Canada and horror movies go together like David Cronenberg and exploding heads.
Hear me out: As a nation, we exist in a perpetual state of insecurity, which naturally leads to fear. We’re terrified of our neighbours to the south, of what the rest of the world might think about us, of the increasing brazenness of our urban raccoons. It only makes sense that such a fragile domestic psyche has wormed its way into the larger cultural landscape, with Canadian filmmakers having built contemporary horror cinema from the ground up – from slasher flicks to the A-plus B-movies of the tax-shelter era.
Just what constitutes a “Canadian” horror film, though, is a nightmare of Bill C-11 proportions. For the purposes of this list, the films had to be shot in Canada, directed and/or written by Canadians, star Canadians and mostly financed with Canadian money. Except, well, when they’re not. That’s the trick to this treat. Boo!
20. American Mary (2012)
Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska
Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska were practically born with horror coursing through their veins. Ever since their mother acquiesced to the sisters’ pleas to watch Poltergeist at a far-too-young age, the B.C.-raised pair have been building their own DIY nightmares. After making a crimson splash with their $2,500 flick Dead Hooker in a Trunk, the Soskas graduated to the big-ish leagues with this thriller about a med student (Katharine Isabelle) who enters the surgical underworld of body-modification to help pay for her tuition. An homage to both the body-horror pioneered by David Cronenberg and the eye-popping extremities of Eli Roth, American Mary (which could’ve easily been titled Canadian Mary) makes for impressively uncomfortable viewing.
19. Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
Directed by Panos Cosmatos
Watching this trippy nightmare is akin to walking the aisles of your local video store, circa 1994, and getting lost in the phantasmagoric promises of the VHS box cover art lining the “Rated R” shelf. Set inside a new-age health clinic in which the Hippocratic Oath is a foreign concept, Beyond the Black Rainbow not only recalls the anything-goes days of Canada’s tax-shelter era – during which, say, dentists and other wannabe producers were able to deduct 100 per cent of their investment in homegrown films, leading to a boom in quick-turnaround horror flicks – but creates an entirely new faux-retro horror aesthetic. It’s a vision that director Panos Cosmatos has since refined to make 2018′s instant cult classic Mandy and the best episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities series for Netflix.
Currently unavailable to watch in Canada, which is its own kind of nightmare.
18. Skinamarink (2022)
Directed by Kyle Edward Ball
With little dialogue and most of its action shrouded in darkness, Skinamarink plays like a Michael Snow video-art installation projected from inside the ninth circle of hell. Kyle Edward Ball’s microbudget directorial debut, shot inside his parents’ Edmonton home, is an intensely challenging haunted-house film that dares audiences to stick around. Which is partly why it has inspired such a fiercely devoted following barely a year after its release. And no, the movie has nothing to do with the eponymous children’s song by Sharon, Lois & Bram – for the love of all that is holy, keep children away from this thing.
17. Possessor (2020)
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Like disgusting father, like gross-out son. In Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg slashes throats, gouges eyeballs and pops skulls with the glee of his father, David. The murders in this tale of a brain-invading assassin (Andrea Riseborough) are crunchy and sticky and very much gag-inducing in a way that will both please fans of Cronenberg Sr. and maybe even unnerve the patriarch himself. While Brandon has stressed in interviews that he pays no mind to familial comparisons, it’s hard to dismiss the influence that David has had. Which is no knock: The clan’s shared affinity for finding new and novel ways of ripping bodies apart is as impressive as their tastes in casting (Brandon employs eXistenZ star Jennifer Jason Leigh here in a not-dissimilar role). Long live the new flesh.
Streaming on Netflix
16. Les affames (2017)
Directed by Robin Aubert
Given the general strength of Quebec’s film scene, it’s surprising that the province hasn’t produced more genre classics. Which makes Robin Aubert’s Les affames (Ravenous) stand out all that much more – this is a zombie flick with Québécois culture top of (undead) mind. The film balances gore with political allegory, its hordes of brainless monsters possibly standing in for the encroachment of outside forces into traditional French-Canadian culture. Add in a handful of Quebec’s most talented performers (Marc-André Grondin, Monia Chokri), slick violence and an enjoyably ambiguous ending, and Ravenous will only leave you hungry for more Québécois filmmakers to get into the horror game.
