Canuxploitation: A hidden history of Canadian genre films

What if I told you that there’s a dark corner of Canadian cinema that’s all about boobs, blood and psycho killers? It’s called Canuxploitation and it’s anything but bland.

For some people, the words “Canadian film” carry some seriously boring baggage.

If you’re the type who thought the Great White North was all Québécois art-house cinema and documentaries on beavers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), read on.

What if I told you that there’s a dark corner of Canadian cinema that’s all about boobs, blood and psycho killers? It’s called Canuxploitation and it’s anything but bland.

What is Canuxploitation?

Simply put, it’s any and all Canadian-made exploitation cinema.

The term itself is a relatively new one, coined by film writer Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com in 1999. It’s on that website that he curates, preserves and dredges up the sometimes forgotten history of Canada’s B-movies. Movies with titles like Cannibal Girls, Hobo with a Shotgun, and Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Sounds fun, right?

While these films won’t be winning the Cannes Palme d’Or anytime soon, the best Canuxploitation films (think Black Christmas, My Bloody Valentine) are still being homage-d and remade today. Call it schlock if you want, but you have to admit, it’s entertaining.

“People have these preconceived notions of boring Canadian cinema,” said Corupe in an interview with Metro. “Well, these films are slasher-killers or action stars or strippers or erotic thrillers, and all this kind of stuff that people don’t necessarily immediately identify with Canada.

“There is this hidden underground of Canadian genre films that most people would probably be interested in if they knew about it,” he told me.

Most of these films were produced from the early 1970s to the early ’80s in what you might call the golden age of Canuxploitation. The cinematic streets of the Great White North ran red with blood back then, all thanks to two words: tax shelter.

Taking shelter and making B-movies

So what is a tax shelter?

As discussed in this series’ previous entry on Canadian horror films, the tax shelter years were a period of time, from the early ’70s right through to about 1983, where Canadian law made it financially lucrative for anyone to produce films here. The semantics of tax law get a little complicated, but the basic idea was that investors in Canadian-made films got 100 per cent of the money they put in back, in the form of a tax credit.

“As a result of this, a lot of people who weren’t necessarily filmmakers or producers made this investment,” said Corupe. “It just made good financial sense, it was just like buying a mutual fund … so you had dentists and doctors and lawyers funding Canadian film.”

So the next time you watch an old Canadian slasher film and wonder, “Who the heck would make this?” Well, that’s who.

The 100 per cent tax shelter finally ended in the early ’80s following a growing number of abuses by producers who would make films, but wouldn’t even bother releasing them. They didn’t have to. They could put their money in, make the movie and let it sit on a shelf for 10 years. Either way, they still got that 100 per tax writeoff.

The federal government cut the tax shelter back to 50 per cent and, a few years later, scrapped it altogether. It was left up to individual provinces and the old Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm) to support the production of Canadian film.

Though the tax shelter years have come and gone, Canuxploitation is still alive and well. Now more than ever, audiences are willing to except genre films, and thanks to publicity from Corupe’s website and a number of successful remakes, classic Canuxploitation has been raised from the dead.

New films have joined in the B-movie fun, too. Hobo with a Shotgun (2011), the grindhouse-style Canadian soon-to-be cult classic starring Rutger Hauer, is very much in the spirit and style of Canuxploitation, as is Saskatchewan’s recent Wolfcop film.

5 Essential Canuxploitation movies

I asked Paul Corupe to give me a short list of the most essential Canadian exploitation films. Here’s what he came up with:

Black Christmas (1974)

Perhaps the quintessential Canadian horror film, Black Christmas has a group of sorority girls being stalked and murdered by a psycho killer over Christmas break. It sounds simple enough, but the sheer brutality of the film makes it a truly frightening experience.

“I love trashy b-movies but Black Christmas is just a really classy, well-made film,” said Corupe. “It’s an indisputably a well-made horror movie. Very adult, very funny and very scary.”

Ginger Snaps (2000)

Ginger Snaps is "a really important film in Canuxploitation,” said Corupe.

There was a time after the tax shelter, he explains, when people Northern horror went into full remission. Ginger Snaps, a film that uses a young girl’s transformation into a werewolf as a metaphor for puberty, changed that.

“It had female stars, it was written by Karen Walton and had a lot of critical acclaim,” said Corupe.“It really showed people horror was still viable in Canada.”

The Mask (1961)

Canada’s first horror film and first 3D feature, The Mask is a black and white drive-in flick about a psychiatrist who goes insane after putting on a grotesque mask. I covered this film, and other Canadian horror landmarks, earlier in this series.

“A real interesting genesis of where our genre films came from,” commented Corupe.

Rituals (1977)

Like a Canadian precursor to Friday the Thirteenth (minus the teenagers and hormones), Rituals, a.k.a The Creeper, follows a group of middle-aged doctors on their traditional backwoods retreat. Things go horribly wrong when someone or some thing begins terrorizing and killing them one by one.

Corupe’s take? “It’s a little bit similar to Deliverance, but definitely more of a horror film,” he said.

Things (1989)

A low-budget independent amateur film made by two Canadian horror fans with an 8 mm camera, “Things is a film that’s not for everyone,” warned Corupe. Described as a Z-list movie, it’s “so intensely awful, it’s incredible.” I’d give you a plot synopsis, but there really isn’t one.

With an accidentally unconventional narrative, Things is notable for including an eight-minute sequence of the main characters shinning a flashlight on a ceiling. “It’s not boring,” Corupe hesitated, “but it’s extremely frustrating.”

The trailer is too graphic and too face-palmingly bad to post on this fine page. Click here to watch it, if you dare.

You're reading ABCs of Canadian film: A crash course in Canadian cinema.

More on Metronews.ca