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Every Six Minutes: The Story of Emmeritus



For a short time in the 1980s, Emmeritus was CanCult's kingnot in quality, but in sheer quantity. Like Meridian, Cinepix, and Quadrant before it, the largely invisible Hamilton-based Emmeritus Productions was a resolutely independent venture dedicated to crafting unique genre films that eschewed the homegrown film industry as a whole. Following a grueling schedule that excreted out a new shot-on-video (SOV) made-for-TV movie every two months for three years, Emmeritus specialized in crudely crafted action/adventure, crime and dramatic films that made company head Lionel Shenken easily one of the most prolific Canadian producers of the decade.

 

A horticulturalist by trade, Shenken got his start in showbiz as the host of Man around the House and Up the Garden Path, early 1960s gardening shows on Toronto station CFTO. After producing a series of TV commercials as the Creative Director for pharmaceutical brand Noxzema Canada, Shenken found a home at Hamilton station CHCH, which would soon become home to exemplary Canadian television series like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein and Smith and Smith's Comedy Mill. While working on music-oriented TV series such as Just Jazz, Fifties Connection and Music Circle, Shenken began to look for a change of pace, something that could tap into the voracious appetites of the cable networks and home video market of the early 1980s. Although his early attempt at a local talent-based dramatic anthology program, The Niagara Repertory Theatre, wasn't particularly well received, it did provide Shenken with access to a talent pool of non-union actors and directors like Allan Levine, Peter McCubbin and James Brewer. With a relatively inexpensive U-Matic camera and rep theatre contacts eager to work on screen, he pitched a series of micro-budgeted action-adventure films to his bosses at CHCH that took him on a journey of schlock that would keep him busy throughout most of the decade.

Reportedly, Shenken made 33 SOV films under the Emmeritus banner (his company was also sometimes known as Visual Productions 80 Ltd., Visual Productions 20/20 Ltd. or simply Visual Productions Ltd.). According to Shenken, each of these 96-minute films was pre-sold to several foreign markets and then cranked out for roughly $375,000 (although the actual number probably figures much lower--$30,000 each according to one source). All were shot on video using completely unknown repertory theatre talent and non-union crews. The films were usually first broadcast on CHCH in Canada, but they also later appeared on the cable channel USA Network, the home to the infamous schlock showcase Up All Night.

Completed on a strict schedule of 25 days, Shenken boasted that he had cultivated a precise, cost-saving formula for each of his films. Specifically, he claimed that no scene in his productions was allowed to be longer than two minutes, and an action scene was required every six minutes, ensuring that even if the plot didn't make much sense, that at least the films would clip along at a steady pace. Part of the reason for this approach was that Shenken designed the Emmeritus films to be aired either as a complete feature to fill a two hour timeslot, or in four 24-minute chunks (with four action scenes each), allowing TV stations to fill the holes in their schedules as needed. With an eye to overseas sales, he also mandated that at least one lead character had to be a visible minority, a sometimes awkward requirement that saw many Emmeritus films boasting two protagonists.

While not every Emmeritus film follows these rules, most of the films fall squarely within the action-adventure categorybuddy cop mysteries, buddy smuggling plots, buddy mafia takedowns and buddy Vietnam revenge films, Shenken did tackle horror, science fiction, and in one case, a historical epic. No matter what various genre requirements each film fulfilled, however, there is one thing that all the Emmeritus titles have in common: they're undeniably amateurish. In many cases, these films were a crash course in filmmaking for the inexperienced actors and directors, a ramshackle motion picture assembly line where any industrious young film hopeful could get his or her foot in Shenken's door, and come out a month or two later with an internationally available movie under their belt. Since the films were often sold as packages to foreign home video distributors, Shenken was frequently on the lookout for new talent and new scripts.

Still, Shenken did manage to cultivate a small group of loyalists to his low-budget vision, with many of the same actors appearing throughout the Emmeritus oeuvre. The enterprising producer even gave a first break to Charlie Wiener, who would go on to helm Canuxploitation classics Dragon Hunt and Fireballs and Allan Levine, who later found work as a line producer on several of Jerry Ciccoritti's B-movies. The Ghostkeeper director Jim Makichuk also made a few films for Shenken during this time, the only previously employed filmmaker to do so. The Niagara Repertory Theatre alum Peter McCubbin was perhaps the most prolific of the bunch, knocking out at least five SOV films for Shenken over the years.

The Emmeritus era came to an end in 1989, when Shenken started to look increasingly to co-productions. Shenken first co-produced the South African action flick The Tangent Affair (1989), and then teamed up with Dandelion, a UK company run by Noel Cronin, who had been distributing the Emmeritus titles overseas. Working together, Cronin and Shenken ditched the now unfashionable SOV aesthetic, starting with 1990's Home for Christmas, starring Mickey Rooney and the kids' film To Catch a Yeti (1993, but not released until '95). To sell the films, Shenken again put together a package of six more TV movies including Shepherd on the Rock (1993), Romantic Notion (1996), The Big Game (1995), Leather Wings (1996) and Jim's Gift (1996). These films, shot either in the UK or Toronto, were almost exclusively directed by McCubbin or UK director Bob Keen, an FX specialist looking to break into directing, and were again structured in Shenken's familiar 96-minute formula. From there, Shenken returned to his TV series roots, producing shows for Scandinavian and South African audiences that were sometimes also syndicated in Canada.

