[Guest author Christopher Lombardo of Really Awful Movies celebrates Canada Day by looking back at three backwoods Canadian horror films.] In the ’70s, Canadian tax loopholes spurred growth in domestic horror films, providing a more reliable low-cost means of recouping one’s investment in a frequently fickle business. A few, like Martin Scorsese’s favorite The Changeling, were critical darlings, while the bulk of them were regarded as cheap government-funded trash. A prominent Canadian critic famously called Cronenberg’s Shivers “an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it” in a jeremiad titled “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid for It.”
Luckily, for those of us invested in such things artistically if not financially (unless you count our tax dollars), we got gems such as Happy Birthday to Me, My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas (1974), and many others.
The “tax shelter” era, in addition to straight-ahead slashers, also gave us lesser-known films that exposed class divisions—punishing urban interlopers who lacked the necessary survival skills to thrive in the wilderness.
Rituals, aka The Creeper (1977): Doctor colleagues are plunked by float-plane smack dab in Lake Superior wilderness for a camping trip. Unlike the weekend warrior joie de vivre that fuels the outdoorsmen in Deliverance, these medics begin bickering almost immediately, deriding each other’s professional specialties while getting increasingly drunk.
And given we’re in Canada, where hicksploitation isn’t as geographically defined as it is in the US, the enemy here isn’t a ruthless, toothless inbred manning a whisky still. Rituals brings us something a bit different.
Without spoiling it, the antagonist attacks the docs, leaving “nothing left to chance." It seems this ethos informed the film, too, as there was government oversight for this tax shelter horror movie. According to screenwriter Ian Sutherland, they were “forced to put in a bad guy.” In the original version of this male bonding survivalist effort, the identity of the killer was ambiguous.
The government-mandated bad guy in Rituals first goads the doctors with a frat-like prank: stealing their boots. It’s a terrific scene, as what would be a minor inconvenience anywhere else carries with it serious consequences in the northern Ontario bush; even if these practitioners of the medical arts can tend to minor abrasions, they’re hundreds of miles from anywhere sterile and have guzzled their only antiseptic. Forget Errol Flynn, no one dies with their boots on in Rituals.
One of the docs decides to seek help by trekking to the upriver dam. Why? "Because operations that big don't run themselves." And besides, he’s still got his sensible footwear. It’s a perfectly rational response, but what these rational men face is wholly irrational. Shortly after the boot heist, the assailant strings up a deer carcass by their campsite as a warning, a snake wrapped around it like the Rod of Asclepius.
At first, the physicians are left with little to do but ponder their fate, and one of them quotes W.B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem, “The Second Coming.” For being in the profession known for having all the answers, they’re briefly flummoxed. The remaining members of the party, even more poorly equipped to handle the outdoors than the posturing pals in Deliverance, finally decide to hightail it upriver after their friend, and the legendary Hal Holbrook (All the President's Men, 1980’s The Fog) as Harry, a crafty Korean War vet, becomes this film’s Burt Reynolds.
Death Weekend, aka The House by the Lake (1976): From one Harry to another… and from a Canadian Deliverance to a pretty mouth in Death Weekend. (“You got a nice mouth, wanna go in the bedroom?”) The film, also known as The House by the Lake, combines the rape-revenge of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left with the vehicular bad blood of Steven Spielberg’s Duel. (In fact, both Duel and Death Weekend have real-life road rage origins. In the book The Canadian Horror Film, Death Weekend writer/director William Fruet reports that some Alberta hayseeds once pelted him with beer bottles and tried to run him off the road.)
Here, big city Lothario and successful oral surgeon Harry (Chuck Shamata) is bringing yet another conquest up to his cottage, according to leering local gossipmongers—two dim-bulbed gas station attendants who do maintenance for the doc in exchange for city booze deliveries.
A trek to the cottage is about as Canadian as you can possibly get. It’s the first long weekend of summer and, like every subsequent one until October, big cities empty out so people can boat, jet ski, and fish.
Harry and model lady friend Diane (Brenda Vaccaro) are speeding through southern Ontario with the top down to get to his weekend getaway. Diane gets behind the wheel, as her ex was an F1 driver and she’s been around the track a few times.
Soon, they’re trailed and tailgated by four menacing sociopaths on a stretch of deserted road. But speedster Diane leaves them eating dust, and their ride skids down an embankment and into a creek. For now, at least, everything seems fine.
Speaking of turns, we hang a left at Expectation Drive once Diane gets to Harry’s middle-of-nowhere cottage home. We find out she and Harry are meeting on a first date, and he’s being a blowhard. In fact, things between them are downright hostile. Guess this means romance is not on the agenda in his “ten square miles of privacy.”
But that cannot compare to what happens next. Before you know it, the irate goons have done some reconnaissance work and discovered Harry’s lakeside address. They invite themselves inside and proceed to menace the duo, much like the thugs in the Ruggero Deodato ick-fest, The House on the Edge of the Park.
Class envy abounds as Harry’s sprawling forest homestead is commercially appraised by the cackling degenerates, who mock his flower pots and break his plates before turning their attention to ravaging Diane. Diane’s heroism here is a proto-feminist horror tour de force. She brings the survival bona fides that soft city boy Harry cannot.
Abducted (1986): A pink-clad college jogger, Renee (Roberta Weiss from The Dead Zone), is grabbed by the hair and dragged deep into the British Columbia wilderness by a bearded survivalist (played with dimwitted malice by Lawrence King-Phillips). He’s a greasy, leering backwoods stereotype, armed with a rifle and sporting aviator sunglasses.
He shepherds her to his shack in the dark woods, then binds Renee’s hands behind her back with rope and pats her on the rump in an eerily intimate, evocative scene. After mocking city people for being “soft,” the rapist strips down Renee, yet can’t carry out the horrible deed. It’s a frightening turn in a film that’s otherwise remarkably restrained. Meanwhile, we see if the Mounties will indeed get their man (as later revealed, his name is Vern), as cops break out the canine unit and employ a helicopter hot on the maniac’s trail.
Abducted breaks expectations thusly: unlike the archetypal setup where a perp lets his guard down and is provisionally subdued by his victim, here Vern scales a steep rock face and urges the college track athlete to “run for her fucking life.”
He then stalks his prey, crunching through the brush and treading over yellow daffodils, before finding her in daybreak, saying, “It was fun watching you, you looked so fucking dumb." It’s a chilling line, a testament to how “unwritten” and natural-sounding this naturalist horror film is.
When Renee attempts to bribe her way out of bondage, Vern retort is, “Who the fuck needs money out here?” Vern is way off even the grid’s grid. And since they’re deep in bear country, it makes sense to see actor Dan Haggerty here, even if his introduction isn’t handled as deftly as the film’s firearms.
The ursine star of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams plays Vern’s father, a friendly pa counterweight to his son’s moral turpitude, who promises Renee she’ll be freed as “his word means something out here.”
Eventually, expectations are not subverted but reinforced when things slide quickly southward, as father and son are soon at loggerheads over Renee’s fate. Abducted was followed up nearly a decade later by Abducted II: The Reunion, featuring Haggerty, Jan-Michael Vincent, and Debbie Rochon.
Christopher Lombardo is co-author of Death by Umbrella! The 100 Weirdest Horror Movie Weapons and co-founder of www.ReallyAwfulMovies.Com and the Really Awful Movies Podcast.