Even in these enlightened times, when we hear that a movie is being shot in Toronto we naturally assume this is just some money saving exercise, rather than a renaissance of Canadian genre film making. To even suggest they was ever a Canadian horror movie industry of any note is sure to bring snorts of derision from some corners. Caelum Vatnsdal's excellent THEY CAME FROM WITHIN is here to put the record straight (or at least hammer a few kinks out of it).
Being English, little, er, nuances like the difference between the American and Canadian accents used to be mostly lost on me. I could no more tell the difference between an American film and a Canadian one than I could between one from Australia and one from New Zealand. Thankfully, my cultural horizons have broadened over the years and I'm a little better at spotting these things (and I've met enough Canadians, some wearing baseball caps screaming “I'm Canadian!” on them – to know that it's a cardinal sin to assume they are, in-fact, from south of the border. Now, I don't blame poor schooling on my previous blissful ignorance when it came to Canadian spotting, no, like SOUTH PARK before me, I blame the Canadians! Little did I know that many of my favourite horror films from when I was growing up (and, indeed, many of the films that remain firm favourites to this very day) were actually Canadian. This was because, ostensibly, they were meant to be American: American flags were flying throughout; the money exchanged in them was American; people went to American High Schools etc. And, to put it frankly, I wouldn't recoginse the CN Tower for what it is if it snuck up behind me and bit me in the ass! So, Caelum Vatnsdal's THEY CAME FROM WITHIN (naturally taking it's name from one of Canada's best known genre sons' horror epics) is fascinating and revealing in equal measures; it's also a cracking read, and should be on the bookshelves of any self-respecting HYSTERIAN!
Caelum lifts the lid on the much overlooked Canuck horror film industry. He details how Canadian talent infiltrated Hollywood in the thirties, but it wasn't until the sixties and seventies that it started to take off, and finally exploded in the eighties thanks to a “tax shelter” incentive that saw people literally throwing money at horror projects. Caelum usually devotes a couple of pages to films of note, and, happily, he digs the same kind of films that we do, which means insightful and witty reviews, interesting anecdotes about productions and interviews with many of the people who were involved. Naturally, THEY CAME FROM WITHIN devotes much space to the career of David Cronenberg (as any book on Canadian horror films should), but it also sets aside a huge amount of space for the kind of films featured on this site. You might think you knew all the Canadian slasher/horror movies – I certainly thought I had made amends for my earlier ignorance – but even I was bowled over by just how many there are. BLACK CHISTMAS (1974), RITUALS (1977) and THE CLOWN MURDERS (1975) were all 70's gems from Canada.
Then, as Caelum calls it, the “slash for cash” period, as Canada pumped out some of the best (and worst) of the subgenre movies during the early 80's slasher movie boom, aided by generous incentives for filmmakers (as the author puts it, Canadian money flew at these projects "like bugs at a windshield"). It reads like a who's-who of slasherdom: PROM NIGHT (1980), TERROR TRAIN (1980), HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981), MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) (which Caelum describes as, "... without rival the most Canadian horror movie ever made."), VISITING HOURS (1981), THE INCUBUS (1981), HUMUNGOUS (1982), CURTIANS (1983) - and the list goes on. There are some fascinating insights into some of our favourite movies (well, they're fascinating if you're anything like me or Caelum): he tells how the crew got that authentic train movement in TERROR TRAIN just right, by a couple of grips leaning on an iron bar shoved through some springs and giving it a bit of welly (!); he also includes in full a hilariously inept promotional synopsis for the film which includes passages (that obviously didn't make it to the final cut) like: "The darkness of the night had hardly come when Robbie started with Cindy in the ladies' room. He stuffed her, and her pet cat in the same locker when he through with his macabre revenge." There's also some fascinating tidbits of information, such as the fact that several endings were shot for HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, so not even the cast and crew knew who the killer was until they saw the final film - something we're unlikely to ever see if Columbia's bare bones dvd with the abominable cover is anything to go by. Sigh.
Not only is THEY CAME FROM WITHIN a riveting read it's also quietly hilarious, also. I laughed like a drain at some of Caelum's drier comments, such as, when he's describing the new film from the guy that inflicted CHRISTINA'S HOUSE (1999) on the world, as being better because "it was shorter". It's clear he has great affection for these movies (well, maybe not CHRISTINA'S HOUSE but who in their right mind would?), but he freely acknowledges that they are rarely anything approaching art. What he does argue, however, (and very convincingly) is that by their very nature Canadian horror films (where they often attempt to hide their true identity) are a breed apart; by attempting to conform they actually become something else entirely. It can throw up an almost transcendental otherness; it's a uniqueness that should clearly be cherished. He acknowledges that even if these films aren't very good (at least in conventional terms) the best are compelling and interesting enough to warrant comment, and even the bad ones usually have some near-redemptive quality. He quotes David Cronenberg, who says "No horror film is truly mainstream", continuing to say "... that this outsider status means that even the lowliest of them are worthy of at least some consideration". It's an opinion that I agree with whole-heartedly, and is the reason why there's so many obscure films reviewed on this site.
Not only does Caelum have good taste in movies, he also has - ahem - good taste in websites, as HYSTERIA LIVES! pops up a few times within the pages. With THEY CAME FROM WITHIN Caelum is finally giving the much maligned (both at home and abroad) Canadian horror movie industry the kind of recognition it deserves. Just look at the roll call of movies that have come from there, and then just imagine the gaping hole we would have if they hadn't. Canada we salute you!
Find out how to grab yourself a copy of this great book from www.arbeiterring.com