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Canuxploitation: The Primer

This article is a summation of the history of Canadian B-film from the silent era to today. It is intended as a starting point for those new to Canuxploitation.

In the beginning...

Although they are often discussed with uneasiness by critics, b-movies and cult films map out an alternative history of cinema. Even Canada's relatively young feature film industry has a rich heritage of forgotten "trash" and low budget gems, hastily swept under the carpet by embarrassed critics and confused audiences alike. Together they present us with a legacy entirely different from our traditional understanding of Canadian movies as either languid art films or tales of Prairie life. It is this seedy underbelly of Canadian movies that is the phenomenon known as "Canuxploitation".

In the truest sense of the term, Canadian exploitation films are low-budget genre films which were made in Canada. But because exploitation films are designed to play on the fears and desires of an audience, looking at the way Canada's genre films have changed throughout the years can reveal more about how Canadians interpret themselves than many of our more popular offerings.

Although Canuxploitation films owe a debt to the low-brow tastes of Hollywood that have dominated our theatres since the beginning of the century, many of our b-films are distinctive in the way they present concepts of individuality, community, and even morality. Our films tend to be more story and character focused than their American counterparts, and when at all possible, the "wild" Canadian landscape is used to full effect. Many Canadian b-films draw influence from a diverse range of sources including the 1950's social documentaries of the National Film Board, and a satirical humour used to maintain a distance from American popular culture.

Film production started in Canada as early as 1897, but Canadian producers and directors took an early backseat to Hollywood. By 1914, Americans had already made about 100 films in or about Canada, establishing themselves as the largest producer of Canadian culture at the time. Some of these films, popularly called North Woods Dramas, were made by Canadians as well. This genre led to Canada's first true "exploitation" movie—the silent feature, Back To God's Country. A tale of kidnapping and murder made in 1919 by a headline stealing shyster named Ernest Shipman, the film gained notoriety and big box office because Shipman's wife Nell appeared naked in one scene. A few other exploitation films such as The Great Shadow (1920) and Why Get Married? (1924) appeared throughout the silent era, until a change in British film policy allowed Americans to once again dominate our cultural production. This was further complicated by the colossal failure of Carry On Sergeant (1928), an expensive dud of a film bout an adulterous Canadian soldier that all but ended feature filmmaking in Canada for almost 25 years.

The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was originally formed in 1939 to produce war propaganda. In peace time, its mandate continued to be for shorts and documentaries to fill out the bills at movie houses, and for broadcast on the CBC. Perhaps because of this 15 year focus on documentary and industrial filmmaking, many Canadian critics fostered the attitude that fictional films were inconsequential, an American phenomenon that was detrimental to the protection of our Canadian culture. Still, the NFB functioned as a training ground for many Canadian film makers who would go on to try their hand at dramatic film, including Leslie McFarlane (AKA Franklin W. Dixon, the original fill-in-the-blanks writer of The Hardy Boys). Independent filmmakers like Ottawa's Budge Crawley also rose to prominence at this time, making (among many other things) a series of instructional classroom films for Canadian and American interests.

The leaf unfurls

By the late 1950s, a distributor and publisher named Nat Taylor sought to kick start the Canadian feature film industry by exploiting the talent of those who had worked at the NFB and the fledgling CBC. This led to Sidney J. Furie's 1958 epic A Dangerous Age, about a teenage girl escaping from boarding school to marry her boyfriend. Furie followed this with A Cool Sound from Hell (a film now presumed lost), but when he couldn't find North American distribution for either, he fled to England to continue his career. Next, Taylor and his wife produced The Ivy League Killers (1958) and The Bloody Brood (1959), a couple of juvenile delinquency melodramas with Toronto directors Norman Klenman and Julian Roffman respectively. Taylor would go on with Roffman to make the 3-D spook show The Mask (1961), which has now gained a reputation as one of the strangest and best Canuxploitation movies ever made, and is featured on the cover of Re/Search's seminal Incredibly Strange Film book.

