Book Review

They Came from Within:

A History of Canadian Horror Cinema

by Caelum Vatnsdal

(Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2004; 1-894037-21-9)

Reviewed by Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare

They Came from Within:

A History of Canadian Horror Cinema

by Caelum Vatnsdal
(Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2004; 1-894037-21-9)

Reviewed by Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare

[1] What is a book review on Canadian horror cinema doing in the Journal of Film and Religion? Caelum Vatnsdal's new book, They Came from Within, is not directly focused on religious themes in the genre, and also, horror cinema tends to be largely ignored in religious studies and theology - in some circles even condemned. In fact, horror cinema is easily dismissed as adolescent, trite, tasteless, unintelligent, crassly commercial, hopelessly reactionary, and not to mention anti-religious.

[2] I grew up watching horror films in Montreal during those times when the 'slasher' sub-genre (in the early eighties) was being reviled as offensive and misogynistic. However, as feminist scholar Carol Clover later argued in her brilliant book Men, Women, and Chainsaws (Princeton University Press: 1992), far from being anti-feminist films, the best examples of the 'slasher' sub-genre in fact offered cinematic spaces for male identification with women who were creative, strong, and able to survive difficult odds. As a male teenager, no other film genre (certainly not action films!) allowed me the space to identify with smart combative young women as the 'slasher' tended to do. There would be no Buffy today without the pioneering work of the trademark 'slasher' heroine: the Final Girl (a term coined by Clover) who was always able to overcome the terrors inflicted upon her without the help of a male saviour.

[3] In Caelum Vatnsdal's book, They Came from Within, a whole chapter is dedicated to the "slash for cash" period in Canadian horror history, where tax-shelter programs devised to stimulate film development in Canada, as well as the post-Halloween 'slasher' craze, generated a slew of mediocre 'slasher' imitations. Do these mediocre 'slasher' imitations deserve to be discussed as worthy material in the history of Canadian cinema? Our author seems to think they do. He launches his defense of these films with a quote by David Cronenberg: "no horror movie is truly mainstream." But is this in itself enough to warrant serious analysis? Do these films offer any serious material for scholars of religion and theologians to examine? These are questions that exact further investigation.

[4] The insights of liberation theology remind us that "opting for the margins" in our own context maybe as close as one gets to following Jesus' Reign-centered practice among outcasts and the vulnerable of his own time. Can the disparaged margins of mainstream cinema be places where theology can be done with creativity, insight, and with a focus on liberation? While this is not the focus of Vatnsdal's book, it may be an entry point for theologians and religious scholars who want to broaden the methodology of film analysis beyond the conventional apolitical method, which seeks to identity religious themes and symbols, toward a more politicized perspective related to issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, and neocolonial relations. If horror films are, as Cronenberg also states, "films of confrontation," is it not the task of theologians and religious scholars to attempt to pinpoint the religious and political hegemony that some horror films are in fact contesting and/or supporting?   

[5] They Came from Within explores five periods in Canadian horror history from the early sixties to the present. Moreover, the book attempts to retrieve important Canadian figures from horror history - such as scream queen Fay Wray and Val Lewton collaborator Mark Robson - as artists who made a significant impact on the horror genre in the U.S.  

[6] But more importantly, Vatnsdal's book is an attempt at underscoring the marginal and precarious nature of the horror genre in Canadian film history through a playful recognition that our national cinema suffers from an ambiguous sense of national identity (it is worth mentioning here that Vatnsdal is writing from English Canada, and that questions of national identity are very different in my own province of Quebec). Hence, there is an attempt throughout the book to pinpoint what is truly 'Canadian' about the haphazard cinematic patchwork, which he playfully calls "tundra terror" or "hoser horror." Finding a common national thread within a genre that has been undeniably marginal and unambiguously marginalized in the history of Canadian cinema is no easy task. 

[7] Horror cinema, Vatnsdal tells us, is "a natural place to express all our national anxieties." This is certainly a good place to explore Canadian identity. But Vatnsdal does not really identify what these anxieties may be, or may have been. We are left with a book that is focused on stories about how certain films got made in Canada rather than on why certain themes emerged in our rapidly changing country.  

[8] For example, the time period when the horror genre began to develop in Canada - the early to mid-sixties - overlaps with a time of profound changes in Canada more generally. In tandem with the radical changes that occurred during the Vatican II Council, Quebec was beginning its Quiet Revolution, in which it modernized its institutions and demoted the Catholic church from its place of power in Quebec society. Pierre Elliott Trudeau came into power in 1968 and was faced with the October Crisis in 1970, to which he responded with the repressive War Measures Act.  It was in this crucible that early Canadian horror was shaped, yet Vatnsdal does not offer much in the way of historical analysis except for a few references, such as when he mentions that Cronenberg's Rabid (1977) "has something of an exaggerated October Crisis feel to it."  Indeed! 

[9] That a film called Le Diable parmi nous (aka Satan's Sabbath in the U.S.), released in 1972, can be discussed without any mention of the Quiet Revolution and the collapse of Catholic hegemony in Quebec contradicts Vatnsdal claim that horror is "a natural place to express all out national anxieties." If it is natural for horror to express national anxieties, why not attempt to examine these anxieties more concretely? Moreover, the brilliant anti-Vietnam film, Deathdream (1974), made with Canadian money and shot in Florida, deserves more analysis than Vatnsdal offers. The film's subversive anti-authoritarian stance, and its depiction of the invasion of middle-class American living rooms by the (literal!) corpses of Vietnam, speaks to the impact of television in shaping public opinion against the war. The film also reminds us that praying to God for the safe return of a loved one in a combat zone may unexpectedly bring home the very real suffering of the war instead, which the nuclear family tends to repress and occlude. 

[10] Vatnsdal's enthusiasm for the horror genre is quite infectious, and I applaud him for this. His book is written more in the spirit of a who's who of Canadian horror rather than as a historical analysis. And this is fine, but it means that the reader will spend a lot of time reading film synopses without the political and religious context for understanding the adversarial or subversive character out of which some of these very anti-mainstream films emerged. This is a shame for it perpetuates the idea that horror cinema is facile and beneath serious analytical consideration. However, for a Canadian horror enthusiast like myself, it was nonetheless a fascinating read. In fact, it remains a must read for those interested in the margins of Canadian cinema. If horror films are, as Vatnsdal claims, "disparaged, denied, or ignored in their own country," perhaps theologians and religious scholars should pay more attention. For our traditions teach us that it is among the disparaged, denied, and ignored that the divine face tends to reveal itself.

FILM CREDITS

Le Diable parmi nous
(Satan's Sabbath)



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