Despite their often mind-boggling faults, what is most surprising about the Emmeritus films is that all of his films are set precisely where they are shotin Canada. Often struggling to tie their wildly illogical plotlines back to their native land, the films are not only proud to feature Mounties and red and white maple leaf flags waving in the distance, but to incorporate the Canadian setting directly into the story, whether it's as a haven for Vietnam escapees, a port for smugglers, or just a convenient backdrop for a murder mystery.

Besides brief runs on North American television, the majority of the Emmeritus titles made their way to the booming VHS market in the 1980s, where crudely drawn covers and embellished plot synopses attempted to entice curious video store patrons into a regrettable rental. Twenty of the Emmeritus titles were released on Canadian label Avec, while VHS release from the Netherlands, Finland, Poland and Sweden can also be found from companies like Excalibur, Castle, Europol, V2V, Transfer, and Walthers Box Collection. These tapes, now floating around used bins and internet auction sites, are the sole remaining signpost to the strange legacy of Emmeritussome of the rarest, and undeniably most patriotic contributions to Canuxploitation.

For more details about Emmeritus, see Canuxploitation's interview with director J.A. Gaudet.


This short promotional reel appears before some Emmeritus VHS tapes and features in-house trailers for Deadly Prey and The Edge.


Capsule Reviews

So far, we have identified 30 of what has been reported as a total of 33 Emmeritus titles. Although announced as in production or cited by participants, we have been unable to confirm whether the following titles completed filming or were released, or were simply alternate titles.

Blood Runners (1986) directed by Peter McCubbin

His and Hers (1986) directed by James Brewer. Starring Lea Parcell, Mike Gormley, Patricia Garnett and Dawn Nash

Justice Denied (198?)

Thunderstorms (198?), directed by Lloyd Chelsey (possibly an alternate title for Body Count)

Year of Fire (198?), directed by Alastair Brown

If you are able to provide information, VHS artwork or further clarification on the Emmeritus titles, please contact us.


Body Count

1985, Starring Jonathan Potts, James Knapp and James Lukie. Directed by Lionel Shenken.

Hamilton, Ontario is the proud setting for the serial killer shocker Body Count. A shot on 3/4 inch Umatic video production from super-producer Lionel Shenken and his prolific Emmeritus productions, the film is a serial killer story about a cab driver falsely accused of murdering a young couple. Slickly produced, earnestly written, and well acted, Body Count really grabs you from the beginning. with Jonathan Potts stealing the show as the troubled young man with a shocking past. Not surprisingly, he would go on to a long acting career in both Canadian films and horror genre flicks, one of the few Shenken players to do so. Featuring Ontario license plates, Canadian currency and local accents, this is a serial killer movie that is refreshingly Canadian. (Reviewed by David DeCoteau)


The Bounty Hunters

1985, Starring Ian McPhail, Jon Austin, Robin Atha. Directed by Bruno Pischiutta.

Although this 60-minute film contains no opening or closing credits, 1985's The Bounty Hunters was directed by Bruno Pischiutta, an Italian director who had recently arrived in Canada. The plot is extremely straight-forward: a pair of Vietnam vets are hired to kidnap a wanted killer from his Toronto hideout and transport him across the border into the hands of the FBI. The fugitive is a fey photographer who recruits girls from an aerobics class to star in S&M snapshots and attend his vaguely satanic parties, where they are eventually tortured and murdered. With the help of an undercover female associate, the bounty hunters raid the photographer's party with smoke bombs, grab their hostage and head for the Niagara Falls border. Riddled with contrivances, including a phony newscast at the very end that unsatisfactory ties up all the loose ends, The Bounty Hunters is a blatantly amateurish production that features a surprising amount of nudity and obvious Hamilton-area locations, including one scene looking out over Niagara Falls.


Come Spy with Me

1989, Starring James Gordon, Robert Stewart and Lana Davies. Directed by Robert Stewart.

Synopsis: Undercover agents investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a television station owner.


Cowboy

1988, Starring Simon Wolfe and Gretchen Helbig. Directed by Peter McCubbin.

Synopsis: A maverick comes to the aid of a woman whose flight from an unhappy marriage has stranded her in the desert.


Deadly Pursuit

(AKA Commando Games) 1985, Starring Doug Stone, Russel Ferrier and Laura Centeno. Directed by J.A. Gaudet.

