Features and Columns

Maple Nightmares: A Brief History of Canadian Horror in 5 Freaky Films

By  · Published on April 4th, 2014

Universal Pictures

Canada is a scary place. I know that may be hard to believe given its reputation south of the border, but it’s true. At least since the mid-1970s something about the Great White North has inspired its citizens to go forth and make horror films. Good ones at that. Derek Lee and Cliff Prowse’s Afflicted, one of our 13 Best Horror Films of 2013, is only the most recent to hit American theaters. It won’t be alone, either, as Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy continues to unsettle and confuse audiences in its third week.

The glut of terrifying entertainment from Canada begs some sort of explanation. Obviously there’s more to the nation than the stereotype of the apologetic, self-effacing peacenik but the Maple Terror phenomenon is now large enough to merit some light-hearted analysis.

Let’s start with Margaret Atwood. Back in 1972 she published a book of literary theory called “Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.” Her idea was that the principle theme of Canadian culture is the battle with the wilderness, the fight to survive the snow and the cold. The protagonists in Canadian fiction are often in “victim positions,” a representation of a communally held fear of nature.

Canadian literary criticism has mostly moved on from Atwood’s book, as has the writer herself, but there’s something very useful about this idea. No one is more victimized than the hero of a horror film. Is there something inherently Canadian about the genre, something that has inspired generations of filmmakers to terrorize their characters? Maybe! But don’t take my word for it, watch some of the films. Here are five of the best, representing a brief and freaky history of Canada’s long love affair with the nightmare.

The Pyx (1973)

Let’s kick things off a little early. In the early 1970s there wasn’t all that much to shriek about. One incredibly significant film was 1974’s Black Christmas, with which director Bob Clark kicked off the slasher genre from an old student dormitory in Toronto. If there’s a foundational moment to Canadian horror, it’s probably that. Yet in the spirit of discovery take a look at another film, made just before. The Pyx (also known as The Hooker Cult Murders) stars Karen Black as a Montreal prostitute and Christopher Plummer as the hardboiled detective investigating her murder. The dual-timeline structure makes for a befuddling, eerie experience with a spiritual connection to Rosemary’s Baby and a haunting song score sung by Black herself.

Videodrome (1983)

And then came David Cronenberg. If there’s one person who can be credited for launching and inspiring Canada’s relationship with the genre it’s him. His gross-out Shivers was quite the national sensation in 1975, sending the press into offended shrieking and maybe even getting Cronenberg kicked out of his apartment.

Yet by 1983, his unique brand of body horror would make Videodrome a hit and net him the Genie Award for Best Director (he tied, actually, with Bob Clark for A Christmas Story). If Black Christmas is something of a first then Videodrome might be the masterpiece that cemented the genre in Canadian culture. More than simply tracking survival, it expands into a perverse physical afterlife that re-frames Atwood’s initial idea.

Pontypool (2008)

Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool is one of the best zombie movies of the last decade, in part because it is so much more. Alongside the explicit, often revolting trend in Canadian horror defined by Eisener and the Soskas (see below), this falls into a category perhaps identifiable as “intellectual horror.”

This particular film takes place at a radio station in a small Ontario town, suddenly under attack by the undead. Yet they’re slightly different from your run-of-the-mill brain eaters. Pontypool plays with language and logic, adding a clever cerebral layer to the visceral experience of the zombie apocalypse. Also in this mini-genre are the films of Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice) and the convoluted mind-bending Enemy.

American Mary (2013)

Fast forward to the present and Cronenberg’s unique brand of gross has reached something of a logical conclusion. There’s a whole wing of Canadian film dedicated to the off-putting and the violent. Some of it is more easily classified as grindhouse than horror, like Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun, though he also contributed segments to V/H/S 2 and The ABCs of Death.

There’s also the work of Jen and Sylvia Soska, twin directors with an eye for blood. Last year’s American Mary was a triumph, and also made it onto our 13 Best Horror Films of 2013. Like Cronenberg with Videodrome, the Soskas push beyond a simple idea of physical survival, turning to the world of body mortification. Long live the New Flesh.

Tom at the Farm (2014)

Finally, there is something exciting happening in Quebec. Young filmmakers have been making fantastic new films in both English and French, though not all of them have been horror. Still, the handful of scary projects have been very strong. Good Neighbors is one of the most unsettling apartment-building thrillers in a long time and The Wild Hunt took LARPing and made it all too real.

The most recent example, however, blows everything away. Xavier Dolan’s fourth feature, Tom at the Farm is brutal, sensual trip to Quebec’s countryside. It’s about love, loss and the horrifying experience of running through sharp wheat to escape the hyper-masculine violence of your dead boyfriend’s sadistic older brother. It’s brilliant and in desperate need of US distribution.

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