Canadian Makin’

Nick Pinkerton on “Gimme Shelter: Hollywood North”

Mark Lester, Class of 1984, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes.

AFTER THE EMERGENCE of alluring Canadian production subsidies in the late 1990s, moviegoers of the aughts became inured to watching downtown Vancouver fill in for AnyCity, USA, in a parade of multiplex productions that managed to extract bland back-lot anonymity from location shooting. But Anthology Film Archives’ twelve-film series “Gimme Shelter: Hollywood North” pays tribute to a very different, pioneering era of runaway production, part of an ongoing sesquicentennial celebration of our neighbors above to be followed by “1970s Canadian Independents,” beginning at Anthology on March 9.

The story of Canadian cinema, like that of the Canadian confederation’s birth, is told in no small part through heroic acts of legislation. It was the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC—now TeleFilm Canada) that gave the heretofore underdeveloped Canadian fiction feature industry a shot in the arm, while the golden age of “tax shelter” movies began with the 1974 institution of the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA), offering a 100 percent tax deferment for investments in productions deemed sufficiently Canadian in cast and crew. It’s the offspring of the CCA—the so-called Canuxploitation films whose history is lovingly detailed at the website—that “Gimme Shelter” makes its focus.

Many of the auteurs of Canuxploitation were, in fact, adventuring Americans, such as Mark Lester, whose Class of 1984 (1982) is one of the industry’s sacred texts. An unholy marriage of Up the Down Staircase (1967) and Death Wish (1974), it stars Mandingo’s Perry King as a band teacher with a chinstrap beard trying to make a difference in the postapocalyptic environment of Abraham Lincoln High School, whose walls are covered with surreal graffiti. Lincoln flies the stars and stripes out front, though little details give away the game—the pronunciation of “sorry” like it’s a county in England, a drug deal involving a young Canadian actor billed as Michael Fox that goes down in the “washroom,” a blueprint for a “summer cottage” hanging in the drafting class, and Roddy McDowall—who gives a disconcertingly committed performance—flipping his car and dying in a fireball in front of Barberian’s Steak House at the intersection of Elm and Yonge in downtown Toronto. In fairness, Lester does keep the CN Tower out of frame.

David Cronenberg, The Brood, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 92 minutes.

Class of 1984 pushes its clichés until they pop with a kind of delirious pleasure, though here there are also films that take a more traditional path toward greatness. Toronto’s own David Cronenberg is represented by The Brood (1979), his third and most totally successful venture into body-horror exploitation, in which emotional repression—that shared specialty of cold-climate countries—breeds actual children, with Samantha Eggar as the proud mother of a litter of homicidal rage babies. (It should be mentioned that almost all of the series will be projected on film, and if this is the same print of The Brood that I saw when freshly struck a couple of years ago, its traumatic images have never looked better.) We also have Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), today acknowledged as one of the progenitors (and exemplars) of the slasher movie cycle, which employed an earlier version of the stalker-point-of-view shot that John Carpenter would reproduce in his Halloween (1978), here accomplished without benefit of Steadicam technology. Camera operator Bert Dunk wore a rig mounted on his head while crawling through the windows and shimmying down from the attic of the menaced sorority house on the University of Toronto campus, where the film lays its scene. Just as impressive as Clark’s technical acumen are the performances he gets from an excellent ensemble cast, including SCTV’s Andrea Martin and, as the house’s sybaritic, much-sloshed sister, an extremely charming Margot Kidder in a choker-and-chambray combo, fresh off Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and in full flower of scream queendom.

