They Came From Within:
A History of Canadian
By Caelum Vatnsdal
Arbeiter Ring, 256 pages, $28.95
Caelum Vatnsdal -- author, screenwriter, filmmaker and cultural critic for CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera -- not only loves horror movies, he's fond of them. Love can be blind, but fond sees both the potential and the flaws. Fond enjoys, and that enjoyment is evident in every word of They Came From Within. Enjoyment and enthusiasm and a sense of humour that is, like all good humour, as truthful as it is funny.
"If Canadian horror movies were people at a house party, they'd be the graceless eccentric slouching in a 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?"
According to Vatnsdal, the aim of They Came From Within is twofold: to present a history of the Canadian horror movie and to explore -- or more accurately, perhaps, to discover -- any distinctive national qualities. He asks if there's really anything Canadian about a Canadian horror film. What scares the average Canadian? (His off-the-cuff, in-the-intro answer to this was one of the many places I laughed out loud.) And the question endlessly discussed, at least among certain segments of the population: Just what constitutes a Canadian film, anyway?
Stop worrying. He answers these questions not in some pseudo-scholarly dissection of nationalist motivations pertaining to severed heads and botched reincarnation, but in an exhaustively researched "field guide" that takes up the bulk of the book and is anything but a dry presentation of fact. Stretching from 1913's The Werewolf -- the first and only Canadian werewolf movie until Ginger Snaps 87 years later -- to 2002's Samhain and a prerelease mention of 2003's back-to-back Ginger Snaps sequel and prequel, Vatnsdal hits the highs and lows of Canadian horror cinema. Those who consider David Cronenberg to be both the beginning and the end of the industry will be amazed at the depth of what Vatnsdal calls (cue the mood music -- da-da-da-dum) Tundra Terror.
Not all the movies are presented with the same amount of detail. Some are merely mentioned, while some are deconstructed right down to camera angles and special effects, with commentary as pointed as the plots themselves: "It is he who has been flying around the countryside snatching sheep, rabbits, and burly Academy Award-winning actors."
Remember Jim Carrey's The Mask? Well, the movie also called The Mask, by which it was clearly inspired, was shot in and around Toronto in 1961. It was not only the "first Canadian horror feature," but also "the first Canadian 3-D movie, the first Canadian movie to make its money back before completion, and the first Canadian movie to receive wide distribution in the United States." That's a lot of national responsibility for a movie reviewed as "low-brow surrealism," and Vatnsdal gives it its due.
But the strength of the "field guide" isn't so much the movies themselves as Vatnsdal's look at the people who made them. David Cronenberg is here, of course, and Garth Drabinsky, and names like William Shatner, Raymond Massey, Dan Aykroyd and Donald Sutherland are dropped throughout. Sutherland is wonderfully described as a "Canuck horror star in the making," whose career was sadly cut short by his spectacular success in M*A*S*H.
As well as a horror-film history and brush-stroke biographies of many horror filmmakers, They Came From Within also provides a centrespread of vintage movie posters, a comprehensive bibliography with websites, and an alphabetical list of the films mentioned, which includes the principal players and a short, occasionally tongue-in-cheek synopsis of each. A mention of whether the films are available on video or DVD would have been nice, but I suppose we can't expect Vatnsdal to do everything for us.
If I have any complaint about this book at all, it's that the many small black-and-white photographs are so sparsely tagged. Generally, only the movie's title is given. For the older movies, especially, the actor and the character name would have helped link the picture to the text. Or conversely, in those few instances where only the actor's name is given, the role and movie would have been appreciated.
In the end, is there really anything Canadian about a Canadian horror film? Besides clever tags like Tundra Terror and Hoser Horror? Since the strength of They Came From Within is in Vatnsdal's clear-eyed and affectionate observations, let's give him the next-to-last word: "A national cinema of lasting value is the one which encourages comments like 'Those Canadian films are damn good,' whereas 'Those Canadian films are damn Canadian' is good, too, but thoroughly subordinate. Quality can become a national characteristic as valid as any other and with a better return than most."
This Canadian book is damn good.
Tanya Huff lives and writes in rural Ontario. Her latest novel, Smoke and Shadows, involves horror and humour in Hollywood North.