Despite a few scattered exploitation films made during the 1960s like Naked Flame (1964), Have Figure Will Travel (1964) and nudie cuties such as Have Figure Will Travel (1963), it wasn't until the early 1970s that Canadian film as we know it today began to take shape. Pressured by industry spokespeople like Crawley and Taylor, the Government implemented the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) in 1968 to create an internationally-recognized feature film industry in Canada. As many Canadian film distributors began gearing up film productions of their own, Quebec also repealed its stringent film censorship laws. This lead directly to a rash of French-Canadian sex comedies dubbed "maple syrup porn" by Variety.

In English Canada, the CFDC helped make Donald Shebib's landmark Canadian film Goin' Down The Road (1970), a low budget b-movie alternative to New Wave-inspired auteur culture that was beginning to take hold. But with Goin' Down The Road, Shebib proved that his gritty, low-budget b-movie style was just as effective in capturing the moment, leading to a spate of Canadian "loser" cinema that included notable titles like Paperback Hero (1973), The Hard Part Begins (1974) and Blood & Guts (1978).

But just when it seemed like they were having an impact, the CFDC revealed they had already run through their initial budget of $10 million. When the CFDC was given another $10 million in 1971, they changed their primary focus to assist films they thought could generate some box office action and put money back in the system. With the added incentive of new tax shelter laws that increased the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA) for money used in the production of a Canadian feature film from 30% to 100%, Canada experienced an unprecedented explosion of moviemaking.

Taking shelter

In the early 1970s through to the 80s, some 345 features, known as "tax shelter films," were made.
One of the most noticeable of these "new" Canadian genres under the tax shelter laws was horror films. Before he hit it big in Hollywood with movies like Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984), Ivan Reitman made an enjoyable 1973 Canuxploitation feature called Cannibal Girls. Later, in the mid-70s, Reitman also helped Canada gain a foothold in the American drive-in market by producing Canadian horror icon David Cronenberg's early films. Canadians also helped finance the Florida team of Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby, bringing them to Canada for post-production on their 1972 zombie epic Deathdream, which was the first professional job for famous make-up artist Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th). They both decided to stay up north where they would continue to reshape horror for both Canada and the world. Ormsby went on with Savini to direct 1974's Ed Gein biopic Deranged while Clark made Black Christmas, a film generally acknowledged as North America's first slasher movie, which set the pace for future Canadian teen slaughter sagas like My Bloody Valentine (1982) and Prom Night (1980).

No less influential, the tax shelter years also saw the arrival of David Cronenberg, a wholly unique Canadian director who turned heads and stomachs with his gory exploration of body horror issues. His first Cinépix-funded film, Shivers (1976), came under heavy scrutiny by the Canadian cultural gatekeepers, who attacked the film's lurid mix of sex and violence, briefly making Cronenberg the poster child for everything that was perceived to be wrong with the Canadian film industry. Somehow, the maverick director overcame the odds and more than proved himself with Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979), horror outings now affirmed as classics.

Influenced by films such as Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes and Straw Dogs, directors continued to take advantage of Canada's natural settings by creating a genre known as "rural revenge" films. These tales of murderous backwoods yokels peaked in the late-1970s with William Fruet's intense Death Weekend (1976) and John Trent's Vengeance is Mine (1976), but there were many others like High Ballin' (1978), Shoot (1975) and Rituals (1976) that played important supportive roles.

Not surprisingly, Quebec's genre film traditions remained distinct from the rest of the country. Starting the mid-1970s, a rash of urban crime dramas ppeared in both official languages. Not content to be pigeon-holed, many Quebecois crime films were often crossbred with elements of horror and sci-fi, creating such strange entries as Jean Beaudin's Possession of Virginia (1973), The Pyx (1973) and East End Hustle (1976). These, in turn, led to later entries including Jean Claude Lord's electroshock therapy thriller Mindfield (1989).

