Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul

The new book The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul, which is edited by Gina Freitag and André Loiselle, reimagines Canadian film history through the lens of terror. David Cronenberg might be at the epicenter of this gravitational pull, but he’s still surrounded by some considerable nightmares: From the first Canadian horror film Henry MacRae’s The Werewolf (1913), through the tax-shelter era with the likes of William Fruet’s Death Weekend (1976) and its sub-genre the forest slasher, to the adaptations of Patrick Senécal's Québécois horror novels and the Newfoundland eco-horror film Orca, all of the way through the avant-garde with R. Bruce Elder and Jack Chambers, and to Ottawa’s Lee Demarbre and his ode to Herschell Gordon Lewis in Smash Cut. There's a lot of frights to be had!

The book builds upon Northrop Frye’s premise on Canadian poetry, which is that it resonates “a tone of deep terror in regard to nature… a terror of the soul,” where “confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing and formidable physical setting – such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality.” The notion of Canadian identity and its ethos is reimagined through these roots in terrors, in the interval between external threat and internal dread.

Building upon Caelum Vatnsdal’s previous study on the subject They Came from Within and websites like Canuxploitation, The Canadian Horror Film legimitizes the subject by giving it an academic form. There are many serious studies on films like Cube, Ginger Snaps, Black Christmas, Pontypool, and Nelvana’s animation.

There are, of course, omissions that should be noted: How come there’s no mention of Denis Côté, who has always included horror film conventions in his work? Or how come Cronenberg’s most recent films, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, or his recently published first novel Consumed, are hardly mentioned? And I'm sure that people could think up some others.

But, regardless, The Canadian Horror Film accomplishes the impressive feat of being able to re-write Canadian film history under the shadow of horror and, in doing so, exposes it in a new light. This is especially in opposition to how often these type of low-taste films tend to be vilified by Canadian film critics and funding agencies. 

Along with the recent screenings of Canadian classic films like John Paizs’ Crime Wave (1985) and Julian Roffman’s The Mask (1961); or the publishing of Marcel Jean’s Dictionnaire des films québécois, David L. Pike’s Canadian Cinema Since the 1980s, and Tom Ue’s World Film Locations: Toronto; or the emergence of an exciting new generation of Toronto directors (Radwanski, Drljaca, Cividino), and Jean-Marc Vallée going into his prime; The Canadian Horror Film provides another great example of the richness and malleability of Canadian cinema. 

And the next stop? With Matt Johnson's eagerly anticipated Operation Avalanche coming out next year, it reminds us that it's best to dream big and to aim for the moon!

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