Among these exploitation efforts there are also art-house productions like Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980), offering one of the last great roles of Burt Lancaster’s extended Grand Old Man phase, as well as, for those so inclined, a sidebar of “adult” animation features—a category that in the early 1980s was made to refer to films owing a heavy debt to Ralph Bakshi and which devoted a tremendous amount of attention to realistically capturing the motion of pendulous, braless mammaries. Heavy Metal (1981), produced by Ivan “the Terrible” Reitman, is here, an omnibus created by recruiting contributions from animation studios around the world. Canadian company Nelvana received an invite but passed in order to concentrate on its own debut feature Rock & Rule (1983), a multimillion-dollar rock opera set in a dystopian future where anthropomorphic humanoid rodents, including our heroes, striving young band members who bear a striking resemblance to the Cheap Trick lineup, are ruled over by an aristocratic, sepulchral glam rocker who sings with the voice of Lou Reed. The movie was something of a staple at the video store I used to work at; on revisiting, it turns out that it plays quite a bit better when you’re working a cash register half the time.

Clive A. Smith, Rock & Rule, 1983, 35 mm, color, sound, 77 minutes.

Zale Dalen’s Skip Tracer (aka Deadly Business [1977]) rewards closer scrutiny, following the misadventures of debt chasers doing their business in the grittier precincts of Vancouver. A sense of the quiet desperation of clinging to middle-class respectability comes across vividly, though the film’s pervasive drabness threatens monotony, as the relentlessly downbeat tone even infests scenes of initial seduction and exhilaration with the repo lifestyle. And while David Petersen usually exudes just the right kind of bland malice in the lead role, he doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off the 180-degree atonement that the script demands. No schnook’s redemption is forthcoming in Sudden Fury (1975), a resourceful zilch-budget thriller set in rural Ontario in which a simmering domestic dispute and a road-rage incident snowball into multiple murders, with Dan Hennessey, an innocent motorist and John Oates stand-in, having to outsmart Dan Hogan, a scheming uxoricidal maniac in a repugnant plaid blazer. Director Brian Damude has an eye for landscape and gets nice suspense effects from simple but well-deployed crosscutting exercises, allowing the movie to work up a real cornered-animal frenzy in the last reel, though the final exchange between befuddled detectives examining the carnage (“It sure is a helluva mess.” “I know, I already said that.”) isn’t exactly one for the books.

Sudden Fury is the lone feature-length directorial outing of Brian Damude, who now teaches at Ryerson University, while Blood Relatives (1978) was Claude Chabrol’s thirtieth credited long-player since debuting 1958’s Le Beau Serge. Blood Relatives is an adaptation of one of Ed McBain Eighty-Seventh Precinct novels with Maritime provinces native Donald Sutherland giving a becalmed read of McBain’s detective Steve Carella, with the action here transposed from Manhattan to Old Montreal. Donald Pleasence, supremely unpleasant in playing a pederast suspect in a teenage girl’s stabbing death, makes a manful attempt at a Québécois accent. However, Blood Relatives suffers from having the French-speakers among its bilingual cast, including Chabrol’s collaborator and wife, Stéphane Audran, poorly dubbed into English. The film does, though, come at the end of the peak period of collaboration between Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier, who died last year, so if the dialogue sometimes falters the film never lacks for visual elegance, particularly in an extended flashback sequence narrated from the victim’s diary, all confectionary pastels laced with strychnine.

The revelations of incest and hidden resentments contained in this key piece of evidence make for yet another of Chabrol’s portraits of the bourgeois family as a kind of lockdown hell, a sentiment that emerges in a very different form in Hungarian-born Nicolas Gessner’s deeply icky The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976). Set in the remote wilds of Maine but shot in the lakeside Victorian village of Knowlton, this southern Quebec Gothic features a Taxi Driver–vintage Jodie Foster left alone to fend off local creeps, including floppy-haired local pedo Martin Sheen, who gets an indelible scene involving a lit cigarette and a pet hamster. As we reach yet another juncture when right- (or left-) thinking Americans threaten to move to Canada in droves, Anthology provides an essential scared-straight session for the potential émigré. Don’t be fooled—these people are terrifying.

“Gimme Shelter: Hollywood North” runs February 24 through March 8 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.