(AKA Self-Defense) 1982, Starring Doug Lennox, Tom Nardini, Brenda Bazinet, Daryl Haney, Terry Despres. Directed by Paul Donovan (Salter).
One of Canada's most versatile film production outfits of the 1980s, Peter and Paul Donovan's Halifax-based Salter Street Films has ambitiously explored genres that other low-budget Canadian houses would never even considerapocalyptic sci-fi thrillers, arthouse farces, kiddie fantasies and even a submarine war epic. None of Salter Street's films, however, are as daring or as forceful as their 1982 thriller, Siege, a low-budget nail-biter that twists real events into an undeniably Canadian nightmare scenario.
The film begins in the middle of a wages strike by the Halifax police force, as a posse of vigilante cops, calling themselves the New Order (" N.O." ), arm themselves with 2x4s and bats and head to an underground gay bar to taunt and threaten the patrons. When the bartender refuses to be intimidated, they throw him over a table and attempt to sodomize him with their wooden weaponsuntil he accidentally rolls off the table, and is impaled on a broken liquor bottle. Scared, the N.O. cops call their leader, Cage (Doug Lennox), who arrives on the scene to clean up all the mess. With cold precision, Cage begins to execute the remaining witnesses gangland-style, except for one patron, Daniel (Terry-David Desprs), who manages to escape and hightail it to a nearby boarding house.
Daniel takes refuge in the apartment of a kind couple (Brenda Bazinet and Tom Nardini) watching over a pair of blind teenagers (Jack Blum and Keith Knight) for the weekend. When the bigoted cops show up and demand they turn over their prey, the couple refuses. After pretending to leave the scene, Cage sets up a military perimeter around the building, and has one of the blind kids picked off by a sniper with a night scope rifle. The N.O. cops storm the house, forcing everyone to take refuge next door with the couple's survivalist neighbour (Darel Haeny), a soldier of fortune with a stash of weapons in his apartment. As the cops teargas the building, the ragtag heroes construct a homemade rocket launcher and a flamethrower and prepare for the final confrontation with their attackers.
Few Canadian films are as unrelentingly gripping as Siege, a lightning-paced shocker that somehow manages to be both incredibly sleazy and charmingly benevolent at the same time. Unlike most Canadian police forces, the cops in Nova Scotia retained their right to go on strike until 2005, and went on the picket line close to a dozen times from the 1970s through 2005. This included a particularly decisive job action in the spring of 1981, in which the Halifax police board and the city council refused to bow down to the union's demands, leaving the streets unpatrolled for 42 days. In the proud tradition of true exploitation films, Siege offers a ripped-from-the-headlines embellishment of this real situation, playing off both the fear of lawlessness and the all-too Canadian preoccupation with giving too much authority to those in power. Taking the strike to its most frightening end, the film presents viewers with an evil police force of neo-fascist vigilantes that are unlike any seen in film before or sincetotally unique, and truly disturbing.
Other "urban survivalist" films like Eddy Matalon's Canadian co-production Blackout and even similarly themed films by David Cronenberg have dealt with comparable issues through the years, but they tend to stylize the urban horror to some degree. Siege, on the other hand, is all grit and ugliness, as it wallows in the sordid reality of its gleeful perversion of justice. Shot against a dark, almost vacant Halifax cityscape, there's a loneliness and vulnerability about the setting that is genuinely unnerving, especially as the sniper sets up across the street and begins to take potshots at the people still in the house. The film's casting also helps to maintain a sense of realism, as Donovan uses a distinct lack of recognizable faces. Besides Meatballs alumni Jack Blum and Keith Knight, many of the players had never been on screen before. Even the requisite American star, Tom Nardini, was hardly a big name property, appearing mostly as a guest star on sitcoms by the end of the 1970s. This would be his final feature film appearance.
Though Siege is undeniably an exploitation filck, it does embody a message of tolerance that markedly differentiates it from American and European B-films. Donovan smartly avoids heavy handed proclamations about the cop's attack on the gay bar, letting the onscreen action speak for itself. By the second act, Daniel's sexual preferences become irrelevant to the story, as the film shifts gears and concentrates on the apartment dwellers banding together to brace against the cop's urban assault. Here, the film's point becomes cleary every citizen is affected by bigotry, and must take a united stand against it. It's a surprising issue to raise in a genre too often overrun by broad stereotypes and needless cruelty, and like a staid NFB anti-violence documentary, it marks the film as earnestly Canadian.
Unfortunately, the days of innovative Maritime thrillers like Siege are long over. Alliance Atlantis acquired Salter Street in 2001, and shut them down two years later, effectively ending two decades of East coast filmmaking. Still, Salter Street was one of the brave production companies that weathered the tax shelter storm, and their legacyy'some of it good, some notymore than does Nova Scotia proud. Siege, though rarely seen today, is easily one of Donovan's best, an unheralded landmark of Canadian B-film that completely embodies the Canuxploitation aesthetic.