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George's Island

1991, Starring Nathaniel Moreau, Sheila McCarthy, Maury Chaykin, Ian Bannen. Directed by Paul Donovan (Salter).

After wowing audiences with early exploitation efforts like Siege and Def-Con 4, East coast filmmaker Paul Donovan took on a wide variety of film projects, dabbling in everything from the erotic thriller Tomcat to the ill-received tax shelter farce Paint Cans. One of the most unlikely entries on his resume, the 1991 kiddie Halloween film George's Island, remains one his more entertaining and enduring films, a firmly Canadian NFB co-production that livens up an otherwise run-of-the-mill adoption story with spooky effects and wild tales of buried pirate booty.

Ten-year-old George (Nathaniel Moreau) lives in a shack down at the docks with his grandfather Captain Waters (Ian Bannen), a wheelchair-bound old seadog fond of spinning yarns about the time he saw Captain Kidd's ghost out in Halifax Harbour. When George learns in school about Kidd's supposed buried treasure out on nearby George's Island, he volunteers the story, and is punished by nosy schoolmarm Miss Birdwood (Sheila McCarthy), who believes that the root of George's outburst is "trouble at home." She launches her own sneaky investigation to find out the truth, and when she discovers the Captain has a fondness for grog, she heads straight for Mr. Droonfield (Maury Chaykin) at Child Services. While they determine a course of action, George is temporarily placed with a foster family, the Beanes (Brian Downey and Irene Hogan) who keep him locked up in a basement cell. On Halloween night, George and the Beanes' other adoptee, Bonnie (Vickie Ridler), escape with Captain Waters and head for safety on George's Island. Miss Birdwood and Mr. Droonfield give chase, but they accidently awaken the ghosts of Captain Kidd and his men, who think that the intruders are after their chest of gold.

George's Island is clearly modeled after the "Tales For All," a popular series of French Canadian kiddie matinees produced by Rock Demers, but where those films are usually notable for their off-kilter flights of whimsy and their squeaky clean inoffensiveness, Donovan bucks the norm here by delivering a surprisingly good history-based spookshow that doesn't shy away from scares or violence. In fact, George's Island actually starts with a series of rolling-rubber-head decapitations, as Captain Kidd (Gary Reineke) kills George Jellybee (Gary Vermeir) and his other pirate crew members to protect the secret location of his treasure forever. When the story arrives in the present to catch up with the daydreaming George, Donovan keeps pumping the film full of inventive visuals, from the ultra-creepy suburban home of the Beanes, to Captain Waters' Halloween costume--a gigantic plastic eyeball that fits completely over him and his motorized wheelchair. There's even some well-executed stop-motion animation, as skeletal remains arise from the ground and reconnect to form Captain Kidda scene that's strangely reminiscent of Freddy's comeback in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4.

Although the film does spend a little too much time on George's admittedly less interesting family troubles, especially after his grandfather has to pretend to abandon him without a fight to appease the meddling Miss Birdwood, the film is kept rolling with some solid comic interactions between Maury Chaykin's boring civil servant and Sheila McCarthy's prim and proper teacher. Though neither actor has had much chance to perform comedy in their careers, they ham it up convincingly, burying their mutual desire in a supposed self-righteous effort to help poor George. By the end, they're even exonerated from their past evil deeds, as the chase to George's Island has allowed them to express their true feelings for each other.

For Canadian audiences, undoubtedly the most exciting part of the film is that it draws on the history of Nova Scotia's legendary Oak Island, the supposed site of Captain Kidd's actual buried fortune. In real life, Oak Island's infamous "money pit" has been a source of speculation for more than 200 years, causing the deaths of many treasure seekers who dared to dig further down into the man-made, booby-trapped shaft in the pursuit of rumoured riches. Moving the action to George's Island to make a stronger connection with the protagonist, the film nevertheless mines the well-known story for all its worth, first educating the audience with Miss Birdwood's classroom lecture, and then bringing the legend to scary reality with the ghosts of Kidd and his pirate brood. It's a great way to introduce a Canadian curiosity like Oak Island to kids, and Donovan is careful to keep the stories light and fun, concentrating on the aspects that might appeal most to young treasure hunters-in-training.

Although multiple beheadings and an ending in which alcohol plays a key role ensures that Donovan's sole kiddie matinee isn't going to be confused with Disney product or win awards like the Tales For All, George's Island is nevertheless an exceptional example of a Canadian children's film. Not only does it draw from local folklore--a virtually untapped resource for Canuck screenwriters--but it also manages to incorporate its distinct setting into a story that would appeal to all kids, no matter what their nationality. When he wants to, Donovan can stand up with Canada's true unheralded directorial talents, and near-forgotten films like George's Island prove it.

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