fight for survival can fluctuate in the face of a seemingly hopeless endeavor. It’s rarely as simple as the cabin-in-the-woods slasher module.
But genres aside, there are many things that make a horror film innovative or influential. Here’s my list of Canadian horror films that – in some way – changed the game.
It’s really difficult to choose just one Cronenberg film, but I’m gonna go with Videodrome (technically The Fly isn’t Canadian and I’m mad about it). Max Renn (James Woods) runs a sensationalist TV station that offers “socially positive” programming – essentially softcore porn and gratuitous violence. Max discovers a show called Videodrome – which appears to be a staged snuff show – and is instantly fascinated, convinced that it’s the future of television.
Of course, we discover the show isn’t staged, and there’s a larger conspiracy at work that involves targeted fatal brain tumors to “purge” the world of its violence-driven degenerates. Chock-full of fantastic practical effects, it’s a bizarre, surreal, and provocative dissertation on our cultural
obsession relationship with sex and violence.
To no one’s surprise, Videodrome has been named “one of the most influential films in history” by the Toronto International Film Festival.
Cube is brilliantly simple. A group of strangers wake up in a cube with doors on all 6 sides. They must navigate their way through a series of booby-trapped identical cubes to – somehow, hopefully – find a way to escape. Cube was actually filmed in one room, which is both genius and… insane.
They used different panels to change the color of each room and a partial second cube was built for scenes where the cast was looking through from another cube. The focus is entirely on the tension between the ensemble cast.
Cube is incredibly innovative in its simplicity, and it quickly became a Canadian cult classic.
My Bloody Valentine (1981)
My Bloody Valentine helped to shape the slasher sub-genre with its too-raunchy-for-ratings practical effects and socially meaningful message. When holiday-themed horror movies were in their heyday, My Bloody Valentine came out swinging with gory practical effects and innovative kills and that were designed around the filming environment. Filmed in an actual mine in Nova Scotia, the movie took realistic set design to the next level.
The film has an ongoing legacy and its fan base is still growing, thanks to the 2009 remake and semi-regular screenings at festivals and events. But it’s not only a culturally significant film, it has politically-charged undertones as well. The focus on economic struggle and poor working conditions resonated with 1981 audiences and remains relevant today.
If you want to learn more about the making of My Bloody Valentine, check out my Valentine’s Day interview with George Mihalka.
American Mary (2012)
I couldn’t build a Canadian horror movie list without including the Soska Sisters. American Mary is the ultimate rape-revenge movie. Our heroine, Mary (Katharine Isabelle) survives and thrives by monopolizing her skill as a surgeon to get the ultimate revenge and gain a healthy profit. Katherine Isabelle isn’t a final girl or a scream queen, she’s a femme fatale and she absolutely owns it.
American Mary brilliantly makes you squirm in your skin without actually showing any gratuitous gore. It quickly became a cult favorite and it put the Soska Sisters on the map as darlings of the horror genre.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
This is as perfect as coming-of-age movies get. Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) is viciously attacked by a werewolf while she’s suffering through her own that-time-of-the-month physical change. (Her period. I’m talking about her period). As she “blossoms” (ugh) through her newfound sexuality and lupine transformation (the werewolf is puberty!), her sister struggles to keep her grounded.
It’s a really clever and satisfying take on the werewolf lore, and it’s made quite an impression in the horror community as being one of the strongest werewolf films of recent history.
Black Christmas (1974)
Black Christmas was the one of the first conventional slasher films. Years before Halloween took the spotlight, Black Christmas set the standard. There is such mystery surrounding the ambiguous and unsolved identity of the crazed killer (which they filled in for the 2006 remake) that it really draws you in and sets this psychological horror apart. It changed the game for the horror industry and made the slasher film a cultural norm.
But to move beyond the (what is now) typical slasher film, Black Christmas focuses on a character who is struggling with her future. The film openly talks about abortion, which was a controversial topic at the time. With a strong cast of female leads, it successfully passes the Bechdel test. The female characters are not sexualized at all and their deaths aren’t graphic.
It breathed new life into the horror films of the 1970s and its influence on the genre is undeniable.
I could really go on here because there are a ton of innovative Canadian horror movies. For further viewing, check out Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Editor, The Void, Pontypool, Exit Humanity, Grave Encounters, Hobo with a Shotgun, and The Changeling.
Do you have a favorite Canadian horror movie? Let us know in the comments!