Despite the vast number of Canadian-made horror films out there, what exactly defines the genre can be difficult to pinpoint.
Winnipeg-based filmmaker and author Caelum Vatnsdal attempts this very task in his book, They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema, of which a revised and updated version will be released on the tenth anniversary of the original text.
“I think a lot of what Canada does [in film] is a reaction to what’s happening in the states,” Vatnsdal says over coffee. “Often when people are trying to make their version of American horror movies, we get these weird things like My Bloody Valentine (1981). It is possibly the most Canadian movie ever made, and hilariously so.”
The slasher film, shot on location in Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, features characters swigging Moosehead beer and speaking in thick East Coast accents.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why Canadian horror cinema is so strange and charming for me,” Vatnsdal says with a chuckle. “I also just think that Canadians work a little harder.”
The oddly compelling nature of films with a Canadian sensibility can come out as a totally different take on what America thinks, or it can simply translate really horribly.
“The least risky movie to make is a horror movie,” Vatnsdal says. “You can sell them all around the world. Often they’re made by people who perhaps don’t have the conviction to be making horror movies, or simply aren’t interested in them and just the business proposition. Hence, why so many of them turn out badly.”
Vatnsdal got his start making Super 8 films as a child, before attending the University of Manitoba where he was introduced to filmmaker Guy Maddin. Vatnsdal continues to collaborate with Maddin while making his own films, writing and running his production company Mighty Kraken Films.
“I obviously really like film, but I especially like how cinematic horror movies are,” Vatnsdal says. “It really uses the genre. The sound, colour and music, everything is more amped up than it is in a drama.”
It was while digging up content on Canadian horror movies for the CBC radio show Definitely Not the Opera that Vatnsdal became thoroughly intrigued by the topic.
“I was only just discovering how many films there were and how many interesting stories were behind them,” he says of the research material, which he quickly decided on compiling into They Came From Within.
First released in March 2004, Vatnsdal’s book is a heavily researched well of knowledge which delves into notions of Canadian horror identity by thoroughly presenting all of the cinematic evidence.
“I would love for an actual Canadian horror identity to emerge,” Vatnsdal says. “It doesn’t mean that all our movies are the same, but there would be an identifiable quality that is compelling and someone could watch it and say ‘those crazy people from Canada.’ We’re on an upswing right now so I think it’s definitely possible.”
Caelum Vatnsdal will launch the second edition of They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema Oct. 30 at McNally Robinson Booksellers. The evening begins at 7:00 p.m. and takes place in the Atrium.