On a grey winter afternoon at Sullivan Studios -- a place where women in bonnets and horse-drawn buggies once trod the backlot -- actor Aidan Devine is brandishing an axe, poised to chop off a body part of one of his co-stars.
This is definitely not The New Road to Avonlea. Although director Paul Fox does not yell "cut," the scene nevertheless ends in dismemberment. After a short burst of cathartic laughter, cast and crew ready themselves for another take. It's February, 2004, and Fox has only 18 days to shoot The Dark Hours, his first feature film. Thirteen of those days are spent huddled in a cottage set located in a corner of the former studio home of the popular Canadian TV series Road to Avonlea and Wind at My Back. There is more fake blood to be spilled and little time for chit-chat.
By the time Fox sits down again to talk about the film, it's Halloween 2005. He has already shot another feature -- Everything's Gone Green, written by Douglas Coupland, shot in 19 days and currently in post-production in Vancouver -- and is preparing to direct an episode of the TV series Dark Oracle at a school just around the corner from his home in Toronto's Little Italy. But The Dark Hours, which opens in major cities across Canada this weekend, hasn't been gathering dust on a shelf. Over the past several months it has picked up awards aplenty on the horror-fantasy festival circuit.
"The film found its own path in this interconnected genre world," Fox explains. After winning the audience award at the Dead by Dawn horror-film festival in Scotland, The Dark Hours continued its winning streak at festivals in Erie, Pa.; Phoenix; Austin; South Korea and at Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival.
"When we finished the film, we didn't even know how to label it," Fox laughs. "Should we call it horror or a thriller? But the festival programmers and audiences have shown us. Their sense of what makes a horror film is much wider than most peoples'."
The Dark Hours is a few very dark hours in the life of Samantha Goodman (Kate Greenhouse), a psychiatrist who treats violent sexual offenders. On the spur of the moment, she decides to drive to the cottage and deliver some bad news to her husband (Gordon Currie) and sister (Iris Graham). Things go from bad to worse when Harlan (Devine), a former patient, arrives with a gun-toting sidekick (Dov Tiefenbach), accuses Samantha of conducting experiments on him and forces his captives to play twisted games to exact revenge and expose truths.
The Dark Hours is a production of the Canadian Film Centre's Feature Film Project, an initiative that, over the years, has funded and provided mentorship for such films as Rude, Cube, The Art of Woo, Khaled and Siblings among others. Fox, Dark Hours producer Brent Barclay and screenwriter Wil Zmak had all gone through the Centre's short-film residencies, Barclay producing Fox's short film Reunion (which also starred Devine). But coming up with a feature project wasn't exactly on Fox's mind when he first met Zmak in late 2002.
Fox was visiting a friend in Calgary who was working on a television series, and met some of his friend's colleagues, including Zmak, one night at a local bar.
"Wil and I had one of those conversations where, after a few drinks, you say things like 'Why doesn't anyone makes movies like Rosemary's Baby anymore,' " and then, 'Hey, there's a Feature Film Project deadline coming up in two months,' " Fox recalls. "By the end of the night you have a plan."
The project's short development phase saw Fox and Zmak meeting daily at Toronto's Epicure to fine-tune the script. Also during this time, cinematographer Stephen Cosens ( Flower & Garnet) came on board and casting started to take shape. The restriction of the low budget ($500,000) meant creative problem-solving at every stage. ("We had some pretty surreal conversations with the technical people about how to create some of the shock moments," Fox says.) But the genre itself -- call it horror or psychological thriller -- also presented challenges. "It's a constant battle, in the writing and especially editing, to figure out whether you're spelling out things too much or whether anybody's getting it," explains Fox, a film buff who started doing Super 8 plasticine animation as a kid and worked as an editor at Nelvana before attending the funky film program at the New York School of Visual Arts. "Eventually you learn that a film never works the same way for everybody.
"We want it [ T he Dark Hours]to be the kind of film that leaves you scratching your head and talking about it," Fox adds. "My memory of going to the movies at the Bloor Cinema as a teenager was going for a coffee after a movie like Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now and picking it apart. I want to make movies that give you something to chew on."