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Scare tactics

Does Manitoba have what it takes to be the horror movie capital of North America? D4-6

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In the horror movie, the nightmare is the coin of the realm. It inspires scripts, it provides surreal ambience, and it is a handy shock device.

But for one Winnipeg filmmaker/author, the nightmare is a dream, a vision, a goal to be achieved.

Caelum Vatnsdal wants to make Winnipeg the horror movie capital of North America.

 

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In the big scheme of things, Winnipeg and southern Manitoba already are an epicentre of low-budget genre cinema. This past month has seen the completion of one horror movie shoot, Joy Ride 3, and the DVD/video-on-demand première of another, Curse of Chucky. They are the latest exhibits in a night gallery of some 25 locally shot genre offerings made in the last 15 years, an impressive crop for a city the size of Winnipeg.

The reason for this disproportionate number of horror films is simply the city offers precisely the right kind of advantages. Aggressive provincial labour tax incentives mean they can be shot cheaply. Seasoned, talented crews guarantee years of expertise, from special-effects makeup to production design to cinematography.

And if you're a producer with an insufficient budget for a big-name actor, no money is no problem.

"Horror movies work best when there are budget restrictions on them, or at least they don't suffer from it," says Vatnsdal, 42. "Because a horror movie doesn't necessarily need a big star or things like that. You can make a good little horror movie.

"It's proven time and time again: The biggest box-office returns come from the lowest-budget movies: Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project all the way back to Night of the Living Dead."

There is also horror-conducive atmosphere, especially at this time of the year.

"We have a wonderful ambience -- great old buildings, creepy warehouses, barren fields with ominously waving grass, all that kind of stuff," Vatnsdal says. "A Halloween-y atmosphere is easy to come by here."

For Vatnsdal, the confluence of talent, experience, tax credits and atmosphere feels like a wave that needs to be surfed.

"It feels to me like we're all working out for a main event," Vatnsdal says.

 

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Vatnsdal has a specific bias when it comes to film horror. While he is a filmmaker himself (his non-horror feature Black as Hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love screens Nov. 1 at Cinematheque), he is also the author of They Came From Within, an excellent, comprehensive history of the Canadian horror movie (to be re-released in the fall of 2014 in an expanded, updated edition).

The book covers the Hollywood-produced films that were shot in Canada in the notorious Tax Shelter era when investors could make a bundle from Canadian films regardless of the quality of the product. But the book is largely a celebration of homegrown Canadian talents who expanded the genre, particularly in the work of David Cronenberg, whose 1975 film (a.k.a. Shivers) gave the book its title.

Correspondingly, the vast majority of horror films that were shot here in Manitoba were produced by American companies, with a dearth of real indigenous product. One of the very few locally-produced efforts is Guy Maddin's Emmy-winning Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, a 2002 showcase for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production that, yes, also qualifies as a horror film.

Vatnsdal says it is time we explored our own history and mythology in coming up with scary stories.

"There are a lot of regional legends that I've read and dug up in books on Manitoba ghost stories," he says. "There's one completely horrific ghost story about a guy with a completely hairy face who pops out from a Winnipeg basement.

"That terrified me," says the only mildly stubbled Vatnsdal.

Vatnsdal also recalls the true story of an Elma, Man., farmhand named Thomas Hreczkosy who killed a family of seven in 1932.

"The Devil appeared in front of him. He was 10 feet tall and completely ebony-black and he told the guy to grab an axe and kill the whole family... and he did. And a little boy was left alive long enough to say: 'It was Tom the farmhand,' before succumbing."

On a more fanciful side of things, we have our own Lake Manitoba sea monster, Manipogo. And there's always the Sasquatch.

"Manitoba is the busiest province for Sasquatch sightings outside of B.C.," Vatnsdal says.

 

That information might conceivably fire the imaginations of Astron-6. Its five members are the only filmmakers making locally generated genre product. The plucky film collective makes gross, outrageous, deftly comic slasher-monster thrillers with very little money but an apparently limitless supply of DIY ingenuity.

In the past few years, the group, made up of Adam Brooks, Conor Sweeney, Matthew Kennedy, Steve Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie have released two features on DVD. Turning the misogynist slasher on its head, Father's Day, directed by Brooks, is about a demonic psycho who targets middle-aged dads for his sexual assaults/murders. Manborg, directed by Kostanski, is a delightful post-apocalyptic adventure about a cyborg who joins forces with a group of rebels to defeat a vampiric despot.

They are currently at work, Astron-style (on weekends and days off) on The Editor, a slasher filmed in the style of the Italian giallo thriller. This sub-genre, perfected by the likes of Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace) and Dario Argento (Suspiria) features lurid settings, saturated colour and elaborate murders.

It's a tall order, especially for a group that has none of the monetary advantages of even the poorest direct-to-video thriller.

Brooks, 33, coming from a tough weekend of filming two cars tumbling over a cliff in Kenora for the film, laughs as he recounts the challenges facing his band of cinematic outsiders.

"We made this short film Cool Guys in 2008, and we didn't finish it for over a year," he recalls. "And we said: 'This is the hardest thing we've ever made.'

"Everything went wrong. Locations were pulled out from under us. Everywhere we went, people were yelling at us. 'Get off my property! You're a liability!' People that had already given us permission would take it away. Equipment broke. Actors flaked. Everything.

"And it felt like: This is discouraging. I don't know if we want to keep doing this.

"And then we made Father's Day and it was so much worse," he says. "But the product was much better and so much good came of it."

Selling the film to Troma for distribution was not one of those good things, at least for Astron. They made no money on the deal. But they did get visibility, and that may have helped them win a $120,000 grant from Telefilm to start work on The Editor.

Brooks' lack of experience with a legit film crew and a budget, he admits, meant they burned through the seed money before the film was one-third completed.

"Now, with The Editor, we're about halfway through and it's way worse," Brooks says of the film's ongoing challenges.

"We're waiting for the day when the job gets easier, but it's only getting harder," he says.

But Brooks says he takes some comfort in the fact Astron's final product will be far more entertaining than studio-backed exploitation in the vein of Wrong Turn 4.

"We know we don't have much so we make it absurd, and I enjoy that," Brooks says.

"But those movies, like Wrong Turn 4, which I've seen, they're garbage that takes itself seriously.

"What could be a greater offence than a movie like that taking itself seriously?" he says, his aesthetic passions inflamed. "I guarantee you, no one watching it is taking it seriously.

"Those movies have no longevity! They're place-fillers on Netflix! I don't want to make anything like that!"

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 ??65535

History

Updated on Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 12:25 PM CDT: minor editing

12:26 PM: fixed cutline

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