The Eh-List

The Eh-List

You’ve heard of grindhouse, blaxploitation and kung fu flicks. But Canada has its own unique B-movie tradition—Canuxploitation—and new directors are catching on.

By John Semley Aug. 31, 2010

Photograph by Tammy Hoy

A WHEEZING PERVERT makes obscene phone calls to a sorority house. Michael Ironside stews in a bachelor pad, writing angry letters to a feminist talk show host. Five horny students at T & A High make a pact to see their virginal classmate naked by graduation. Ex-beauty queen and kick-boxer Shannon Tweed defeats hostage-taker Andrew Dice Clay. A young John Candy joins a bunch of clown-costumed kidnappers who constantly mock his weight.

This is Canuxploitation cinema: our homegrown industry of B-movies that run the gamut from camp to crap to pretty great. For every Sweet Hereafter, Red Violin and Atanarjuat, there are a hundred flicks like Screwball Academy, Cannibal Rollerbabes and Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare. They clutter the mesh-steel bargain bins in Zellers or those gas station convenience kiosks that sell candy bars, cigarettes and CAA road maps of backwater Ontario. They pad out the late-night programming blocks of CityTV, before being transferred to bootleg DVDs by slavish completists or otherwise slipping through the cracks of our cultural memory. Some of these movies embody the delights of genre filmmaking; many more aspire to absolutely nothing. They’ve got demons, kung fu, heavy metal and a whole lot of full-frontal nudity. They’re Canadian cinema’s dirty little secrets.

But to a lot of cinephiles, these trashy oddities rank among Canada’s most enduring and exciting artistic achievements—precisely for their success in rejecting the elements Canadians often associate with their cinema. “A Canuxploitation film is a Canadian film that does not have arthouse pretensions,” says Paul Corupe, the founder and managing editor of Canuxploitation.com. Since 1999, the website has offered reviews, interviews, and major articles (like “Romancing the Redcoat,” an analysis of America’s fascination with Mountie mythology) that excavate Canadian cinema from straight-to-video purgatory.

Canuxploitation is “interested in explosions, or scenes of horror, or scenes of action as a way of drawing in an audience,” Corupe continues. “It doesn’t really have a big name attached to it, so it has to resort to more lurid pleasures.” This kind of grab-the-audience-any-way-you-can sensationalism defines the entire range of exploitation cinema, from the Italian “giallo” pulp thrillers of Sergio Martino to the funky American crime dramas of the early 1970s to high-octane car capers like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop.

But Canuxploitation crucially diverges from these other squathouse subgenres. “Some people might think it’s exploiting the fact that it’s Canadian,” explains Corupe. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite.” Where a Nazisploitation movie like the Canadian-produced Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS will, as its name suggests, milk Hogan’s Heroes sets and the legacy of Third Reich violence in the service of a sadistic sex romp, the bulk of Canuxploitation films make no effort to capitalize on their Canadian-ness. In fact, many bigger-budgeted genre films less embarrassed about their Canadian point-of-origin—Men With Brooms, Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Duct Tape Forever—rarely register among Canuxploitation buffs.

A Canadian B-film, says Corupe, looks “either American as possible or as nondescript as possible to make sure it’s saleable in other countries.” It’s this anti-ideological pragmatism—its readiness to chuck identity to earn a buck—that makes Canuxploitation so fascinating. 

FOR NORTHROP FRYE, the Canadian imagination displayed a “garrison mentality,” an isolationist pathology that valued the triumph of the unit (individual, family, community) against  “a huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting.” Margaret Atwood revised Frye’s idea to suggest our garrisons are designed to defend not against the unsympathetic hinterland, but US cultural imperialism. In either case, the premise is the same: the Canadian character, at least through its art, is negatively defined.

This non-identity is embodied in Canuxploitation’s ambition to pass as unassuming American entertainment, from its adoption of well-worn genre moulds to its casting of Canadian actors—like Michael Ironside and Shannon Tweed—who have crossed into the American cultural consciousness.

But it’s actually a little more complex: these films represent a desire to both parrot the saleability of American genre cinema and the patent folly of that desire. From our formative childhood viewings of films like The Peanut Butter Solution, we come to understand our own mainstream, non-arthouse cinema as at best adorably unrefined, and at worst hopelessly crummy. But our imitations of the generic trappings and production values of US cinema, feeble as they may sometimes appear, also speak to a something less insecure: not to merely act American, but to entertain in a way we never thought we could.

Though Canuxploitation cinema seems to require generous applications of the “so bad it’s good” argument, Corupe and his cohort aren’t masochists. Many of these films have legitimate worth. Julian Roffman’s 1959 beatnik-gangster lark The Bloody Brood, David Cronenberg’s early splatter fantasies, Bruce McDonald’s debauched punk-rock road movies and Mike Dowse’s headbanger epic (and Sundance sleeper hit) FUBAR are all admirable achievements, in no small part because of the pressures that shoestring budgets and narrow distribution patterns placed on the filmmakers to distinguish their work.

