The Review/Short Read/
Over 50 years ago, in 1961, Canadian filmmaker Julian Roffman made a terrifying 3D horror film that was the first of its kind. Lost to the big screen for years, and after a successful and historic restoration, it played TIFF ‘15, screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox, and now for Halloween day only you can see it for free.
The Mask (Eyes of Hell) holds the double distinction of being Canada’s first feature-length 3D film and also Canada’s first feature-length horror film. It was our country’s first widely successful foray into the genre—including the American market—and over the next fifty years, Canadian filmmakers like David Cronenberg would prove wildly good at scaring the shit out of audiences, local or otherwise.
But it isn’t just David Cronenberg. Go back further to films like Black Christmas, Prom Night, or My Bloody Valentine. Our horror scene erupted during the tax shelter era of the 1970’s and 80’s, when Canadian filmmakers gave us these classic entries in the low-budget, gore-heavy canon. When the tax shelter evaporated, the amount of horror produced in the country waned, but that foundation remained. The industry was here now.
“When you look at the lineage of horror movies in Canada, and why movies were so important to the foundation of the growth of the Canadian industry in English Canada, why do Canadian artists seem so good at it?” says Jesse Wente, Director of Film Programmes at TIFF Bell Lightbox. “Why are our filmmakers so attuned to what lurks in the shadows?”
Like all questions around Canada’s film identity, the answer isn’t so easy to pin down. And like the national scene in general, there isn’t one style that defines Canadian Horror. David Cronenberg’s oeuvre definitely holds a commanding position, but the millennium revamp in our country’s horror scene with Ginger Snaps (2000), Pontypool (2010) and Splice (2009) proves that the appetite for the unnerving in this country is only growing. We’re seeing evidence of this in the crop of exciting new co-productions of recent years, like 2013’s MaMa and the 2015 Sundance hit The Witch, which made wonderful use of Ontario’s haunting tree line.
So what makes the Canadian film industry so good at capturing dread and screams on screen? “Is it our Puritan roots?” muses Wente, touching on Canadian idealism and our “polite” stereotype. “Is it because you’re cold and you’re trapped inside? I think: maybe. To all of those.”