A history of horror films from this side of the border
By Colten Kamlade, Columnist
Canada has always had a unique relationship with the horror genre. In the ’70s and ’80s, tax shelter laws drew in hundreds of investors. These laws meant that if you invested in a film with enough Canadian crew members, then you were exempt from paying taxes on that investment until profits were made.
During this time, some of the most iconic slasher flicks were churned out. My Bloody Valentine (1981), Prom Night (1980), and The Changeling (1980) were all filmed and produced north of the border. While they were not films of the highest caliber, they were integral to the development of the genre. Some of them, such as My Bloody Valentine, far surpassed the quality of the American films that they were trying to imitate. Others, like Black Christmas (1997), are so bizarre that they deserve credit for their sheer originality. While a handful of these films were good, many more were terrible, and eventually investors lost interest. The age of the Canadian slasher had come to an end.
South of the border, however, films like Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) were—and still are—the framework around which most horror was built. When audiences go to see a slasher they know that the “final girl” will somehow thwart the masked killer… until the sequel, that is. While Canada once embraced these tropes, directors soon realized that, if they wanted to stay relevant, they had to do something to distinguish their films from American horror. David Cronenberg was the first to realize this. He is considered one of the founders of body horror—a subgenre that plays on our fear of disease, decay, and mutilation. Even during the years of cheap slashers, he was creating quality films. Videodrome (1983), Scanners (1981), and Dead Ringers (1988) are just a few of his contributions to the genre.
It was not until 1997 that another horror film attempted to break away from the tired formula of its predecessors. Cube follows the trials of six individuals who wake up in a mysterious room. The only exits are through hatches in each of the four walls, the ceiling, and the floor. All of these lead to rooms identical to the original—meaning that escape seems impossible, especially with the traps hidden in the cubes. While Cube divided critics and audiences alike, it was a laudable attempt at something new.
In 2000, Ginger Snaps achieved what Cube set out to do. Controversial in its time, the film deftly blends themes of girlhood, loyalty, and alienation while also telling a chilling tale of lycanthropy. Moreover, it was the dawn of a more socially conscious type of horror. Ginger Snaps acknowledged and rejected the typecasting of females as victims and “eye-candy.” Instead, both the protagonist and the antagonist are played by women, and the men take a backseat in supporting roles.
Since Gingersnaps, there have been a handful of good Canadian horrors. Pontypool (2008), in which a virus is spread through language, and American Mary (2012) both come to mind. These films are well made, but they are not revolutionary. They are not the next stage in the evolution of Canadian horror. So, what is?
I believe that the genre needs to shy away from gratuitous violence and nudity. Horror directors need to take themselves seriously and create movies designed to evoke emotions other than disgust. Themes such as loneliness, anxiety, depression, and purposelessness are often featured in horror films, but these important topics are buried beneath gore. If directors would dedicate more time to exploring these grim issues and less time pondering how to make the audience cringe, then I believe fans of the genre would discover horror films far more poignant, and far scarier, than those made at present.