The late American film critic Manny Farber famously championed the merits of “termite art,” those ornery, invaluable non-masterpieces that “burrow through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art.” Farber set this insect aesthetic against what he called “white elephant art”—high art “reminiscent of the enamelled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago.” Farber’s idea seems tailor-made for Canuxploitation, which take its cues from neither the “white elephant” ambitions of European cinema nor the popular stereotypes of American blockbusters.

Canuxploitation thus “eats away” at the structural integrity of Frye and Atwood’s garrison. Many of the more capable practitioners of Canadian genre cinema proved that their work could be as good, if always strangely different from, the American B-movies they tried to knock off. These films were less termites than—to substitute a more distinguishably Canadian pest—raccoons; pawing through genre and exploitation cinema trash, salvaging scraps. Of course, it wouldn’t be Canuxploitation if the results, however worthy, weren’t weakened by a try-too-hardism symptomatic of the Canadian cultural cringe. (Bruce McDonald’s 2009 Pontypool is an exceptionally suspenseful zombie flick, but, absurdly, its undead are infected with a virus carried by the English language.)

Charming and backhandedly brilliant, Canuxploitation’s robust back catalogue teeters on the brink of extinction. Many of these straight-to-VHS features were lost in the upgrade to DVD; many more will vanish in the shift to Blu-Ray and whatever higher-def format eventually takes its place. Given that these classics aren’t exactly the sort of thing national and private archives are keen to preserve, it’s only a matter of time before indifference and the forward march of technology leave the bulk of Canadian B-films unwatchable. Corupe and his dedicated team can only do so much. And while there are outside rescue operations (the distribution agency Films We Like recently restored Ivan Reitman’s breakout feature Cannibal Girls for release on DVD and Blu-Ray), Canuxploitation may end up a lively footnote in the often-dull history of our national cinema.

But while some are safeguarding Canuxploitation’s past, others are defining its future. Young, slightly unhinged and besotted with all things camp, an emerging crop of filmmakers is making high-calibre, crowd-pleasing films—a new era of raccoon art.

IMAGINE HAMILTON, ONTARIO seen through the mob rule dystopia of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop: a post-industrial nightmare palsied by drugs, gang violence and apathy. A miasma of corruption and sleaze drapes the city like the polluted chuff of so many StelCo stacks looming over Burlington Bay. Frantic AM radio jocks plough panic among a listless population, and the cops are cheerfully on the take. One man, decked out in a painted-on mask, Great War-issue trench club and a plain black turtleneck decorated with a duct-taped “D” takes matters into his own hands. That man is Defendor, alias Arthur Poppington, the titular hero of Vancouver filmmaker Peter Stebbings’ debut feature.

To call Defendor a Canuxploitation film is a bit of misnomer. Though it was shot for $4 million cdn (small even by Canadian standards, especially compared to the estimated $20 million bloat of a marquee effort like Paul Gross’ Passchendaele), Defendor has the polish of a film with three times the budget. Also boasting the relative star-power of Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Sandra Oh and Kat Dennings, Stebbings’ film may not possess the cheapie charms of a Prom Night III: The Last Kiss. But it’s unapologetically a genre movie, a Canadian B-film in A-film clothing. Call it an Eh-film.

Defendor is at once an answer to Hollywood’s reigning genre boilerplate—the superhero film—and a rebuke. Without the bottomless pockets of Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne, Defendor cleans up the mean streets of The Hammer (an obvious nod to Hamilton) with more improvised means—he deploys an arsenal of marbles and baby food jars filled with wasps, interrogates his suspects by spraying their eyes with lime juice and dispenses amiable one-liners (“Make like a rocket and take off” and, best, “You’re going to jail”) like a tongue-tied Peter Parker.

Played by Harrelson as a foetal-alcohol-stricken urban avenger, Arthur Poppington is the slow Canadian kid raised on American entertainments. (He pays his teenage mole, played by Dennings, $40 a day for information, based on a rate gleaned from episodes of The Rockford Files.) In unshackling himself from the beautiful-loser heroism that fetters Canadian film protagonists—from the Maritimers of Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road to Cronenberg’s many misfit scientists—Defendor’s crusade is not only a strike against the superhero mythos, but the feeling of inadequacy engendered by the garrison mentality itself.

As for Stebbings, he was less interested in passing Defendor off as an American superhero flick than simply measuring up to the genre’s torchbearers. “I’m actually obsessed with this notion of how do you get Canadians to see Canadian films,” he says. “My theory is that you just have to tell stories that are compelling. I’m not convinced we tell enough compelling stories here. I think you are going to see a slew of directors telling stories that will appeal on both sides of the border.”

Also emerging from this widening talent pool is You Might As Well Live, the debut feature from Simon Ennis. Picture peering through the grimy peephole from Porky’s (which, adjusted for inflation, remains the highest-grossing Canadian film of all time at the domestic box office) only to find a deluded doof with a suicide wish (Joshua Peace), a pedophiliac clown (Stephen McHattie) and a disgraced farm-league ballplayer (Michael Madsen), all united by jokes about strap-ons, poop and vegetative comas. The story of “douchebag” Robert Mutt trying to do right by his distressed small town of Riverdale, You Might As Well Live is by no means perfect, but it’s outstanding in its unswerving devotion to poor taste—which pitches it about as far from the European sensibilities of the Egoyan arthouse as you could hope.