Even today Quebec remains a centre of production for one of the most overlooked areas of Canuxploitation, children's films. Bernard Gosselin's 1971 film Le Martien de Noël (AKA The Christmas Martian) was perhaps the first feature-length attempt directed at Canadian kids, and it was quickly followed by a wide variety of kiddie fare, including an adaptation of Mordecai Richler's classic Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1972). In the early 1980s, Quebec distributor Rock Demers began producing Tales for All, a series of Canadian children's films that is still going today thanks to schlocky, yet fondly remembered entries like The Dog Who Stopped the War (1984) and The Peanut Butter Solution (1985).

Unfortunately, the tax shelter legislation which gave birth to this film boom was full of loopholes. Some of the less scrupulous investors began contributing large amounts of money for film budgets on paper, but then only allowing a small portion to be used for the actual production. Still others wrote off large sums of money for movies which they had no intention of ever releasing to audiences. The dream was bound to self-destruct sooner or later, and it did in 1980. Badly abused and bloated on expensive American star-heavy films like The Neptune Factor (1973) and City on Fire (1979), the tax shelter era came to a bust in the early 1980s, when it was discovered that more than half of the 66 feature films produced in Canada in 1979 were never released.

Genre film takes over

Not all of Canada's genre directors survived the shelter collapse, but the brightest b-movie mavericks persevered. After the CCA was reintroduced at 50% in 1983, Bob Clark took Ivan Reitman's place as the most prominent director working in Canada. After contributing immensely to the creation of the 1980s slasher film, Clark built on the success of Reitman's Meatballs (1979) to establish the next Canadian craze. Porky's (1981) solidified our screwball comedies as a popular subgenre and directly led to a string of similar frat comedies including Screwballs (1985), Oddballs (1984), Fireballs (1987) and Recruits (1987).

Although there had been a few Canadian b-movie stand-outs made before the shelters collapsed, including Skip Tracer (1977) and Big Meat Eater (1982), but there had been no distinct style for filmmakers to rally around. All this changed when a new, younger generation of Canadian film makers started to pick up their cameras in the mid-1980s. The result was a pop-culture obsessed breed of Canuxploitation, which included classics such as John Paizs' Crime Wave (1985), and Ron Mann's Comic Book Confidential (1988). Not to be left out, Quebec offered their own unique spin on things with the popular Elvis Gratton films, hilarious satires doomed to obscurity among Anglophones because of their sepratist undertones.

The burgeoning home video market also had a tangible effect on Canada's b-film industry. No-budget schlock like Things (1987), Dragon Hunt (1987) and Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare (1987) may have been too amateur to see theatrical release in the 70s, but now had the opportunity to go straight-to-video. In addition to teen sex comedies, rural revenge and slasher movies also experienced a renaissance, this time joined by erotic thrillers such as Bedroom Eyes (1984). Missing in action for many years, Canadian science fiction films finally came into their own during this time as well, spawning The Brain (1988) and Def-Con 4 (1985).

Through the efforts of entrepreneurs like Rock Demers, laws were also eased to allow an unprecedented amount of co-productions with both the US and Europe. Joint projects in the 1980s included Class of 1984 (1982), a juvenile delinquency classic which starred Michael J. Fox as a terrorized high school student, and Millennium (1988), which features country music legend Kris Kristofferson investigating aliens from the future.

The second coming?

By the late 1980s, things looked dire for Canadian genre film. The CFDC became Telefilm, and changed its focus from feature films to made-for-television movies. The CCA, reset to 30% in 1987, was replaced by the Production Services Tax Credit (PSTC) in 1995. This credit provides a refundable tax credit of a small portion of labour costs to Canadian and U.S film makers, as well as various similar provincial programs. By the 1990s, the Canadian film industry was largely dominated by TV shows and films, while a new wave of auteur talent focused on art house fare. While admirable, many of these films failed to click with many moviegoers.

Even with genre filmmaking at an all time low, there were small pockets of resistance. A resurgence of international interest in Canadian horror brought on by the Ginger Snaps trilogy, helped uncover a bustling indie film community marked with celebrated cult hits like Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001). More recently, Fido (2006) and Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) have tapped into the fascinating legacy of exploitation films in Canada and have helped to ensure that B-films remain a longstanding but misunderstood tradition in the Great White North.

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