Available for rent on Apple TV
15-14. My Bloody Valentine (1981) & Prom Night (1980)
Directed by George Mihalka; Directed by Paul Lynch
Two horror movies arriving at the dawn of the 1980s horror boom that both shamelessly riffed on John Carpenter’s Halloween, both My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night also spawned legions of their own imitators. The Nova Scotia-shot Valentine is an impressively nasty piece of business that finds terror not only in its central boogeyman (a maniac in mining gear who removes the hearts of his victims) but also its subterranean setting (the movie was filmed in the shuttered Princess Colliery Mine in Sydney Mines). Meanwhile, Paul Lynch’s Prom Night had the strongest whiff of John Carpenter déjà vu thanks to casting original Halloween scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis. But it also set a standard for Canuxploitation that’s genuinely fun to watch. Bonus: It features a killer Leslie Nielsen performance.
13. Backcountry (2014)
Directed by Adam MacDonald
Considering that so much of this country is covered by woodlands, there aren’t enough films about how nature is constantly trying to kill us. Director Adam MacDonald tries to rectify this oversight by making a killer-bear movie that doubles as a critique of Canadians who think one weekend camping trip makes them automatic woodland gurus. Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop star as a couple who ignore warnings and traipse into restricted territory – mocking both experts in the field and the Indigenous people that the land belongs to – only to come face to face with the grizzly/grisly jaws of death. MacDonald employs various Canadiana tropes (a canoe becomes a lifeline) while embracing the best time-tested tricks of horror filmmaking.
Streaming on Prime Video, Tubi and CBC Gem
12. Psycho Goreman (2020)
Directed by Steven Kostanski
More a horror-comedy than pure horror, this low-budget riot gets a generous pass owing to its cinematic DNA inextricably linked to the CanCon horror canon. A wild monster mashup as gory as it is hilarious, Psycho Goreman follows the friendship between an ancient intergalactic evil and the two latchkey kids who accidentally awaken it. Working with little resources but lots of messed up memories of old issues of Fangoria magazine, director Steven Kostanski produces an epic universe filled with demented creations, including something that can only be described as a big, bloody bucket full of decapitated heads.
11. Ginger Snaps (2000)
Directed by John Fawcett
With an explicitly feminist twist and gnarly special effects, Ginger Snaps can be viewed as both a Canadian response to An American Werewolf in London and a precursor to Pixar’s Turning Red. Following two sisters who are transformed into werewolves – one of whom, Ginger, has just begun to menstruate – director John Fawcett’s film subverts the man-to-beast subgenre with wit and verve. It helps that the film is anchored by Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle, the latter of whom goes on to lead two sequels and a host of other homegrown horror films, becoming Canada’s reigning scream queen – even though it is often the actor’s victims who are the ones screaming.
10-9. Pontypool (2008) & Blood Quantum (2019)
Directed by Bruce McDonald; Directed by Jeff Barnaby
Pontypool and Blood Quantum showcase two Canadian filmmakers (one prolific, the other just getting started before he passed away) delivering two radically different approaches to the zombie film. McDonald’s thriller, based on Tony Burgess’s novel, focuses on a zombie contagion spread through the English language, with a career-best performance from Stephen McHattie as a radio DJ playing unlikely witness to the end of the world. Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, meanwhile, honours the political spirit of zombie godfather George A. Romero by positioning Indigenous people as humanity’s last best hope against the undead. Cultural theorists will have a field day with Barnaby’s many allusions – one image of a survivor fending off a ghoul recalls Shaney Komulainen’s infamous Face to Face photograph from the 1990 Oka Crisis – while gore-hounds will be satisfied by the film’s sky-high body count. But ultimately viewers might leave Blood Quantum sad, given that the Mi’kmaq filmmaker died of cancer in 2022 at the age of 46.
8. The Changeling (1980)
Directed by Peter Medak
Set in Seattle but unmistakably a British Columbia film, The Changeling is that rare Canadian horror from the Canuxploitation era that relies more on atmosphere than gore. A haunted-house tale anchored by a sincere lead performance from George C. Scott, the film follows a composer from New York who moves into a historical mansion following the deaths of his wife and child. It doesn’t take long until our hero begins to notice suspicious goings on inside his new home, leading him to uncover a modern-gothic conspiracy that is more frightening than many of the monsters typically stalking the genre. Winner of the first Genie Award for Best Picture, Peter Medak’s film has influenced everything from Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others to honorary Canadian Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak.
