Tag Archives: Canadian

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NO TRACE (2021)

Nulle trace

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DIRECTED BY: Simon Lavoie

FEATURING: Monique Gosselin, Nathalie Doummar

PLOT: After a smuggler escorts a woman and infant across the border, her draisine is stolen; she encounters the woman she smuggled on her trek back north.

Still from No Trace (2021)

COMMENTS: If Andrei Tarkovsky had made a film about a human smuggler in a post-civilization world, it would look (and feel and sound) like Simon Lavoie’s No Trace. The mystical energy of Canadian wildlands is punctured only by a pair of iron rails as our nameless protagonist navigates her track-bound wagon through the soft palette of black and white trees and scrub. Religion and doubt vie for dominance. And soft aural cues warn of danger. As with the journey into the heart of “the Zone“, metaphysicality in No Trace flourishes the farther our hero travels from her anchor to civilization.

What little civilization She (Monique Gosselin) comes from is made abundantly clear at the start. There is no state, just men with guns. But men with guns are often open to bribes, and so She has a living. Her latest job is transporting a young mother (Nathalie Doummar, credited as “Awa,” though I do not recall her name ever mentioned) and an infant girl across a border whose demarcation is all too unclear. The smuggler’s vehicle breaks down after She receives another assignment, and She is forced to hide in the wilds near the rails. Awa is there. And, in a tragic way, so are her daughter and husband.

No Trace‘s strangeness is carried primarily by its steady drip-drip-drip of unlikely filmic characteristics. The score is spartan, but when the “doom western” chords swell and plang, it’s all the more powerful for it. I’m at a loss for another example in which the primary musical cues climax after a fade to black. The black and white cinematography is as beautiful as the world is bleak, with soft greys highlighting the lush variance of the ever-present forest. And the dialogue, scarcely present in the first half (maybe half-a-dozen brief lines), merely elucidates what little exposition that isn’t made clear in the image.

The subtlety of the action and the actors further renders No Trace a contemplative picture. The slightest raising of the smuggler’s hand in a key scene resonates far more than any flailing histrionics or wild gyrations could. This and the surrounding quietude scream Tarkovsky, yes, but it’s the film’s climax that swerves No Trace into spiritual wonderment. Awa and the smuggler are in a ragged shack, and Awa— a devout Muslim—asks the smuggler, “You are not a believer?,” to which the smuggler coldly replies, “I’m not that desperate yet.” The closing scene, with Awa embraced by leaves and the smuggler embraced by her precious railway, culminates in a theological twist worthy of the late Russian master.

No Trace is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By stripping away artifice and taking a surrealist route and view, Lavoie ponders what lies beyond what we think we know, about an uncertain and obscure future.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THINGS (1989)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Jordan

FEATURING: Barry J. Gillis, Bruce Roach, Doug Bunston, Amber Lynn

PLOT: Don visits his brother Doug in a remote cabin infested by things; Doug’s wife suffers a miscarriage and the two brothers investigate the fuse box after the power goes out.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This cinematic monstrosity is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, horror or otherwise. But it pushes the envelope of ineptitude so incredibly far that it turns a corner, reaching Zen levels of disorientation and otherworldliness.

COMMENTS: The closing credits begin with a notice that is probably more telling than the filmmakers intended. After we see the hapless Don Drake running through the woods, we are told, “You have just experienced THINGS.” I certainly have. I experienced many things: dismissiveness, confusion, disgust, and ultimately, wonderment. I watched this movie under the impression that it was a purposely bad, contemporary movie designed to invoke the strange era of straight-to-video horror. Upon discovering that this was actually from that era, I felt confusion, betrayal, surprise, and once again, wonderment. Things does not seem like it could have been made as anything other than a joke. That it stemmed from ambitions other than snarky tomfoolery blew my mind.

Things kicks off looking like a ’70s porno from Hell. A young woman in a Lucifer mask is propositioned by a skuzzy Canadian named Doug who wants her to have his baby. She disrobes, and then withdraws a baby—in a carrier—from a nearby shower stall. The man is pleased until the unseen infant nips his hand. Doug awakens on the couch, his encounter just a dream. His reality sucks even worse, though; his wife is in horrible pain from some procedure (which we later learn was performed by the evil Doctor Lucas), and his brother Don is coming to visit. Doug, Don, and Fred (an affable friend of Don’s) exchange bizarre remarks and make allusions to previous, infinitely superior horror movies. But as needs must, the “things” begin appearing and zed1-grade gore ensues.

