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Blood Relations

1988, Starring Jan Rubes, Lydie Denier, Kevin Hicks, Lynne Adams, Steven Saylor, Sam Malkin. Directed by Graeme Campbell (SC Entertainment).

Easily the most productive year in Canadian film since the heyday of the tax shelter era, 1988 marked the end of the controversial Capital Cost Allowance (CCA), a legal provision that gave investors a significant tax break when they invested in locally-shot film. Knowing time was running out, many producers scrambled to get one last picture made under the deadline, resulting in a short-lived boom that represented one of Canadian genre film's last gasps for almost a decade. As a result, a wide variety of B-films were released that year, everything from the campy sleaze of The Brain to the more sober thrills of Pin: A Plastic Nightmare. A decent, but noticeably restrained horror oddity, Graeme Campbell's Blood Relations is one of the more unique films that capped off the CCA era, a melodramatic shocker that exposes the secret proclivities of the rich and privileged.

The film's plot revolves around Marie (Lydie Denier), who is on her way to meet Andreas (Jan Rubes), the aging neurosurgeon dad of her filthy rich fiancé, Thomas (Kevin Hicks). After wandering through the halls of their palatial estate, Marie begins to notice that Andreas and Thomas' strained father-and-son relationship has gotten worse since the Doc is now suspicious that his son is trying to kill him. Meanwhile, Thomas, who really does want to bump off dear old dad and claim his fortune, has his own distinct set of hang-ups, especially when it comes to his mom, who was turned into a vegetable in a car accident he blames his father for. But his beloved mother lasted a lot longer than Thomas suspects--in fact, she's still tucked away in the basement, awaiting a brand spanking new brain, and Andreas is convinced that Marie's gray matter will do just fine.

Campbell's only contribution to Canadian horror--one of four films he made in that year--Blood Relations is a slow-building psycho-sexual thriller, a mostly tasteful film filled with dark personal revelations and tinkling, off-key piano music. Making use of only a few actors roaming around a large house, it's immediately reminiscent of The Mark of Cain, another low-budget Canadian parlour room shocker that favours catty verbal sparring over physical confrontations. Like that film, Blood Relations is effective where it counts, building tension throughout, making good use of gothic lighting techniques and employing just enough macabre touches--like a timely shish-kebabed cat in the closet--to keep viewers hooked until the nicely realized twist ending.

The film doesn't really take many chances, but Campbell is still able to surprise the audience in some parts, such as an early sequence where he forebodingly intercuts an early sex scene with graphic shots of brain surgery, more than a few love scenes glimpsed from around corners and from behind doors, and a couple of weird, drugged-out hallucination sequences bathed in an eerie blue haze. Once the neurosurgeon's secret lab in the basement is finally revealed, the horror elements of the plot become more pronounced, and Rubes goes into a classic mad doctor role, playing a pipe organ as he prepares to torture and kill his unwilling "patients" with a variety of surgical instruments.

Blood Relations is probably most notable for its eclectic cast. As Andreas, Czech-born opera singer Jan Rubes is one of the only real experienced actors in the film, and he strikes an appropriately menacing figure, casting a sinister shadow over the whole affair. French actress Lydie Denier isn't bad at all in the lead, and she would stay in Canada for one more film, the middling vampire exercise Red Blooded American Girl. Opposite her is Kevin Hicks, who had only one credit to his name at the time, as the star of teen sex comedy Higher Education. He would go on to a long career in television and a handful of films, including a best-forgotten role in the hilarious Vanilla Ice vehicle Cool as Ice.

Though not identifiably Canadian, Blood Relations does mine the same territory as some of the more successful films of David Croneneberg, albeit with less supernatural touches. Harkening back to such national medical tragedies as the Duplessis Orphans and the Montreal LSD tests, it plays on inbred audience fears that doctors are capable of a disturbing abuse of power, a theme that constantly crops up in Canadian film in everything from Dans le Ventre du Dragon to Mindfield, albeit with a decidedly sophisticated slant. And while definitely not for all tastes, this makes Blood Relations a pretty effective potboiler worth catching for fans of slow-burning horror.

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