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Golden Apples of the Sun

(AKA Caged Terror) 1973, Starring Elizabeth Suzuki, Percy Harkness, Leon Morenzie, Derek Lamb. Directed by Barrie McLean and Kristen Weingartner (Cine Qua Non Films Films).

Since the late 1950s, many driven Canadian filmmakers have successfully made the jump from the NFB and CBC into the feature film industry. Important early directors like Julian Roffman, Norman Klenman and Sidney J. Furie all managed to make their mark outside of the government-funded institutions that taught them their skills by branching out with gut-wrenching tales of rebellious youth at odds with the world. With their debut independent production, 1973's Golden Apples of the Sun, NFB-trained directors Barrie McLean and Kristin Weingartner may have wanted to follow in the esteemed footprints of these pioneers of modern Canadian film with their own angsty attack on the powers-that-be, but they ended up something else entirely an incredibly odd and profoundly unlikable thriller that has been testing the patience of even the most forgiving audiences for almost three decades.

The boredom begins when pasty-faced Richard (Percy Harkness) invites his co-worker, Janet (Elizabeth Suzuki), to go camping with him in the woods. She accepts the offer, and they soon hit the long forest trail towards an abandoned cabin Richard knows about. Along the way, he catches a fish and shoots a rabbit, slyly showing off his woodsman's prowess. Janet isn't particularly impressed, but still lets him rip her clothes off and toss her in the lake anyways, where they frolic for a while before coming ashore to make love, during which Richard inexplicably smears blood all over her. As they continue their journey, they talk about their lives, the beauty and cruelty of nature, and make allusions to classical literature. At the cabin, they enjoy a picnic lunch, while Janet has some insights about life and suddenly starts to weep. After nearly an hour of meandering, mostly pointless conversation, two suspicious men, Jarvis (Leon Morenzie) and the Troubadour (Derek Lamb), show up to sing hippie folk songs to the travelers. Later, drunk, the two men rape Janet, and then imprison Richard in a chicken coop to watch them finish the job.

The term "slowly paced" doesn't even begin to describe Golden Apples of the Sun. With seemingly endless scenes of Richard and Janet tromping down backwoods trails and around the house, it's immediately obvious how much the film is dominated by the directors' documentary roots. While this level of detail might be appropriate for slice-of-life NFB shorts, the film's lingering shots of trees, branches, bushes and wildlife are some of the most needless and excruciatingly tedious scenes ever committed to celluloid. Even the gratuitous nudity in the film's love scene is stripped of any eroticism, when it becomes little more than an excuse to offer a time-consuming pastiche of extreme close-ups of Janet's body to upbeat organ music.

In fact, the dramatic elements are handled so ineptly, it makes you wonder if McLean and Weingartner have ever watched anything besides Hinterland Who's Who shorts. None of the more confusing aspects of the film are ever explained the blood-smearing sex, Janet's teary breakdown, the mysterious ending in which the raped girl appears to befriend her attackers. When the Troubadour and Jarvis decide to attack--the film's only real plot point everything becomes so dark and confusing that the audience can barely comprehend what's happening.

All we really have to go on is the dialogue, and although there's certainly no shortage of that, it's either pointless small talk, or pretentious philosophizing about nature. Though this casual conversation gives the film the same off-the-cuff feel as another early NFB feature, Nobody Waved Goodbye, the loaded, awkwardly-worded dialogue negates any possibility that the film was improvised at all. At one point, Janet curiously asks, "You're always killing. Are you going to kill me like you did the rabbit and the fish?" to which Richard replies, "You make me feel ashamed of my own nature."

And it is nature that the film is primarily concerned with, with the incorporation of a heavy-handed radio newscast in the opening sequence that makes oblique references to how "spiritual pollution" has overshadowed the ecological crisis. Though the film's message is as muddled as its attempts to depict any action, nature appears to represent a kind of purity in the film, and the couples' cleansing return to the woods is eventually corrupted by the arrival of the two attackers. Any ideas that the film is trying to communicate about how civilization encroaches on natural areas is eventually overshadowed by the finale, however, which sours everything that has gone before it, more because of its absurdity and ambiguity than its sadism.

Despite this inherent awfulness, Golden Apples of the Sun is absolutely, unmistakably Canadian--the first locally-lensed thriller to use the secluded backwoods as a setting of horror and torture, and it is clearly the misguided model for later, superior rural revenge films like Rituals, Death Weekend and especially The Clown Murders. There are several out-of-place references to United Empire Loyalists made by Richard when he's hunting, and there is a strong suggestion that Janet's attackers are Americans--Jarvis wears a jacket conspicuously labeled with a U.S. Army patch, leading the audience to wonder if they are in fact Vietnam veterans, or perhaps just deserters up to (literally) rape the Canadian landscape.

Wisely, McLean abandoned ideas of a feature film career, and actually went on to become a very successful animation director. Weingartner, on the other hand, did not, and few others involved with the production would continue in the industry, including stars Suzuki and Harkness, who were rarely heard from again. Harkness is a particularly bad actor, and it reaches cringe-inducing levels when he's forced to watch Jarvis molest his girlfriend in the last act. Lamb, who belts out the film's generally unpleasant folk dirges, was a successful NFB producer at the time, and has also thankfully chosen to remain behind the camera rather than in front of it.

Misleadingly marketed as a horror film by New World pictures, who renamed the film Caged Terror for a brief theatrical run in the early 1970s, Golden Apples of the Sun remains today one of the most insufferable Canadian films of all time, a testament to the indigenous struggle between art and commerce that seems to rip apart many Canadian B-movie productions.

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