While Emmeritus' U-Matic videotape opuses are always unbelievably cheesy, their unrealistic aspirations are hitched to a unique and, sometimes, compelling aesthetic. Such is the case with Deadly Pursuit, in which a crazed Vietnam vet avenges his platoons friendly fire death at a fun-filled paintball weekend. Consistency is not director J.A. Gaudets thing, as this film clearly shows; a relatively impressive war sequence, achieved by shooting at night with virtually no lights, is followed by a shockingly interminable ten minutes of nothing but cars driving around. And while the acting is also not very good, its at least endearingly casual, including the paintball lodge manager who is clearly played by a paintball lodge manager, a doofus vet duo named R & R, and a silly dork who meets an (intentionally) hilarious demise. And while it's notable that Emmeritus productions are just about the only Canadian films that consistently cast Caribbean Canadians in pivotal roles, here they outdo themselves by bringing in Phillipino actress Laura Centeno as May Lee. As one veterans Vietnamese wife, she not only goes out of her way to remind us that the war inflicted tragedies far beyond soldiers' psyches, but she ultimately proves herself the most able and heroic character of the lot. Is there another Nam film that provides such an emphatic voice for the "other" side? Racism is even addressed via two catty white-skinned wives who are portrayed as total airhead bitches. Its still not a very good movie, but Gaudet is doing something more than just filling the running time here. The assassins lengthy hyperbolic tirade directly into the camera is another distinguishing high point nobody else in Canada makes movies quite like Emmeritus. (Reviewed by Jonathan Culp)


Death in Hollywood

1985, Starring Phil Rash and Elizabeth Leslie. Directed by Larry Pall.

It would appear that trial and error was used to arrive at Emmeritus ostensible formula of no scene longer than two minutes, and an action scene every six minutes", because Death in Hollywood flies tediously in the face of both directives. The hook here is movie-mania, the fulcrum the comeback ambitions of a faded but still overbearing director whose every exchange is saturated with endless movie buff trivia. Inevitably, the story meanders into a nonsensical murder mystery, and not one bullshit convolution is checked for motivation, logic or sanity. Nothing new about that for an Emmeritus film; what distinguishes Death in Hollywood is that with the exception of a single quick interlude in the most hideous luxury suite imaginable the entire movie takes place on a single, static set. An actor comes in, talks and leaves; another actor comes in, talks and leaves, and on it goes, with barely a pistol shot to wake you up. Appalling, witless and deadly, even the film freaks who are Death in Hollywoods only possible target audience will be aghast at the poor quality of its movie in-jokes. (Reviewed by Jonathan Culp)


Diamond in the Rough

1988, Starring Bonnie Beck, David Adamson and Silvio Oliviero. Directed by Richard Oleksiak.

Synopsis: A young woman seeks aid from a mercenary when she becomes entangled in a mafia-backed diamond smuggling plot in which African diamonds are making their way to Canada. []


The Edge

(AKA Doomsday Plot) 1985, Starring Jan Taylor, Simon Henri and Robert Reece. Directed by Allan Levine.

After an opening shootout scene, in which an alleyway in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood doubles for Moscow, little happens in The Edge's next 75 minutes, except for scenes of RCMP employees sitting in a dark office talking about activities that might possibly be exciting if director Allan Levin would actually bother to show them. These people just will not shut up! The scenario involves Commie agents choreographing a hijack of a plane with a "dirty" bomb stewarded by a neurotic screw-up. The whole plot revolves around how the Commies knew the steward would screw up in just the way he does, a script nuance worthy of a Jon-Mikl Thor film. Since this bomb would merely blow up a "small city," they take it down to Ontario Place amusement park to disarm it! But, of course, they talk about it a lot first. The film also features lots of 1980s hair styles, stupid repartee for days, a denouement involving a discussion of where to go for dinner and two priceless seconds of a couple guys watching the monitor at the far end of the set. (Reviewed by Jonathan Culp)


Fly With the Hawk

1985, Starring Peter Ferri, Peter Snook and Shelley Lynne Speigel. Directed by Robert Tanos.

Viewers would be better off actually getting lost in the woods than watching this effort it couldn't possibly be this boring in real life. After extensive debriefing by a friendly trapper dude, a bullied city kid (Peter Snook) walks, camps and lights a fire, then walks, camps and lights a fire again for an entire winter with nothing so much as an incident to show for it. When something finally does happen at the very end, though, the production tips its handall the woodland survival skills and gratuitously appropriated Indian iconography was just a means to a normative end in which the kid could trot back to civilization, redeemed by new self-reliance and spared from the reform school bullies and pigheaded administrators he ran from in the first place. This is bad ideology and bad dramatics, bereft of conflict, let alone insight; all life's problems are washed away by alternating beauty shots of trees and birds exactly the kind of rampant longeuers that separate the wheat from the chaff in Emmeritus' cockeyed universe. And just when you think they can't betray your trust an inch further, along comes the stupid twist ending. (Reviewed by Jonathan Culp)


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