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Canuxploitation!

Subhuman

(AKA Shelf Life) 2004, Starring William MacDonald, Bryce McLaughlin, Earl Pastko, Paralee Cook and Courtney Kramer. Directed by Mark Tuit (Somnambulist Imagery Inc.).





Film productions geared up in every obscure corner of Canada in the frenzied heyday of the tax shelter era, but it was really Toronto and Montreal that took the lead in late 1970s schlock cinema with a steady stream of horror, sex and comedy films that oozed their way into cinemas across the country. More recently, Canada's West Coast has emerged as not only one of the major cornerstones of the Canadian film industry, but as the newest epicentre of independent Canadian horror. The latest indie effort to emerge from the tough streets of Vancouver is Mark Tuit's debut feature Subhuman, a sci-fi/horror flick based on a graphic novel by local artist Naoki the Kid that offers up plenty of gore andperhaps even scariera heady dash of philosophy.

Martin Romero (William MacDonald) is a wandering drug addict and a barstool philosopher who has been charged with a mission to save Earth by beheading a sinister race of parasitical vampires. While chasing down one of these evil creatures one night with his trusty machete, Martin is accidentally hit by a car driven by oblivious couple Ben (Bryce McLaughlin) and Julie (Courtney Kramer). When they rush to his aid, Martin refuses to let them take him to the hospital, and they reluctantly decide to let him spend the night in their studio apartment. While he heals his wounds, feeds his heroin habit and chugs liquor, Martin reveals his unbelievable mission to Ben and Julie. He tries to recruit them for his cause, but his hosts are increasingly unsure whether they can trust this obviously unbalanced addict. Martin promises to leave if they will replenish his stash, and sends Ben to score in Needle Park and Julie to a local pharmacy. While waiting for a prescription to be filled, Julie is approached by a doctor who convinces her to slip Martin a sedative so they can take him back to his cell at the sanitarium.

With a pulpy plot and slick directing, Subhuman obviously means well, but it stumbles early and often on unwieldy chunks of vague plot exposition, which leaves the viewer never quite sure of exactly what is going on. Throughout the film, Martin makes attempts to explain exactly what is happening, but his efforts to get Ben, Julie and the audience up to speed frequently break down due to incoherent detours through a tedious Philosophy 101 tutorial. He is so caught up in his single-minded mission and is so certain that no one can possibly understand the abstract implications of his actions that he comes off as arrogant. This reliance on his self-conscious anti-hero posturing makes it extremely difficult to get a handle on the basics of the plot. Even after the film ended I was still wondering exactly what these parasitical creatures were supposed to bewere they aliens, worms who take over human bodies, or simply 21st Century vampires?

Unanswered questions aside, after a good half hour of completely mystifying pontification, both story and heads finally start to roll as the trio does battle with some baddies, in scenes obviously inspired by paranoid 1970s classics like Alien, Dawn of the Dead, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A few special effects are achieved with some embarrassingly outdated CGI, but Subhuman is at its best when it offers up some good old fashioned rubber appendages and blood-spurting hoses. On this low-tech level, the film finally offers some satisfaction for the viewer, with a good half dozen decapitations, a tub of body parts and playful geysers of arterial spray.

The acting in Subhuman can only be described as uneven. William MacDonald, one of the most experienced members of the cast, does the best he can with his completely unlikable character's cringe-inducing musings, which actually include lines like "We live in a rainbow of chaos!" Likewise, veteran Canadian character actor Earl Pastko, perhaps best known for his role as Mr. Skin in Highway 61, does an admirable job as Martin's barfly friend who wants to debate Plato. On the other hand, the film is consistently dragged down by relative newcomers Courtney Kramer and Bryce McLaughlin as the bland couple, who seem confused as to why they're even in this film.

While the filmmakers have been heavily promoting the film's Canadian origin in their publicity materials, this patriotism doesn't extend to the content of the film, which attempts to cloak its true nationality with American references and billfolds. However, more subtly, the notorious heroin problem of Vancouver's low-income, high-crime eastside ends up playing an unexpectedly prominent role in the film. Whereas most horror films would derive terror from demonized drugs and the alienation and urban decay of smack-addled locations like Needle Park (seemingly, an offhanded reference to Oppenheimer Park), Subhuman turns those clichs on their decapitated heads and portrays heroin as a necessary tool to help Martin cope with the brutality of his mission. Like the earliest NFB documentaries that attributed drug addiction to environmental factors, Subhuman gives a uniquely Canadian twist to horror by calling attention to the poor social conditions that have resulted in Vancouver's most notorious back alleys.

In the end, Subhuman bares some startling similarities to Matthew Hastings' opposite coast Maritime sci-fi/horror romp Decoys, but it ultimately aims for a slightly more mature audience than its high-concept cousin, with a considerable amount of gore and a more serious philosophical plot. Unfortunately, Subhuman's attempt to combine these two elements is much too awkward, and the trade-off for this more cerebral approach is that the film just isn't that much fun. Still, with two sequels reportedly already in development and tie-in merchandise that includes a soundtrack of independent West Coast bands, as well as the comic book that the film was based on, you have to admire Tuit's faith in Subhuman and his determination to help put Vancouver at the forefront of Canadian horror.


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