When it came to writing the film, Ennis and Peace didn’t concern themselves with the tastes of Canada’s cagey domestic cineastes. Like FUBAR, it’s the kind of movie that forgoes ambitions of domestic box office dominance in favour of gaining a second life through repeat DVD viewings. (As Toronto Star critic Jason Anderson noted when the film premiered in Toronto last fall, “No recent Canadian movie so richly deserves a dedicated cult of admirers.”)

“We just wanted to make the kind of comedy we wanted to see,” says Ennis. “I’ve been a huge fan of films like The Jerk, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Repo Man and the films of John Waters since I was a cinephile in short pants. Those were sort of the comedic/spiritual influences on us writing the script—maybe with a little Kids in the Hall and Lebowski thrown in too.” Though the film may not live up to such lofty influences, You Might As Well Live is animated by a resounding sympathy for its cast of manic miscreants. Like John Waters, Ennis might trade in bad taste, but he’s never mean-spirited. And like Defendor, You Might As Well Live possesses an earnest hope for the socially maladjusted underdog that seems conspicuously Canadian.

In addition to laying their scenes largely in Hamilton, both Defendor and You Might As Well Live exist largely outside of the tax shelters that grease the wheels of many Canadian productions. While Stebbings secured one-quarter of his film’s budget through Telefilm initiatives, and worked into personal debt ponying up the other $3 million, Ennis’ film was funded entirely with independently-secured money. But what distinguishes them most from many other contemporary Canadian films is that they’re not ashamed of their genre film trappings.

Certainly, there are a handful of fringe auteurs in this country riffing on B-film tropes lifted from Westerns (Rob W. King’s George Ryga’s HUNGRY HILLS), film noir (Blaine Thurier’s A Gun to the Head), and sixties Europop cinema (Reg Harkema’s Manson Family fantasia Leslie, My Name Is Evil). But Stebbings and Ennis seem less embarrassed of their films’ pulp or frat house origins, less eager to unleash the indulgent egghead flourishes that have traditionally alienated Canadian commercial filmgoers from their own cinema. And while this may be a product of their greenhorn status—as first-time filmmakers, their style and defining artistic quirks have yet to fully manifest—it may also be a product of their apparent desire to make the kinds of films they want to see, and their preference for “exploiting” basic-wage tastelessness over anything capital-a Arty. 

WITH THE MOMENTUM of films like Defendor and You Might As Well Live, this could be a make-or-break year for Canadian genre cinema. After its North American premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Vincenzo Natali’s Splice had many critics calling him the next Cronenberg. The story of husband-and-wife biochemists (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) who mix together human and animal DNA to create a Frankenstein organism, Splice snagged a US distribution deal—rumoured to be a three thousand-screen summer release—and an estimated $35 million us promotion and advertising budget.

Having parlayed the cult success of 2002’s FUBAR into the similarly-styled mockumentary It’s All Gone Pete Tong and the US nostalgia comedy Young Americans, Montreal-based Mike Dowse is preparing FUBAR 2 for a late fall theatrical release. The prospect of a sequel has many fans scratching their heads; how could another film possibly expand on the original’s hermetically-sealed comic universe? “FUBAR is what they used to call in Hollywood a non-duplicable event,” says Steve Gravestock, who programs Canadian films at the Toronto International Film Festival and pens a column for Cinema Scope magazine. “You can’t really copy it. It’s an oddity that succeeded because of Mike Dowse’s singular, hipster-type sensibility—which is why a sequel like this would be artistically valid.”

According to Dowse, FUBAR 2 will follow bosom-buddy headbangers Dean Murdoch (Paul Spence) and Terry Cahill (David Lawrence) as they trek north from Calgary to Fort McMurray, Alberta to find work on the oil sands. “I was excited to put the ‘bangers in a situation where it’s very work-oriented,” says Dowse. “And also the infrastructure of Fort McMurray is so beautiful. It’s really a world unto its own that hasn’t been dedicated to film, or at least a narrative film.”

It may seem a bit high-concept for a follow-up to a film that is essentially a sequence of improvised vignettes depicting Terry and Deaner getting ripped and vandalizing city property. But FUBAR 2 proves another interesting gambit, with the potential to become the most lucrative Canadian comedy sequel since Porky’s II: The Next Day.

Of course, whether FUBAR 2 is able to double up on the critical and financial success of the original, or if Splice becomes Videodrome for the post-Dolly set, remains to be seen. And let’s not forget that a commercially triumphant Canuxploitation film might bomb with the faithful: success in terms of the domestic box office seems to preclude entry into the B-film canon, which, like most cult circles, functions by scouring for a forgotten flop and touting it as a misunderstood classic. But by bringing along established characters, talent and robust distribution, the current wave of Canuxploitation cinema seems the likeliest candidate to nudge Canadians to do the improbable: actually watch Canadian films.

See the rest of Issue 36 (Summer 2010).

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