Whoever the hell Andrew Jordan is (was?), it at least can be said of him that he knew his good horror films. No fewer than half-a-dozen classics are referenced—from Evil Dead to Videodrome—in an amusingly oblique manner (particularly Evil Dead: “How’d that movie start that you’re always talking about,” asks Don while holding a tape-recorder, “Y’know that weird one, with all the weird things?”). Even odder are the intercuts with 80s porn mega-star Amber Lynn as a newscaster very blatantly reading off of cue cards. The film claims to be set in America, but by the tenth “aboot” and the line, “Agh! The blood is just dripping like maple syrup!,” I saw through the façade. That, however, was the only revelation I could tease out of this morass of non-sequiturs and ambiguous—to put it politely—narrative spasms. (I almost wrote “narrative leaps” there,  but changed it after considering how the story never really goes anywhere.)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what happens in the movie, and at a further loss to explain how it kept my fascination throughout. Unfortunately Things appears to be the writer/director’s only film credit (although leading man, co-writer, co-producer, etc., Barry Gillis, went on to rack up intermittent IMDb credits), so I may never view another window into his creative process. But it could be worse: I could have lived the rest of my days never having witnessed such a spectacle in the first place.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically, this movie is like the lovechild of Hotline Miami and Evil Dead as directed by Max Headroom. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and anyone with a stomach for gore and even a little bit of a taste for the weird owes it to themselves to give this one a try.” -Alex, Movie Russian Roulette (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (2019)

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Must See

(For Canadians)

Recommended

(For normal people)

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Rankin

FEATURING: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Seán Cullen,

PLOT: William Lyon Mackenzie King modestly rises to the plateau of Canadian supremacy to become Prime Minister.

Still from "The Twentieth Century" (2019)

COMMENTS: During my first visit to Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2017, I made the acquaintance of several Canadian college students. I had the opportunity to talk politics with one of them—a hot topic at the time. One young man, in particular, was full of passion and ideals, like many college students. But he was very Canadian about it. No fan of Trudeau (“too centrist”), he was also skeptical of the recently elected French president Emmanuel Macron. Despite the fervor I knew burned within him, the most damning criticism of the French prez he dared speak was: “too centrist.” He limited his body language to a slightly uncomfortable sidelong glance.

Canada’s subdued idealism is captured flawlessly in Rankin’s directorial feature debut, The Twentieth Century. Structured as a 1940s melodrama and styled as a 1920s Expressionist nightmare, its tone fits squarely (and appropriately) in the realm of a 1930s screwball comedy of manners. Our hero (though he would be loathe to designate himself so loftily) is the ever well-intentioned and deferential William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne, reminiscent of also-Canadian comedian Martin Short). King’s mother long ago had a vision of her son becoming Prime Minister, and though his path to success is long and trying—nigh thwarted at times by a sinister doctor, an embarrassing shoe fetish, and a fascistic Governor General—King ultimately defeats the love-cult Quebecois separatist candidate to become the most foremost (foremostest?) among Canadian equals.

As a comedy, The Twentieth Century is pure gold. I ultimately gave up writing down amusing quotes as Rankin & Co. continued to hammer home just how incredibly quaint, civil, and bizarre they and their fellow citizens were and continue to be. (One recurring mantra stands out that sums up the Canadian experience: “…as certain as a winter’s day in Springtime.”) All the sets and special effects are Maddin-esque, to the point that I think the Guy’s gone mainstream (in Canada, anyway). The villains are all cartoonishly evil, the heroes are all cartoonishly mild-mannered, and Winnipeg is dismissed as the home of “heroin, bare naked ladies, and reasonably-priced furniture”.

Though we’ve dropped the “Why It Won’t Make the List” blurb, I feel it necessary to mention in case I’m called out about this omission. Quite a lot of weird goings-on do go on (ejaculating cactus metaphor, blind-folded-ice-floe marriage ceremony, and PM Bert Harper impaled by narwhal, among them), but ultimately it feels like the film is trying too hard with that angle, drawing too much attention to the oddities instead of letting them play on the fringes. (Even its poster crows, “…men play women and women play men!” So what?) The Twentieth Century succeeds brilliantly in being funny, however, and that’s something to actually crow aboot.

