The horror, the horror

Big Smash! Productions’ latest venture hopes to enlighten and expand the minds of young people interested in the genre

“In my hands I am holding an invisible box… Happy Birthday.” A scene from Erick Santamaria’s 1968 serial-strangler flick Playgirl Killer.

A new series of courses, named after the oft-attended university in horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s novels, is aiming to educate Winnipeg teenagers about horror cinema.

The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies is yet another passion project courtesy of staunch cult film advocate Kier-La Janisse of Big Smash! Productions.

Janisse, who is currently a film writer-in-residence at downtown used-books retailer Aqua Books, has long been involved in creating and nurturing Canadian horror cinema.

She created Cannibal Culture Magazine (later changed to CineMuerte Magazine), a Vancouver-based “fanzine” highlighting under-appreciated horror films, in 1997, and later began the CineMuerte International Horror Film Festival, also in Vancouver.

Since moving to Winnipeg, Janisse has been a constant force in the film and music community, creating the first annual Gimme Some Truth Winnipeg Documentary Festival, and acting as administrative co-ordinator of annual Winnipeg audio art festival Send + Receive.

Now with the birth of the Miskatonic Institute, which Janisse created in collaboration with Aqua Books owner Kelly Hughes, it’s just another day in the life of a film lover.

“I was a huge horror fan as a teenager,” Janisse said. “I guess I just wondered how I would have turned out if I had had the resources I have now.”

“The Institute is a just a way to show kids obscure films, while giving them the skills to properly interpret what they are seeing,” she added. “Teenagers like watching horror films, and we want to encourage that exploration while teaching them about the dark themes of these stories, like misogyny, and giving them the ideological tools to understand these concepts. It’s fun.”

The Institute launched at the end of March with a series titled Introduction to Horror Film Criticism for Teens. The next course offered by Miskatonic is a history of Canadian horror cinema entitled They Came From Within, which will be running April 14, 15, 21 and 22.

The course will be taught by Canadian horror film historian, cinematographer and author Caelum Vatnsdal, who wrote the book They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema in 2004.

Vatnsdal said that, while he is an educator on Canadian horror cinema, his interest in the genre has never been particularly nationalistic.

What it comes down to is the need for education.

“There’s a lot of different streams of lack of knowledge,” Vatnsdal said. “But thanks to the Internet, there certainly has been a growing appreciation of Canadian horror films, even if the audience is still relatively small.”

Canadian horror is still a relatively young genre, as it really didn’t begin to hit its stride until the mid ’70s.

Through the first half of Canada’s film history, the vast majority of films produced were documentaries, leaving little room for Hollywood-style fiction.

“We had such a strong documentary tradition, and I guess you could say we got stuck in a bit of a rut,” Vatnsdal explained. “There was a lot of cultural resistance to (horror films) also, which injured our ability to produce commercial fare.”

As Canadian horror remains relatively small, Vatnsdal hopes that by properly educating young people in the genre that it will continue to grow in size, as more budding filmmakers decide to take up the mantle.

“There’s a lot of buried gems, and a lot of strange personal stories and bizarre personalities within (Canadian horror’s) history. It’s always been very interesting, for me especially.”

They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema will be at Aqua Books (274 Garry St.) April 14, 15, 21 and 22. Register by e-mailing [email protected] or [email protected]. Young people ages 14+ welcome.

Published in Volume 64, Number 25 of The Uniter (April 1, 2010)

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