Sharing the Blame: The Co-Productions
A Name for Evil
1973, Starring Robert Culp, Samantha Eggar, Sheila Sullivan. Directed by Bernard Girard (Penthouse).
Here's a bizarre artifact of Canadian filmmaking--a haunted house story shot in Vancouver that emphasizes free lovin' hippie sex over any scares. Fed up with city life, John, an architect (Culp), and his wife (Eggar) retreat to the country to fix up their new home, a dilapidated house with roots in the Civil War. But when John starts hearing ghostly voices telling him to get out, their relationship hits the skids and John discovers that he may be going insane. Or something like that, anyways--this disconcerting and confusing effort never really comes together or finds its tone, seemingly losing its footing once the sexually frustrated John takes off from his wife (on a white horse no less!) and stumbles on a commune where he gets involved in an hilariously emotive orgy. While bored folk singer Billy Joe Royal strums guitar, Culp goes full frontal and meets a similarly non-attired young flower girl (Sullivan, his real-life wife at the time). They proceed to make love in the woods and, later, under a waterfall, before John decides to head home and take care of unfinished business with his shrieking harpy of a wife. Are the commune's strange sex games all a dream? Is John possessed by the spirit of the murderous Civil War general that built the house? Why is this perhaps the least scary haunted house outside of a Scooby Doo episode? All good questions that are not answered here. The troubled production was apparently shelved by MGM but later bought and possibly even completed by Penthouse magazine, who were trying to break into the film biz in the 1970s. That may explain the odd tonal shifts--the scenes with Culp and his wife could have been shot and added later--but not why the film is still such such a turgid waste of time.
Of Unknown Origin
1983, Starring Peter Weller, Jennifer Dale, Lawrence Dane, Kenneth Welsh, Louis Del Grande, and Shannon Tweed. Directed by George P. Cosmatos (Famous Players/Warner Brothers).
American import Peter Weller easily outshines an esteemed all-Canadian cast in this badly named, slightly trashy Montreal-shot killer rat flick. When his wife (Shannon Tweed, in her first role) and child take off for a vacation, business professional Bart Hughes (Peter Weller) discovers that his beautifully renovated brownstone has attracted an unwanted tenant—a dirty, foot-long rat who rips apart his home when he's away at the office. After laying out traps and poison proves ineffectual, Bart starts to get obsessive about killing the rodent, and his mania threatens to drive him off the deep end and ruin his career. Finally, armed with a baseball bat and a miner's helmet, he vows to destroy the rodent, almost completely destroying his house in the process. Italian-born director George P. Cosmatos packs Of Unknown Origin full of metaphors and symbolism, as Bart tries to prove his intellectual superiority over the rat, barricading rooms and swatting at the creature with books from his well-stocked library (including Moby Dick!) No matter how much you try to dress it up, though, a killer rat film is still a killer rat film, and Cosmatos gets the job done on a visceral level. Produced by Pierre David and Claude Hroux the same year the hard-working pair backed David Cronenberg's Videodrome, Of Unknown Origin is not a bad little timewaster at all, and probably represents the absolute pinnacle of Canadian giant rodent cinema.
One Magic Christmas
1985, Starring Mary Steenburgen, Gary Basaraba, Harry Dean Stanton, Arthur Hill. Directed by Phillip Borsos.
Nowadays, Disney trucks up to Canada for quite a few of their live-action movies, especially the made-for-TV variety. This didn't happen too much in the 1980s, which makes One Magic Christmas a bit of a rarity. This film is also from a period where Disney was starting to explore slightly darker subject matter with films like Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Grinchy Mary Steenburgen doesn't like Christmas, so harmonica-playing Christmas angel Harry Dean Stanton teams up with her son and daughter to instill the meaning of the season. She refuses to mail her daughter's letter to Santa or even to say "Merry Christmas." Things take a big turn for the worse when a local resident down on his luck robs a bank, accidently shooting Mary's husband in the process. Then, he steals her husband's car with the kids still in the back and drives off a bridge into the river. Pretty festive stuff! Luckily, Harry saves the kids and takes them to the North Pole to meet Santa. Santa gives Mary's daughter an old letter Mary once sent him, and when Mary sees it, her heart swells and she mails her daughter's letter. Suddenly the day starts over again and Mary buys her husband's life by giving his potential assassin some money. This pastiche of past Christmas movies steals bits and pieces from A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, and then adds the one missing element-- Santa! Features Sarah Polley in her first role!
Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
1983, Starring Raul Julia, Linda Griffiths, Maury Chaykin. Directed by Douglas Williams.
This Canadian movie was put together by Robert Lantos (under his RSL label usually reserved for steamier films) and WNET, a PBS affiliate in the US. Without exaggeration, it has the absolute worst production values of any Canuxploitation film. In Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, Fingal (a very embarrassed Raul Julia) gets in trouble for watching movies like Casablanca on the TV screen at work. He is sent to be reconditioned at Nirvana Village, a facility run by NoviCorp to transfer or "dopple" people's minds into the bodies of computer simulated animals. When Fingal arrives, he is ushered to a dentist's chair and doppled into the body of Daisy, a female baboon. Then we see lots of stock footage of a baboon running around while Raul Julia's voiceover proclaims things like "Ha ha! I am a wonderful baboon!" When it comes time to take Fingal's mind out of the doppling machine, NoviCorp cannot find his body, and his brain is placed into a simulated environment where Fingal starts meshing his artificial reality with the movie Casablanca. This gives Fingal the opportunity to visit "Rick's Bar," but for some unknown reason the characters are all played by Raul who give us extremely laboured impersonations of Bogie and Lorre. Once you realize that the futuristic transportation vehicle is actually the Toronto subway with "space" sound effects overdubbed and the "10 commandments of computer programming" appears, you will probably reconsider donating to public television ever again.