Gregory J. Smalley adds: I think we can now officially say that Guy Maddin isn’t an auteur; he’s a genre. The Twentieth Century proves that Guy Maddin movies need not be made by Guy Maddin.1 Rankin isn’t even trying to hide Guy’s influence; as a humble and patriotic Canadian, he’s embracing his national heritage. But it works, totally. If you’re a director making a film noir, you include shadowy lighting, a femme fatale, and a hard-drinking gumshoe. If you’re a director making a Guy Maddin movie, you include Expressionist landscapes, a timid hero plagued by sexual fetishes, and Louis Negin in drag.

Obviously, Giles’ last paragraph anticipates that I would object to his not nominating this film as an Apocrypha Candidate.  And I do. The Twentieth Century has an ejaculating cactus. That should automatically make it a candidate as one of the weirdest films of all time. Don’t overthink these things.

I know little about William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s three-time Prime Minister and FDR contemporary, but I think this biopic may not be completely accurate. Per Wikipedia, King secretly believed in spiritualism and used a medium to speak to his dead mother, historical trivia that may illuminate Negin’s role in the film. On the other hand, I highly doubt that King was a proud champion seal-clubber. In America, when we want to make a comedy about a revered leader, we cast Abe Lincoln as a vampire hunter—a take so ridiculous that it can’t be possibly seen as impolite or belittling. Canadians, on the other hand, are happy to depict a national hero as a man consumed by repressed ambition and an obsession with boot-sniffing. Superficially polite, actually subversive; that’s Canada for ya.

The Twentieth Century debuts tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 20) in virtual theaters (and possibly some live dates, too). Check The Twentieth Century home page for a list of vendors/venues.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a cheerfully bonkers satire… [Set in] a time when William Lyon Mackenzie King was busily striving to become Canada’s weirdest prime minister…”–Peter Howell, Toronto Star (festival screening)

CAPSULE: WELCOME TO THE CIRCLE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: David Fowler

FEATURING: Taylor Dianne Robinson, Ben Cotton, Matthew MacCaull, Hilary Jardine, Cindy Busby, Andrea Brooks, Michael Rogers

PLOT: After a bear mauling, a man and his daughter are rescued by a strange cult in the woods.

Still from Welcome To The Circle (2020)

COMMENTS: “The meaning is the message.” “And the message is the meaning.” “So what is the message?” “That is exactly the question.” “What is?” “We have to figure out what it is.” “What, the message?” “The meaning.”

No, that’s not a transcription of a first draft of a discarded sketch where Abbot and Costello meet the Dalai Lama; it’s a typical “circular” dialogue exchange in Welcome to the Circle.

To be fair, this cult’s dogma is supposed to be mumbo-jumbo; and given all the crazy things people believe in nowadays, it’s not too much to ask us the audience to take the seductiveness of this verbal jujitsu on faith. The decision to give the Circle’s philosophy no intellectual content whatsoever is deliberate; the movie’s thesis is that the things we believe can override reality, and so it’s important to focus not on the strings, but on who’s pulling them.

It’s a thoughtful idea rife with possibilities and potential allegories, but unfortunately the message gets lost under too much obfuscating trickery. It’s relatively straightforward horror ride through the first act, but then the plot loses its way with information overload (founder Percy Stevens’ strange and confusing backstory, in which a tiger shark plays a role) as it’s simultaneously diving into a rule-free, anything-can-happen abyss. It’s a nice touch that cult membership includes an unusually high number of creepy mannequins—most of the prop budget went to this small army—but other ideas don’t pay off. Too many sudden cutaways to stock footage montages (marionettes, chess moves), too many portals that pop characters from one location to another, too many ostentatiously delivered Zen warnings that “nothing has any meaning” and “the thing we have to do is nothing.” It’s tough for a movie founded on such a free-floating structure to work, unless it has the budget to pull off some majorly distracting special effects, or a long series of catchy/scary surrealist ideas consistently pitched on the level of a .

Needless to say, Welcome to the Circle can’t match these standards. There’s no one we strongly care about to interest us in entering this circular labyrinth. Greg, bear victim and loving father, should be the character we identify with, but there are a couple problems. He’s  too slow on the uptake: he leaves his daughter in the care of the winsome twenty-something females who put her in a creepy happy-face mask for a couple of days, before finally thinking to look for his cellphone to call for medical help after his mauling. And Greg is pushed to the sideline relatively early in favor of a new main character, a stoic cult deprogrammer (who talks, one character observes, like a “stoned robot”), headed into the Circle intent on rescuing one of the females. It’s a bold narrative gambit, but we would need to be much more invested in the overall stakes of this story than we are for this perspective shift to pay off.

Ultimately Welcome to the Circle lacks the budget and, unfortunately, the imagination to fulfill its lofty ambitions. The film’s meaning gets lost in its message—or maybe it’s the other way around.

