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The Globe and Mail

Don’t fear: The Canadian horror movie is still alive and kicking

More than a decade has passed since Caelum Vatnsdal, in his ripping good book They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema, felt he had to justify his enterprise: "My inclination as a Canadian is to be protective of these misfits and do what I can to help them along their way," he wrote in the book's introduction.

"If Canadian movies were people at a house party, they'd be the graceless eccentric slouching in the corner of the kitchen and drinking Extra Old Stock, their sodden woollen socks piled at their heels. Who wouldn't want to hang out with a person like that?"

These days, there's no room in the kitchen. Indeed, the misfits have taken over the house, and the party's their own. This is one development made clear by the very existence of the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival, unfolding this weekend at the Projection Booth East at 1035 Gerrard St. E. in Toronto. Not only has there been a frightful surge in conspicuously good made-in-Canada horror movies – consider Pontypool, Father's Day, Beyond the Black Rainbow and American Mary – they're no longer kept quietly in the national cultural closet. The beast is loose on the land, and the land itself is transformed.

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Perhaps the most revealing indication of the current vitality of the Canuck horror movie – which has a sporadic but insistent tradition dating to the early sixties, resurfacing spectacularly in the first-phase career of David Cronenberg before exploding in the early eighties tax-shelter years, and now this – is how bereft of vintage titles the festival is. The primary attraction of the event is the number of brand-new horror movies it includes, movies that at once honour the venerable outlaw low-budget tradition in horror-movie history, but do so less by nostalgic reference than by carrying it on. This ain't no retrospective. This blood is fresh.

I have managed to see three of the event's premieres – In the House of Flies, Sick and Blood for Irina – and, while they are hardly without their shortcomings or inadvertent flashes of budgetary modesty, each gets by on passionate conviction. These are movies that are serious both in intent and pride of misfit genetic heritage, and leave you impressed by their considerable polish and sheer let's-make-a-movie ingenuity.

Interestingly, it's the two with the most obvious affinities to established horror-movie subgenres – Gabriel Carrer's In The House of Flies (Saturday, 6:30 p.m.), a captive-couple-in-a-basement movie that evokes the already rusty Saw franchise, and Ryan M. Andrews's Sick (Friday, 7 p.m.), a survivalists-in-the-farmhouse zombie movie dressed in contagion bandages – that come up shortest, if only because they invariably summon up better, bigger and more innovative examples of their inspirations.

That's why Fangoria magazine editor-in-chief Chris Alexander's first feature, Blood for Irina (Sunday, 7 p.m.) – although nominally a familiar lonely-vampire story – lurks apart. Unapologetically arty and mood-driven, it exploits all available suggestive resources of camera, editing and sound to come up with what is virtually a silent movie about the haunted undead, a kind of DIY Nosferatu for the high-def era.

The war without end

If horror movies displace our social anxieties into a safely coded fictional form, can the same be said for the so-called War on Drugs in the United States? If so, then Eugene Jarecki's potent (and frightening) activist documentary The House I Live In (Dec. 5 and 6, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema) is a horror movie in real life.

The film makes the case that the no-end-in-sight, near-trillion-dollar American effort to clean up the streets is really a tacit campaign to keep its underclass citizens (most of whom are black) locked away for life.

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Unfolding angrily but with carefully measured statistical evidence and cogent testimonials (provided by, among others, The Wire's calmly articulate David Simon), The House I Live In puts the current sorry state of affairs in clear but disturbing historical context. Wars on drugs date back at least to the 19th century, when substances such as opium and cocaine, once widely used among the white upper classes, became demonized through association with their use by Chinese labourers – a pattern repeated in subsequent panics over the use of marijuana and crack by the urban black underclass.

You could call it a race war in disguise, and many in the documentary do, but the recent statistical balance brought about by the uptick in methamphetamine charges, which have seen thousands of lower-class whites locked up, suggests something even more sweepingly insidious: The drug wars have effectively provided a legal means by which America's dispossessed undesirables are put away and forgotten, a process Simon likens to "a Holocaust in slow motion."

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