1989, Starring Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis, Bryan Madorsky, Juno Mills Cockell. Directed by Bob Balaban.
A stylish, dark comedy about Michael, a boy dealing with the adult world in the 1950s. This great cult film was directed by versatile actor Bob Balaban (Midnight Cowboy, Gosford Park). Michael is scared of his parents (Mary Beth Hurt and Randy Quaid) after accidently witnessing them having sex. He is so traumatized that he won't eat his dinner. Michael starts getting more suspicious when they start having mysterious "leftovers" every night and starts asking questions about where they came from. His mother replies "Why, from the fridge!" Michael again asks, "Well, what were they before they were leftovers—" "Why, leftovers-to-be!" With Sheila, a kindred soul, Michael sneaks into Toxico, his father's company and sees his dad in the morgue, cutting up a body. When the school psychiatrist comes over to show Michael that the bloody knife and meat hooks he saw in his basement were just imagined, she ends up in little tiny pieces on the barbecue. An enjoyable little comedy about cannibalism was shot mostly in Toronto.
1980, Starring Paul Michael Glaser, Susan Hogan, John Colicos, David Bolt. Directed by John Huston.
While the tax-shelter era gave several up-and-coming filmmakers their start in the business, it also provided opportunities for the occasional old-time veteran, such as the legendary John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Asphalt Jungle), who helmed 1980’s Phobia. In this Toronto-shot Canuck/U.S. co-production, Paul Michael Glaser (of TV’s Starsky and Hutch) plays a psychiatrist who employs a highly unorthodox and experimental treatment to cure his patients—a group of convicts—from agoraphobia, acrophobia, claustrophobia, a fear of men and snakes. Promised discharges from prison if they can overcome their fears, the panicky subjects instead are picked off one-by-one by a killer who dispatches them by way of what they fear most. An interesting premise, and in the hands of the Oscar-winning director it should have made for a fascinating thriller. Unfortunately, Huston seems to be either uninspired or disinterested in the material at hand, as Phobia is a largely insipid offering and arguably the director’s weakest effort. Huston fails to set up several of the film’s murder sequences with any degree of tension or suspense, and star Glaser, who is out of his element here, is sorely miscast, giving an ineffectual and wooden performance. The loophole-filled script (penned by no less than three writers including Jimmy Sangster of Hammer Horror fame) makes the identity of the killer all too obvious to viewers. In Phobia's defense, viewers are treated to a scenery-chewing John Colicos playing another cop (much like he did in The Changeling) and a nude scene by a young lovely Lisa Langlois as one of the patients. (James Burrell)
Pinocchio's Birthday Party
1973, Starring Sean Sullivan, Nancy Belle Fuller, Danny McIlravey. Directed by Ron Merk.
A sequel to director Ron Merk's 1969 film Pinocchio, this slackly paced kiddie musical matinee was produced by TIFF Founder Dusty Cohl and Flick director Gil Taylor for K-Tel's short-lived movie distribution arm. in the film, Gepetto (Sean Sullivan, Deadly Harvest) is reminded by a Blue Fairy (Nancy Belle Fuller, The Hard Part Begins) that it's his wooden son's birthday. With the local kids, they plan a party in the woods to share stories and give Pinocchio (an impressive, life-sized marionette) a pair of roller skates. An evil wizard (Frank Vohs) tries to stop them. Unlike the "Tales For All" films, this early children's film is a stagey affair featuring colourful sets and costumes that more closely resembles the 1960s Barry Mahon productions and the K. Gordon Murray Mexican imports. The two "stories" are actually decent stop motion shorts from Germany's DEFA studio and are less treacly than the rest of the film, including the uniformly awful disco-styled songs, written by Cohl's teenage daughter Karen.
Ripper: Letter From Hell
2001, Starring A.J. Cook, Bruce Payne, Ryan Northcott, Jurgen Prochnow, Claire Keim, Derek Hamilton, Danielle Evangelista. Directed by John Eyres.
Piggybacking on the success of the 2001 Jack the Ripper film From Hell, this collaboration between British-based Studio Eight Productions and Canadian straight-to-video specialists Prophecy Entertainment is a tame, Vancouver-shot serial killer flick. Molly (Cook), a tough but psychologically fragile girl whose friends were gruesomely murdered in an incident several years ago tries to put her past behind her as she concentrates on an assignment about Jack the Ripper for her criminology class. But when some of the students in the class start showing up dead, the others attempt to use what they’ve learned about profiling serial killers to figure out if the mysterious killer is trying to copycat the infamous Ripper slayings. And yet for all this lip service about the famous unsolved case, it’s really just a paper-thin gimmick—there are few tangible connections to the deaths here, which tend to follow a more predictable, twist-laden slasher formula. Although a death by snowplow near the end of Ripper is kind of inspired, most of the film’s potential B-movie thrills are weighed down by Eyres’ self-consciously flashy visuals and an overlong 120-minute runtime.