David Fowler’s previous credits were mostly writing the narration for Disneynature documentaries like Elephant and Penguins. A low-budget surreal horror film was an unexpected choice for a directorial debut. Artsploitation Films picked it up and debuted it on VOD and physical media in late 2020.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…starts out as a familiar horror movie before descending into complete trippy nonsense.”–Josh Bell, Crooked Marquee (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: MUSING ON MEMORY – THE OAK ROOM (2020) AND KRIYA (2020)

Or, “Dead Dad Double Feature”

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Happenstance, more than anything else, brought me a double feature that centered on the deaths of fathers. Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room is best described as a “Canadian thriller”: subdued, sparsely-populated, and blanketed in driving snow. Showing up after closing time at his father’s favourite bar, Steve requests his old man’s ashes. Paul, friend of the father, bartender, and all-around bastard, has them—in a tackle box. But he demands that Steve pay up “what he owes” before handing them over.

The Oak Room‘s action takes place in two different, but eerily similar-looking drinking dens. What seems a simple story of a ne’er-do-well son returning after his father’s death becomes a collection of stories: Steve’s story about “the Oak Room”, Paul’s story about Steve’s father’s story about hitch-hiking in his 20s, Tommy Coward’s story about the goings-on in the Oak Room, and, twice, Michael’s story about his father’s pig farm. For those counting at home, that’s five interlocking pieces of one narrative—each unlocking a piece of a puzzle. By the time the unclear ending rolls around, each narrators’ unreliability sloshes into the stew of truth and fiction, and the film’s seemingly scant body count may rise. Or, is Steve—seemingly some kind of idiot drifter—merely harnessing the power of storytelling to trick the bitter bartender?

In Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya, a DJ named Neel gets more than he bargained for when he returns to the home of Sitara, a fiercely attractive young woman who catches his eye. Expecting sex, instead he finds he’s been drafted into being a male mourner for her father’s death rites. Sitara’s family is incredibly traditional, and Hindu tradition demands that the father’s son lead the ceremonies. But Neel is not this man’s son—and he realises too late that he’s gotten roped (at times, literally) into an attempt by the family to break a generations’-long curse. Pity poor Neel.

The Oak Room is obviously a thriller, and Kriya is obviously a horror movie, but they stand out in the same manner that they stand together: both meditate on the death of a patriarch, and both explore the vagaries of human memory and tradition. Steve’s father, Gord, told stories; his son does the same. It is an attempt to make sense of things, perhaps improving on the past through retelling (“goosing the truth”, as explained by bartender Paul). Kriya echoes this technique of ritualizing a narrative through repetition, focusing much more blatantly on rites—centuries old, in this case. Kriya‘s first third is almost entirely devoted to the death rites of Sitara’s dying father; it’s final third is almost entirely devoted to the magical rites that relate to the family curse.

The thread tying these films together–films made 7,000 miles apart, about two very different cultures–was a reminder of why I love cinema and how it underscores the universality of humankind’s need to tell stories. It has been no small relief that even though Fantasia’s festival trappings have been canceled this year, the stories continue.

CAPSULE: DEAD DICKS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Chris Bavota, Lee Paula Springer

FEATURING: Jillian Harris, Heston Horwin, Matt Keyes

PLOT: Mentally ill and suicidal, Richard tries to off himself but is repeatedly reborn though an orifice that’s growing on his wall, leaving his apartment cluttered with corpses of his previous selves.

Still from Dead Dicks (2019)

COMMENTS: Richie and his sister Becca debate about the exact anatomical correspondence of the orifice that has suddenly appeared on his bedroom wall. He calls it a vagina; she replies “it looks more like an asshole to me.” He sees at as a possibility of rebirth, while she sees it as just the same shit over and over? (For the record, it’s obviously shaped like a vulva; trust me, I’ve seen one before.)

Whatever the hole in the wall is, it’s driving the plot. Well, not really. The real conflict in Dead Dicks is not the eternal struggle between death and rebirth, but the more down to earth sibling drama between Richie, a mentally ill artist who annoys his only neighbor by forgetting to turn down the music after midnight, and Becca, who’s always nurturing her brother instead of pursuing her own dreams to become a nurse. As a career enabler, cleaning up her brother’s many spare corpses comes naturally to her.