Streaming on Tubi
7. Cube (1997)
Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Faced with a familiar Canadian filmmaking dilemma – how to work with a budget smaller than the square footage of a Toronto basement apartment – director Vincenzo Natali turned a crisis into an opportunity, setting his debut feature inside a single room that could be repurposed throughout the story. The deceptively simple premise follows a group of six strangers who awaken in a seemingly endless maze, each new cube-shaped room containing deadly traps. The film opens with a truly deranged kill – actor Julian Richings gets sliced into hundreds of chunky cubes after a thin wire mesh cuts through his body in a second – before settling into a nerve-wracking guessing game. Spawning two decent sequels and a Japanese remake, Cube represents the delightful strength, tenacity and perversity of this country’s filmmakers.
Streaming on Hoopla
6-3. Shivers (1975) & Rabid (1977) & The Brood (1979) & Scanners (1981)
Directed by David Cronenberg
It was tempting to devote this entire list to David Cronenberg, not only the most influential figure in Canadian horror but all of Canadian cinema. But that would be cheating ... even though lumping together these four films is its own kind of cheat. Whatever the case, Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and Scanners – films made nearly made back to back, were it not for the 1979 car-racing flick Fast Company wedged in there – represent an inflection point in both Cronenberg’s career and the overall trajectory of horror cinema. Each film builds upon the other in experimentation and outrageousness, the director pushing the limits until that apex-gore moment in Scanners that can stand in for the average moviegoer’s tolerance for Cronenbergian excess. There’s only so much the mind can take before it bursts.
2. Black Christmas (1974)
Directed by Bob Clark
When Bob Clark’s thriller was released, critics were as unkind as the film’s merciless killer. But despite the “routine shocker” protestations of Gene Siskel, Black Christmas was hardly formulaic: It unleashed a new kind of fierce and anonymous terror that would serve as a horror-movie blueprint for decades. Based on a series of real-life Montreal murders, Clark’s film combined fact with urban fiction to tell the tale of Toronto sorority sisters stalked by a slasher. Directly inspiring John Carpenter’s Halloween, plus loads of 1980s shock-shlock (The Slumber Party Massacre etc.), the film would spark not one but two remakes. Meanwhile, Clark – who went on to rule the box office with Porky’s and A Christmas Story – also originates a horror staple uniquely Canadian in its anxieties: the phone call from that unstoppable force? It’s coming from inside the house.
1. The Fly (1986)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Ultimately, the best Canadian horror film ever produced isn’t technically Canadian. Cronenberg’s remake of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 classic was financed by 20th Century Fox, and led by two decidedly non-Canuck stars, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. But the Toronto-shot movie – filmed with a homegrown crew who make little effort to mask such locations as the Art Gallery of Ontario – lives and breathes thanks to its Canadian blood and guts. And Cronenberg’s distinctly intellectual sensibilities – a filmmaking philosophy that is as concerned with the breakdown of the body as it is with the mind and soul – could only emerge from the primordial muck of this country’s eternally confused identity complex. Just as it could have only taken a Canadian to show Americans how to make the ultimate entry in that most Hollywood of creations: the creature feature. The sick trick to Cronenberg’s magic touch? Treating the monster with as much respect as you would the audience.
Canadian filmmakers pick their favourite homegrown horror
Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube
Come True (2020, directed by Anthony Scott Burns)
Full disclosure: I’m the executive producer, but this is entirely the creation of auteur Anthony Scott Burns, who wrote, directed, photographed, edited and composed the score for this terrifying journey into the subconscious. A young, homeless girl (sensitively played by Julia Sarah Stone) enrolls to be a test subject in a sleep experiment only to discover her dreams are secretly recorded. But this new technology is waking things buried in her that would have been better left unseen. Come True is a Lovecraftian techno-horror for Gen Z, and a chilling reminder that Canadian horror is best when it looks inward.
Kyle Edward Ball, director of Skinamarink
Black Christmas (1974, directed by Bob Clark)
A towering example of powerful atmosphere, Black Christmas is one of my favourite horror films and probably my favourite Canadian film. On top of being well acted, cast and written, Black Christmas is a quietly beautiful and haunting picture.