It's strangely fitting that the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival premiered the same day as Toronto's first annual cold snap, and festival patrons were happy to cram into The Projection Booth's tiny lobby to escape the wind. Hiding from the cold isn't uniquely Canadian behavior, but when called upon to describe what it's like to be Canadian, it is an image that comes to mind, along with Mounties, beavertails and poutine.
Often, being "Canadian" is defined in contradistinction to the uber-nation just below us: the United States, I mean. We Canadians say it's cold because the weather in the States is milder. We say we're multicultural because we added an act to our Charter in 1988. But really, these things mean little in our day-to-day life in Canada. When I was a teen, being Canadian felt like a deficit of something; it meant driving to Buffalo to shop at T.J. Maxx or Target. All the good TV stations were American, all the good bands toured the U.S., and the Canadian equivalents were, well, not the same.
But a lot of that has changed in recent years, and I don't just mean that Toronto is getting a Target next year. Canadian filmmakers have found their voice and this is particularly true in the case of the horror genre, which is why Blood in the Snow is so important. Toronto has no shortage of genre film celebrations, but a festival focusing solely on homegrown horror has been in conspicuous absence until now. With six feature-length films and a total of 13 shorts, programmed by Kelly Michael Stewart, Blood in the Snow played host to several world premieres of movies covering the gamut of major horror tropes, all proudly waving the maple leaf.
The fest opened with the world premiere of Sick, directed by Ryan M. Andrews. My favorite zombie movies are ones that use the undead setting to portray horror in humanity, and Sick conjures elements of Day of the Dead with a hint of Mad Max. When scientist Leigh (Christina Aceto) realizes that her research can't save humanity from the mysterious disease that has decimated the population, she flees to her parents' house and inadvertently takes Seph (Richard Roy Sutton) and McKay (Robert Nolan) with her. They don't trust each other, and rightfully so: The story is set years into the apocalypse, and what remains of the human race is savage and desperate. The survivors barely know one another and they know even less about what they're up against, and the changing dynamics between them flesh out a hearty little zombie film with a lot of bite.
Day 2 introduced the world premiere of In the House of Flies, the latest feature from director Gabriel Carrer. The story of a young couple who find themselves abducted and trapped in a basement with a bucket and three suitcases for company reminded me of another Canadian horror flick, Vincenzo Natali's Cube. Our protagonists Heather (Lindsay Smith) and Steve (Ryan Kotack) go from confused to outright terrified, and as days pass without food or water, they find that their worst nightmare isn't that they may be killed; it's being made to endure their personal hell together. In addition to the torture of solitary confinement with a significant other, the couple is tormented by their captor (voiced unmistakably by Henry Rollins) who taunts, threatens and manipulates them through a rotary phone. The chalky claustrophobic setting is unnerving but, like Cube, the emotional gravity of the film relies heavily on chemistry between the players, which is largely absent between Heather and Steve. Nonetheless, In the House of Flies is able to keep the suspense alive, even while its characters waste away.
Next up was Devil's Night, a film described by director Christopher Harrison as an homage to the great horror blockbusters of the '80s that have come to define the slasher subgenre. He hinted at subtle references to Halloween and Friday the 13th in the film, but these influences were considerably more obvious than he let on. Devil's Night is essentially a retooling of I Know What You Did Last Summer with a hybridization of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers dispensing of frat boys and their sexual partners left and right. Not to say any of this is a bad thing. The production value is good, the dialogue is impressive and the acting (save for a shrill Danielle Harris) was spot-on. Horror fans are accustomed to blurred lines between homage, rip-offs and reboots, but in a subgenre with so many forgettable entries, Devil's Night is good, campy fun with some truly memorable moments.
Sunday's finale was the directorial debut of Chris Alexander's Blood for Irina, a "Canadian gothic" swing at an art house film about a dying vampire languishing in a rotting motel. What the film lacks in dialogue, it makes up for in slow motion, long shots of nothing and copious amounts of thick, snotty blood. Our titular character Irina (Shauna Henry) is a reluctant vampire who has no trouble finding victims to feast upon; her real challenge is keeping her liquid lunches down. She vomits after every meal from the same bloodsucker bulimia that afflicted the vampire who spawned her, begging the question, what is blood for Irina if not sustenance? Perhaps a human part of her is revolted at her actions? We'll never know for sure, for as Alexander cheerfully explained in his prologue, the film isn't going to do the work for us. You've been warned, lazy filmgoer.
Cinematic shorts were sprinkled throughout the festival, showing before the features and even getting a prime daytime slot on Saturday. Standout contributors included Peter Szabo, who made use of Stephen King's Dollar Babies program which, if you're unfamiliar, allows amateur filmmakers to pay a buck (or in Szabo's case, a loonie) to use one of his short stories. The only catch: The filmmaker can't make money off it — but when has not making money ever deterred an artist? Anyway, Szabo selected the short story "Nona" for his short Love Never Dies, which loiters a while in the beginning before building to an effective and chilling climax. Another laudable mention goes to Maude Michaud for Red, a sassy and sinister short about a predatory sexual voyeur getting his long-overdue due. Between the film's architecture and the leading lady's attire and accent, the short is very evocative of Montreal culture and style, and I found it to be the most identifiably Canadian film in the fest.
There once was a time when you could pick out a Canadian film a mile away. They lacked the gloss of the American blockbusters: the sleek production value, the iconic landmarks, the international superstars that dominated the covers of imported American magazines. But since the indie movie boom and the emergence of Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival, TIFF's Midnight Madness and the Toronto After Dark festival, Canadian genre filmmakers are capturing the attention of horror fans throughout the nation, and for good reason. We have our own scary stories to tell, and as Blood in the Snow demonstrates, there's more on our minds than hockey.