Sometimes, the bare sets, unimaginative staging, and uneven sound levels—especially in the few shots occurring outside Ritchie’s apartment—smack you in the face with the fact that Dead Dicks a low-budget affair.  But the main place where the budgetary limitations become intrusive is in the long middle act, where cheap conversation takes the place of more expensive action. It seems most of the available money went into a one big effect, a brief but nightmarish gore scene that does dazzle.

The acting is spotty, with Matt Keyes coming across the best (although there is little nuance required of his perpetually annoyed neighbor). Jillian Harris has a hard time of it; her character is often written so as to under-react to the insane events, and to comply with Ritchie’s odd requests too quickly. I’m not sure exactly how an actress should play a character asked, by her brother, to hack up her brother’s body; but there were many times where I expected Becca to object or freak out in a much higher register than she does. There are some attempts at black comedy—sis is more shocked by her brother’s full-frontal nudity than by the fact that he’s just come back from the dead—but on the whole the script eschews yuks in favor of a dramatic tone.

But, warts and all, Dead Dicks is worth a watch to those who find the premise or the mental illness theme compelling. It lags in the middle with a bit too much dialogue, but it starts the third act with two twists that come in quick succession, and ends on a strong note. The ultimate resolution is unexpected, and morally troubling—some may complain, but this is horror after all, and I’m glad they took this brave step rather than a more conventional feel-good ending. Dead Dicks is an ambitious and largely successful feature, though one that might have been scaled back to be an impressive short.

Plus, the body count is much higher than the total number of characters in the film, which is quite a trick to pull off.

The Artsploitation DVD/Blu-ray contains commentary from the two directors and video diaries of the production. These extras are valuable to anyone considering making their own movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Dead Dicks tackles taboos, blending trippy horror, irreverent humor, and shocking tenderness to create a film that’s both darkly challenging and wildly entertaining.”–Kirist Puchbo, Pajiba (festival screening)

CAPSULE: DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Albert Shin

FEATURING: , Hannah Gross, Eric Johnson,

PLOT: Returning home to Niagara Falls after her mother’s death, a woman remembers a childhood incident that haunted her—witnessing a one-eyed boy being abducted in the woods—and decides to investigate.

Still from Disappearance at Clifton Hill (2019)

COMMENTS: Clifton Hill is a tourist trap street in Niagara Falls, Canada. Although a memorable scene in Disappearance at Clifton Hill occurs at Clifton Hill, the titular disappearance doesn’t occur there. Make of that bit of misdirection what you will.

The disappearance we’re concerned with occurs upriver, and about twenty-five years before Abby returns to Niagara Falls after her mother’s death. Abby wants to preserve Rainbow Inn, the old family business which has fallen into disrepair, from being bought up by the Charles Lake corporation; her sister wants to sell and move on with life. Browsing through mom’s old photographs turns up a picture that sparks Abby’s memory of the day she saw the boy abducted, and she begins investigating. Her followups bring her into contact with a podcaster and local historian who operates out of a UFO-shaped cafe and who knows where the bodies aren’t buried, a husband and wife magic act modeled on Siegfried and Roy, and the dashing Charles Lake III. Evidence of what might have happened to the boy builds slowly, while a series of glitchy, tiger-infected dreams that look like bad montages edited on third-generation VHS tapes liven things up (and provide the film’s sole weird moments).

The ultimate mystery has as much to do with Abby’s past, slowly revealed through her interactions with her sister and others, as it does with the disappearance she’s investigating. Abby’s backstory isn’t a twist, exactly; it’s more of a change of focus that turns Disappearance from a thriller into a character study. The movie’s eventual revelations about Abby do, however, illuminate a couple of incidents that might not have made complete sense otherwise (for example, why Abby’s parents never contacted the police after the incident in the woods). The switch of emphasis works; the script slowly (and purposefully) undermines its own narrative.

Full of psychological unease rather than jump scares, Clifton Hill plays well within its budget. Superior writing elevates it from merely a “modest thriller” to a “modest-but-clever thriller.” An ace performance from lead Tuppence Middleton carries the film, aided by an unnerving woodwind and synth score.

In some quarters, much is being made of David Cronenberg‘s small role as a podcaster (first seen in a wetsuit). While Old Croney holds his own against the more established actors, there’s nothing revelatory in his performance. The significance of his presence has more to do with his endorsement of the film, which is a major marketing point for a not-flashy indie that relies on a slow-burn to pull you in.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Shin isn’t shy about laying on quirky details and liberal oddball splashes to make his third film swing from bizarrely entertaining  to dark (helped by an excellent moody score from instrumental group BadBadNotGood).”–Linda Barnard, Original Cin (contemporaneous)