In the minds of many, the Canadian horror film begins and ends with David Cronenberg. With no disrespect to the Baron of Blood, Canadian cinema has managed a diverse and often cutting-edge body of horror films for decades now. Certain other films (notably Black Christmas (1974), Ginger Snaps (2000) and Pontypool (2008)) have attracted academic attention, but a great many others remain relatively unexamined. The only books to examine Canadian horror films broadly are the two editions of Caelum Vatnsdal's They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema (2004, 2014) and though certainly valuable in their thoroughness, these are more (self-admittedly) works of fan scholarship more than academic texts. So the new collection The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul is a welcome book for opening up the field. Editors André Loiselle, Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University, and Gina Freitag, the founder of the horror-oriented Cellar Door Film Festival in Ottawa, have assembled an impressively diverse slate of contributors. Some are university-based academics, of course, but others include the aforementioned Vatnsdal, a director as well as a writer; film programmer/writer Kier-La Janisse, and a number of other writers whose works have appeared in non-academic venues like Rue Morgue magazine and the website Canuxploitation.com (including its founder, Paul Corupe). A citation-free piece on Canadian monsters by Vatnsdal coexists with more conventional academic papers and this multiplicity of approaches is among the collection's greatest strengths.
The diversity of writers is matched by the diversity of subjects. While plenty of the canonical Canadian horror films (including Cronenberg's) are covered, there are many topics here that will surprise even aficionados. The Canadian Horror Film is sorted into six sections with topics ranging from the shaping of the Canadian horror landscape to film adaptations, the tax shelter era, eco-horror, and, most usual, a section on animation and the avant-garde. Some of the essays engage in overt boosterism (Loiselle trumpets Sur le seuil (2003) as, "in my opinion, the best horror film ever made in Quebec" (81), but the entire thrust of the project is a recuperative one, identifying with pride a varied and valuable horror tradition in Canada. The editors are explicitly polemical: "we wish to assert that after fifty years of commercial filmmaking, Canadian cinema [End Page 118] should no longer have to apologize for itself … [we] choose to take a stand and declare that Canadian cinema does exist and that it has developed its own generic traditions. We unapologetically claim that if Halloween matters, then so does Shivers" (16). This is a noble goal indeed.
An impressive feature of The Canadian Horror Film, creditable to its editors, is its coherence as a collection, doubly so since its breadth stretches into avant-garde cinema, animation, and other topics rarely discussed as horror. Many of the chapters make reference to other chapters, and the conclusion by Freitag and Loiselle dedicates itself to collecting all of the threads of the various essays. The editors begin with a quotation from Northrop Frye's The Bush Garden (1970) concerning a particularly Canadian horror related to fear of the wilderness and obsessive interiority: "confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting – such communities what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality" (qtd. 3). Frye's text, along with Margaret Atwood's Survival (1972), serve as touchstones for a great many of these essays, providing a theoretical architecture that spans much of the collection, locating the "terror of the soul" "in the interval between external threat and internal dread" (4). Several of the essays productively pursue this framework into Canadian cinema's relationship with the Othered indigene (as does Aalya Ahmad in her essay on Ginger Snaps Back (2003)) and into eco-criticism (Freitag's essay on Canadian eco-horror and Peter Thompson's compelling reading of Orca: The Killer Whale (1977), which he recuperates from its usual dismissal as a Jaws (1975) knock-off).
One wonders if the Frye and Atwood...