It’s no secret: The 1970s were a pioneering and febrile decade for cinema of every genre. Horror was no exception and – thanks to a heady cocktail of fortuitous social and economic factors – Canada proved a particularly fertile breeding ground.
The Great White North spawned a wave of blood-curdling classics that launched many a Hollywood career and shaped the destiny of the art form.
But what dark forces gave birth to this renaissance of terror? Well for starters, Canadians are weird. That is a proven fact. OK, don’t believe me? Fine. Then explain Men Without Hats. Or the Ogopogo sightings. Or Justin Bieber.
Yeah. *nods sagely* I rest my case.
Canuck weirdness aside, the late ’60s and early ’70s gave rise to strong tax incentives and an injection of public funding aimed to expand the nation’s film industry. A generation of macabre Canadian auteurs were suddenly awash in blood money, as it were, and the result was a chilling body of work worthy of any horror fan’s attention. If you’re eager to take in some of Canada’s finest cinematic gruesome exports, I recommend you start with the following sextet.
Deathdream aka Dead of Night (1972)
Before switching to comedies in the 1980s, journeyman director Bob Clark helmed two of the most original horror movies of the prior decade. Deathdream, written by filmmaker and makeup artist Alan Ormsby, is a weird hybrid: part social statement, part monster movie. An updated adaptation of W.W. Jacob’s classic short story, The Monkey’s Paw, it’s the tale of a young Vietnam casualty who comes home from the war irrevocably damaged. For starters, he’s a zombie – and he must feed on the blood of the living. Pioneering FX guru Tom Savini cut his teeth on Deathdream, his first feature.
The Pyx (1973)
Canadian cities often for U.S. ones in TV and movie productions. But here’s a slow burning suspense film that puts its homegrown atmosphere up front and center. Shot in Montreal, the city becomes a dark metropolis where satanists stalk call girls and homicide investigator Jim Henderson (Christopher Plummer) unravels the threads of a terrifying web of conspiracy. Who knew that Toronto native Plummer could speak fluent French? The man is è badass. The late Karen Black plays a hunted lady of the night and contributes haunting vocals to the film’s eerily elegiac soundtrack (Two years later, Black would receive a Grammy nomination for the two songs she wrote and performed in Robert Altman’s Nashville.
Black Christmas (1974)
Psycho marked the slasher subgenre’s birth, but Bob Clark’s Black Christmas was the first film to debut many of its well-known tropes. John Carpenter watched and learned, borrowing many of this film’s stylistic flourishes for his phenomenally successful Halloween. The film also boasts a fantastic cast: Fiery Canadienne Margot Kidder’s career launched a career as a first-rate scream queen; Keir Dullea of (“Open the pod bay doors” fame) showed his sinister side; John Saxon played a stalwart cop practically identical to his character in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street; and the ever-classy-but-rather-unfortunately-named British thespian Olivia Hussey shone brightly as the archetypal “final girl.”
Clark’s colleague Alan Ormsby was also making silver scream history in 1974, writing and co-directing by this skin-crawlingly unpleasant retelling of Ed Gein’s exploits. Accomplished character actor Roberts Blossom inhabits the role of Gein-based protagonist Ezra Cobb – an unassuming farmer by day and necrophile/murderer/aspiring taxidermist by night. This was FX wizard Tom Savini’s second feature and – holy mackerel! – the guts, severed limbs, and tanned hides look terrific (which is to say, they look absolutelyhorrible). Blossom’s acting, however, is what makes this film unforgettable. His eagerly demented performance is positively unwholesome.
The Brood (1979)
Through his two breakthrough features, Shivers and Rabid, Toronto-born auteur David Cronenberg unleashed his demented body horror aesthetic on the world. But the The Brood is arguably his first masterpiece. It’s a nearly perfect film that juxtaposes the isolating chill of winter with the livid fury of a rage uncontained. Composer Howard Shore portends his future success, contributing a extraordinary score. Cronenberg conceived this partly autobiographical tale amid a bitter divorce and custody battle with his first wife. One hopes his ex didn’t actually asexually produce hordes of Teletubby-like murderous minions.
The Changeling (1980)
Dripping with style and suspense, the beautifully stylized and enormously influential haunted house flick closed out an amazing decade in cinema. George C. Scott plays a grieving widower who takes up residence in a mammoth Victorian mansion. Little does he know that the house is already inhabited by spirits that are dying – and killing – to reveal their secrets. Director Peter Medak’s long-unsung magnum opus was released in March 1980 – and completely eclipsed two months later by Kubrick’s The Shining. Its legion of fans included such cineastes as Guillermo del Toro and Martin Scorsese. They ensured this film’s legacy would not die.