The National Film Board of Canada may be the nation’s venerable award-winning public film producer and distributor, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t weird gems lurking on the fringes of its impressive back catalogue. “Psychotronic NFB,” attempts to filter through the earnest docs on social problems, overserious animation and World War II newsreels to uncover the NFB’s weirdest works.
What was Canada’s first monster movie–the 1967 British co-production THE VULTURE? 1971′s DR. FRANKENSTEIN ON CAMPUS? True, those may have been the first feature-length creature features to debut in the Great White North, but Canada’s history with horror goes back even a little further–in fact, it’s tangled up in our roots in documentary filmmaking. Even before movie monster mania swept North America in the 1950s, spurned on by the repackaging of classic horror films for TV broadcast and the introduction of FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine, the NFB produced this bizarre eight-minute short that plays off one of the biggest horror hits of the previous decade, even directly referring to Spencer Tracy’s 1941 turn as the mad scientist and his uncouth alter ego.
GENTLEMAN JEKYLL AND DRIVER HYDE, released in 1950, has long been one of my favourite NFB films, adding horror touches to an otherwise fairly typical mental hygiene film about common courtesy on the road, all narrated by some wisecracking truck drivers.
Have you ever had road rage? Like, really, really bad? Even by today’s standards this is unconscionably terrible and inconsiderate driving–cutting people off, not stopping for kids playing in the street, insulting pedestrians, screaming at other drivers, racing through lights and weaving into the oncoming traffic. The portrayal of bad driving habits is so deliriously over-the-top that this film almost becomes a comedy of extreme road safety errors.
Once the trucker finishes condemning poor Jekyll, he then reveals the source of his bitterness–he and his fellow professional drivers are blamed by the public for accidents, even though it’s the everyday amateurs that often cause them. Apparently, all those terrible fatal crashes are just business as usual–just leave him out of it, brother! At this point even the other driver gets tired of his employer’s holier-than-thou attitude, but gets slapped Three Stooges-style for talking back. Perhaps a follow-up film on bad boss behaviour is needed–SAFETY-MINDED JEKYLL AND ABUSIVE SUPERVISOR HYDE?
Conceptually, this NFB short is still a lot of fun, even if the monster itself is an obvious low-budget creation–whereas nine years earlier Tracy boldly played Hyde without make-up, simply contorting his face into new shapes, some rudimentary effects work was clearly required here. The quality make-up job? Well, as you can see it’s not exactly up to the Jack Pierce standard. Hyde looks more like a Neanderthal devil than anything–horns protruding from his head, a little spirit gum-stuck hair and plastic fangs. The transition from mild mannered family man to sociopathic wheelman isn’t terribly convincing either, done with a simple edit and screen wipe. But it’s probably too much to ask for a little NFB short to put some effort and care into its monster making, especially since no Canadian craftsmen were dedicated to that particular niche art at the time. It’s not too surprising that their Hyde is not quite up to par. But at least he’s here, captured on celluloid forever–the earliest example of the horror genre’s influence on Canadian filmmaking.
Bizarrest moment: Apparently, the opposite of Driver Hyde is some sort of drag queen-like courtesy angel.
Lesson learned: Don’t turn into a dime store monster and drive.
It’s barely 2012 but already the DVD re-releases of classic Canadian B-films are starting to trickle in, mostly from the usual suspects at Code Red and Scorpion Releasing. Note that list of upcoming and recent DVDs on the sidebar is always maintained and updated with the latest announcements throughout the year.
FACE OFF (VSC)
Release Date: November 15, 2011
Playing catch-up here–VSC snuck this 1971 hockey drama out at the end of 2011 and I didn’t even notice. Starring Art Hindle, it’s a slight variation on Canadian “loser” cinema and certainly worth a watch for hockey movie fans.
An apocalyptic double-feature headlined by Paul Donovan’s east coast supsenser DEF-CON 4. The film was originally released by Anchor Bay way back in 2002, and has long been out of print. This new version pairs the title with the American sci-fi/action cheese fest HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN (from the director of one of the absolute worst films I’ve seen, THE ROLLERBLADE SEVEN). For under $10, there’s little risk in grabbing this one.
WHISPERS (Scorpion Entertainment)
Release Date: February 21
I haven’t seen (or reviewed) this Dean Koontz adaptation, but it’s reportedly no great shakes. A serial killer thriller tailor made for the video market, this was the fiction feature debut of former NFB journeyman Douglas Jackson, who went on to create middling fare we have covered, including THE PAPERBOY and TWISTS OF TERROR.
Not going to sugarcoat it–these two films are not very good. You might get a kick out of MARK OF CAIN’s moody tale of murderous twins, played by ex-weatherman Robin Ward, in this mildly decent entry from PROM NIGHT 2 director Bruce Pittman. THRILLKILL, which also stars Ward, is pretty lousy though–a hilariously dated and convoluted techno-thriller.
It was a long time coming. During the Toronto Film Critics Association’s 15th annual gala awards earlier this week, Cinepix’s John Dunning was given the Clyde Gilmour Award, recognizing his lifetime achievement for contributions to Canadian film. The honour was actually announced last spring, and in the months since then, Dunning–ailing since a 2006 bicycle crash–unfortunately passed away. In his place, John’s son Greg accepted the posthumous award from his father’s friend and acolyte, David Cronenberg.
As part of the presentation (and, I guess, a service to those TFCA members not fully unaware of Dunning’s legacy) the gala projected a five-minute compilation of Cinepix’s greatest moments, edited by Blue Sunshine co-founder David Bertrand. It’s recommended viewing for seasoned fans and newcomers alike, an exhilarating look at some of the highlights of Dunning’s five decade career in Canadian filmmaking.
Unfortunately, since embedding that video is forbidden (boo!), here’s a clip that’s not quite as fun but still worth checking out–Cronenberg’s speech at the gala.
Update (1/14/12): Dave got us permission to embed the video here–thanks to him and the TFCA!
The Toronto International Film Festival’s 2011 Canada’s Top 10 list is receiving some unexpected scrutiny. The 10 selections of TIFF’s annual list of the best Canadian feature films of the year, picked by a panel of 10 specially appointed film writers, filmmakers, programmers and ex-bureaucrats, are been questioned far more in the press than perhaps ever before, an interesting trend that seems to mirror the evolving approach critics and audiences are taking towards Canadian film.
If you only read one article about the Top 10, make it Norman Wilner’s recent piece for Toronto alt-weekly NOW, “Canuck Conundrum,” which takes issue with the TIFF panel’s reliance on established and celebrated Canadian directors–even when their latest work is not considered up to par. Noting his reservations about nine of the list’s 10 selections (including Sarah Polley’s sophomore effort TAKE THIS WALTZ), Wilner zeros in on Cronenberg’s new psychiatry melodrama, A DANGEROUS METHOD, as an example of a less-than-essential work from a minted Canadian icon that may have been recognized at the expense of a “hungry” up-and-coming director.
Looking back over TIFF’s lists for the last 11 years, it’s hard to argue with Wilner’s point–every single Cronenberg film made since TIFF started this initiative in 2001 has been listed (yes, even SPIDER), and the only Atom Egoyan film of the last decade not officially recognized is 2009′s CHLOE. Wilner argues that such selections amount to little more than pandering; that we should constantly reassess the quality of the films of our most visible filmmakers like Cronenberg (or Egoyan, or Polley, for that matter) instead of automatically including them on “best of” lists.