O Canada! Our brave and frightful land!
That’s how the anthem goes, right? No? Well it should.
Admittedly, in the landscape of horror cinema, the notion of Canadian Horror does tend to receive short shrift from genre fans. This has become exceedingly apparent when the rest of North America is oversaturated with enough junk to satiate basic horror needs. I mean, who needs Canada when you can go see a pointless Blair Witch remake? Or a third Purge film? Or an eighth Texas Chainsaw movie? You get the idea.
It’s not that Canada doesn’t make any good movies either; Canada is home to a plethora of great films, and a few noteworthy horror films to boot. The True North has its fair share of slashers (Prom Night, Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine), zombie films (Fido, Pontypool), haunted house pictures (The Changeling), whatever the hell Things is, and David Cronenberg. So, in honor of our month-long Canuxploitation series, I’m here to celebrate five great Canadian Horror movies that are well worth your time.
Author’s note: To avoid potential overlap with our Optimism Vaccine Podcast retrospective on David Cronenberg, I am excluding his films from this list. If you would like to hear our in-depth discussions of his works, please click here for part one. Part two coming soon!
Black Christmas (1974)
The granddaddy of modern slashers (predating even John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years), Black Christmas is a terrifically atmospheric and wonderfully chilling low-budget horror film that eschews narrative depth for downright terror. Directed by Bob Clark (who would later helm another Yuletide classic, the decidedly less-bloody, more wholesome A Christmas Story) the story concerns a group of sorority sisters (including Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and Olivia Hussey) preparing to make their homeward departures for the titular holiday season. Unbeknownst to them, a deranged maniac has broken into the attic of their sorority house, and unleashes a slew of sinister prank phone calls before slaughtering each of the girls one by one. That’s the entire summation of the plot. This may all sound like normal genre fare, but what’s particularly effective about Clark’s film is how he outright refuses to explain the motives or offer any logic behind the killer’s actions, preferring to keep him literally in the shadows for the extent of the running time. The results are tremendously terrifying (the killer’s phone calls in particular remain as unsettling as ever), and the film concludes with one of the bleakest endings in horror cinema. If you consider yourself a horror aficionado and have yet to see Black Christmas, I implore you to seek out a copy and watch it immediately. Just be sure to disconnect any spare phone lines in your house before doing so.
The Pit (1981)
A real oddity from the 1980’s, Lew Lehman’s The Pit cribs elements from The Shining and The Omen to spin a coming-of-age yarn about a kid that pushes his enemies into a pit filled with troglodytes, wherein they are summarily consumed. While undeniably a creature-feature, The Pit posits that an angsty and hostile pre-pubescent boy is the real monster, and is far more dangerous than any other conceivable beast. The kid in question is Jamie (Sammy Snyders), a malicious twelve year-old who is Damien Thorne by the way of Danny Torrance. Jamie confides all of his secrets with his one and only friend, a stuffed teddy bear named “Teddy,” and develops an unhealthy and borderline-sadistic sexual curiosity with his babysitter, Sandy (Jeannie Elias). The plot itself sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Lehman handles the film’s content carefully, maintaining Jamie’s at a level that’s never entirely off-putting. As awful as Jamie’s interactions with Sandy are, the film really comes to life with sequences surrounding the pit. What begins with the simple task of covertly stealing meat to feed the troglodytes evolves into outright murder, with everyone from schoolyard bullies, bratty neighbors, and even old ladies in wheelchairs eventually falling prey to Jamie’s trap.
Ginger Snaps (2000)
More biting than Mean Girls and more clever than anything in Juno, Ginger Snaps is an excellent coming-of-age tale presented under the guise of a werewolf flick. Director John Fawcett deftly walks the line of horror and comedy here, retaining a sharp wit while managing to dish out plenty of gory frights. The plot revolves around the lives of two teenage sisters, Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katherine Isabelle), both of whom are irrevocably obsessed with death, so much so that they’ve formed their own suicide pact (on their downtime, they like to photograph each other in staged death poses, Harold and Maude style). One evening, Ginger begins her period, and is promptly bitten by a real-life werewolf. As she begins blossoming into womanhood, she also undergoes a startling transformation into a full-blown werewolf, much to the horror of Brigitte. One of the best teen films of the past couple decades, and perhaps the best films about “lycanthropes” ever made, Ginger Snaps is a breath of fresh, autumn air amidst a gloomy sub-genre. Perkins and Isabelle are pitch-perfect as siblings, and the film never loses its pronounced sense of humor, even as the body count rises and more and more buckets of blood are spilled.
Trick r’ Treat (2007)
A crafty ode to the festivities of Halloween, Michael Dougherty’s Trick r’ Treat is a lean anthology-horror movie in the vein of Creepshow, right down to the comic book aesthetic that bookends the film. Completed in 2007 (and criminally released straight-to-video in 2009), Trick r’ Treat tells several loosely-connected stories on one Halloween evening, all running concurrently to each other. These tales include the cruel misdeeds of a high school principal (Dylan Baker), a pack of young women (including Anna Paquin) on the prowl for a killer Halloween party, a group of teens investigating the legend of a disappearance of a school bus full of children, and an old curmudgeon’s (Brian Cox) clash with an evil entity. Dougherty (who went on to direct last year’s Krampus) directs with an appealing verve, easing into the season of the witch with infectiously bloody results. While there is no main wrap-around story, there is a central character in Sam, a diminutive ghoul wearing a burlap sack. Sam makes a brief appearance in every single one of the vignettes before taking center stage in the finale, arming himself with razor blade-filled candy against a shotgun-toting Brian Cox. It’s a devilishly inventive showdown to a film filled with all sorts of spooky delights.
Father’s Day (2011)
Ah, Troma. For all of their gloriously schlocky excess and revelries in grotesque, Father’s Day remains a surprisingly palatable picture in their canon. Sure, male characters are frequently raped, penises are split-open and devoured, and there’s bouts of incest, but even I can’t deny the brilliance, energy, and utter madness bursting out of this film. Produced by Astron-6 (which is actually a spinoff company from Troma), the film follows Snake Plissken-esque Ahab (co-director/co-writer/co-cinematographer/editor Adam Brooks), an eye-patched warrior on the hunt for the nefarious Fuchman (yes, you read that right), a serial rapist and murderer who solely targets fathers. Joined by street hustler Twink (co-director/co-writer/co-cinematographer Connor Sweeney) and priest Father John Sullivan (co-director/co-writer/co-cinematographer Matthew Kennedy), Ahab vows to end the Fuchman’s reign of terror, no matter the cost. Along the way, heads are smashed in, strippers are decapitated with a chainsaw, and there’s even an imaginatively surreal excursion into Hell. If any of this sounds unpleasant, trust me when I say that Father’s Day is actually quite a lively picture, and a frequently hilarious one at that. The entire cast is gifted with ace comedic timing, sure to leave howling in laughter when you’re not wincing in pain. Viewers with weaker stomachs will definitely want to pass on this one, but for those with their inhibitions in check, Father’s Day is a scream.