In 1967, after members of the Canadian film industry lobbied to expand funding of homegrown filmmaking, the government of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson approved $10 million CAD for the funding and creation of the Canadian Film Development Commission (CFDC). In 1968, offices opened in Toronto and Montreal, and the CDFC offered a 100% tax incentive for new films made in the country—Canadian filmmaking was ready to chart a new course.
The first CFDC-funded film that turned heads was a stab at creating Canada’s own New Wave to match those in Europe: 1970’s Goin’ Down the Road. The film, director Donald Shebib’s breakthrough hit, combines documentary-style realism, substantial improvison, and a low-budget look to make a film that felt both contemporary and distinctly Canadian. The film was a critical success, and has remained influential to this day. However, what emerged in its wake was something that the Canadian government had not anticipated: a haven for genre and exploitation filmmaking thanks to some easily-exploitable tax loopholes. This became known as the “Tax Shelter” period.
Filmmakers like Bob Clark (we’ll get to him later), David Cronenberg (ditto), Ivan Reitman, William Fruet, and others all directed genre and exploitation films during these early years thanks to the aforementioned tax breaks. Reitman’s campy 1973 film Cannibal Girls (starring Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin!) is about as schlocky and winking as you’d expect, but it made some money, allowing Reitman to move on to bigger and better projects. Death Weekend (The House by the Lake in the US) is a 1975 sleazefest that saw director William Fruet go from celebrated co-writer of Goin’ Down the Road to purveyor of smut in the eyes of Canadian artistic elites—the film was only saved when Roger Corman’s American International Pictures acquired the rights and played it in a double feature with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left.
Black Christmases and Bloody Valentines: The Golden Age of Canuxploitation
By the mid-1970s, it was clear that Canada probably wasn’t going to make the next Breathless or Blowup or The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Other than a few prestige pictures like Paul Lynch’s The Hard Parts Begin, Denys Arcand’s Réjeanne Padovani, or Ted Kotcheff’s adaptation of the Mordecai Richler novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, CFDC-funded films were exploitation fare with titles like Deathdream or Vengeance is Mine. The money was in this kind of filmmaking, and Canada’s tax loopholes made it an enticing place to make a genre pic on the cheap.
This didn’t mean that all genre and exploitation pictures made in this period were garbage; some of these films are staggering in their quality and influence. Bob Clark, who first made his mark with Black Christmas (1974), is a prime example of someone who excelled in this period. Black Christmas is somewhat of a shibboleth among horror fans, an outstanding proto-slasher flick that weaves a Brian De Palma-esque sense of suspense through its scenes. Memorable turns from Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon don’t hurt either. Made on a shoestring budget, the film grossed over $4 million dollars and established Bob Clark’s reputation.
Clark’s most famous film from this period is Porky’s (1981). This overbearingly horny teen comedy made bushels of money for Clark and his distributors, despite its minimal quality. As bad as Porky’s is, though, the obscenely misogynistic films that copied it while foregoing any of it’s breezy charm are far worse.
Outside of Clark, there were other filmmakers pushing the boundaries of Canuxploitation. Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen made one of the period’s most disturbing and accomplished horror films: Deranged (1974). The film is slow and methodical, creating an atmosphere of disquieting tension as it draws horror from unexpected places. Deranged is a forgotten treasure, closer in tone to psychological serial killer profiles films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Hounds of Love.
My Bloody Valentine (1981) has benefited more from reconsideration and reappraisal than any other film I’ve mentioned thus far. Released amid a wave of cruddy, indistinguishable slasher flicks, My Bloody Valentine was maligned on release as yet another imitator of superior slashers like Halloween or Fright Night. But over time, high-profile advocates like Quentin Tarantino and Mark Kermode talked up the film’s stylistic flourishes, its use of moody pulsing dread over jump scares, and its working-class milieu populated by realistic characters. It is now rightly hailed as a horror classic.
“This film is a disgrace to everyone…”: David Cronenberg and Public Backlash
Speaking of moody pulsing dread, it’s time to talk about David Cronenberg.
Known for documenting his fascination, adoration, and repulsion with the human body on film, Cronenberg took big risks with his CFDC funding and almost lost everything in the process.
His first film funded by the agency, Shivers (1975), is a cacophonic mix of body horror, jagged social satire, and stylized 1970s modernist aesthetics. The film’s violence and nudity may be tightly linked to its plot and themes, but this nuance didn’t stop Canada’s critical establishment from clutching their pearls and dropping their monocles into highball glasses. One of Canada’s oiliest prudes in media at the time, Robert Fulford, wrote a scathing review in Saturday Night titled “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is, You Paid For It.”
The article caused an uproar, prompted a national debate on the role of the CFDC funding violent and sexually explicit films, and got David Cronenberg evicted from his Toronto apartment.
What saved Cronenberg’s career was the power of money; Shivers was a box-office smash, and this allowed Cronenberg to make two more unhinged epics with CFDC funding: the underbaked Rabid (1977), and the delightfully disgusting The Brood (1979).
It’s Not TV, It’s Telefilm: The Decline of Canuxploitation
A few success stories aside, the early 1980s were not a boom time for Canada’s film industry. Even genre and exploitation films relied mostly on CFDC funding, and few of these films ever turned a profit. Something had to change.
In 1984, the CFDC rebranded as Telefilm. Telefilm’s operations continued as normal for a few years, but slashes to tax credits (down to 30%) in the late 80s and a mandate to move focus to television production meant that the Canadian government’s days of funding exploitation cinema was mostly at an end.
Canada has always been a country without a concrete identity, flirting with European affectations but usually hewing closer to its neighbor to the south. Admittedly, Canadian exploitation films weren’t as wild or unique as their Australian counterparts. But when I’m walking alone down a dark street in Toronto, you better believe I always feel like I’m in a David Cronenberg movie.