FILMS

Big bad movies

Canadian B-films aim low and score high

Brian D. Johnson April 9 1990
FILMS

Big bad movies

Canadian B-films aim low and score high

Brian D. Johnson April 9 1990

Big bad movies

FILMS

Canadian B-films aim low and score high

For a movie based on a script that was written in a single weekend, there is no shortage of action. A sultry high-school ghost named Mary Lou rises from her grave and comes back to haunt her high school. She gouges out a student’s heart with four-inch-long fingernails. She puts a guidance counsellor under a hair-drier that spews battery acid. She slices up a science teacher played by ex-boxer George Chuvalo and turns him into a human banana split, slathering his body in whipped cream and cherries. Although it is unclear whether she is the villain or heroine, Mary Lou is a bad girl. And Prom Night III: The Last Kiss, which opens this month across Canada, is a bad movie—aimed at the adolescent appetite for bad taste. Billed as “a romantic comedy from hell,” Prom Night III belongs to a singular brand of Canadian films. They are Canada’s B-movies, products of a seldom celebrated but consistently successful branch of the domestic film industry.

They almost never win Genie awards. They feature no-name stars. And most of them play for just a short time in theatres before finding a spot on home-video racks. But, unlike many Canadian films, they are produced without public money. Even more unusual, they tend to make a profit. Throughout the film industry, they are known, euphemistically, as “genre movies.” The less polite term is shlock.

A marketable B-movie is a truly international product that slices through differences in language, culture and taste. The Torontobased SC Entertainment Corp., one of Canada’s most prolific producers of feature films, has six B-movies due for release this year. And the company has plans to sell them to distributors in more than 30 countries. “This kind of film can be knocked out on a regular basis,” said Syd Cappe, one of SC’s two owners. “It has to have a type of market appeal that translates internationally. Action adventure goes everywhere. Horror travels very well. Light comedy doesn’t.” Added Peter Simpson, the Torontobased president of Norstar Entertainment Inc.: “A guy with 18-inch biceps runs out and blows up the village—now that’s universal.”

Simpson produced Prom Night III, the third in a series of Canadian-made high-school homicide movies. Jamie Lee Curtis launched her career in Simpson’s original Prom Night (1979). It grossed more than $23 million at the North American box office, and NBC bought the TV rights for $4 million. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1986)—in which the title character, a murdered prom queen, comes back from the dead to seek vengeance—was less successful in theatres. But Simpson says that he is encouraged by early reactions to the new sequel. At the American Film Market in Los Angeles earlier this year, he made more than $1 million in foreign sales. “There were nice Japanese people offering lots of money for it,” he said. “They laughed their heads off.”

In an interview at his Toronto office, the paunchy Simpson wore an open-necked shirt and a pair of blue jeans held up by suspenders. Placed prominently on the wall behind his desk were pictures of him with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Communications Minister Marcel Masse. As well as producing such films as Prom Night, Simpson is the chairman of Media Canada, the private agency that places advertising in the media for the federal government.

His language heavily salted with expletives, Simpson was critical of the government’s film funding agency, Telefilm Canada, which tends not to fund B-movies. Telefilm’s official guidelines say that movies depicting “excessive violence or sexual violence” are ineligible for government financing. But Simpson claimed that the agency uses a double standard. The Telefilm-backed Un Zoo la nuit (1988), a Quebec movie that won 13 Genies, opens with a homosexual rape scene in a men’s prison. “Because the French are so isolated and worried about their language, they can do whatever they f—ing want in their movies,” he said, “and Telefilm just says, ‘Where do we send the cheque?’ But if I try to do it in English Canada, they’ll say we’re demented.” Yet Simpson clearly understands the difference between art and exploitation. “If you open up Telefilm to more commercial pictures,” he added, “and someone wants to make ‘Scuzzball Hotel,’ then where do you draw the line?”

Telefilm has, in fact, helped Simpson make more serious films, including the recent Cold Comfort, a darkly comic drama about a Prairie madman who kidnaps a travelling salesman as a present for his daughter. Although later nominated for five Genies, Cold Comfort got a frosty reception at the box office. And Simpson wonders what has happened to the audience for art movies. “Where has the f—ing liberal-minded intelligentsia gone?” he asked. “I want them back—and I want their money.”

With a few exceptions, mostly in Quebec, producers of more serious Canadian movies are still struggling to capture an audience. Bmovies, meanwhile, enjoy relatively easy sales on the international market. And actors depend on them for regular employment. Respected Canadian actor Jan Rubes acknowledges that “nearly all the Canadian films I’ve done are Bmovies.” Rubes portrayed a mad surgeon performing brain transplants in Blood Relations, an sc horror comedy released last fall. “I feel I learn more on these movies because it’s always such a frantic schedule,” he said. “There is never enough money, and there can be tremendous technical problems. You can spend hours putting on a false neck and having it cut.” In Blood Relations, Rubes even got to play a sex scene with a naked young actress, a rare screen opportunity for a 69-year-old actor.

There is an insatiable demand in B-movies for young women who undress or die violently—or both. Lenore Zann, who grew up in Truro, N.S., has proven herself in serious fare, including last fall’s Love and Hate, the CBC drama about the Colin Thatcher murder case in which she played Thatcher’s mistress. But Zann says that she has also acted in more Canadian B-movies than she cares to remember. “Dead blondes are my forte,” she said. “I’ve had my throat slit twice.”

Zann recalled that, sick to death of B-movies, she went to England in 1986 for two years of stage work—“I really got fed up with being killed off.” Her roles often required nudity, “but nudity doesn’t bother me except when you add the violence,” she said. In a B-thriller called Visiting Hours, a character rips her shirt off and threatens her with a knife. The director wanted to show her breasts, but Zann persuaded him to pan up to her face instead. “Why is it always the woman who bares her breasts and gets the knife stuck between them?” she asked.

Sexual violence is an integral part of the B-movie business. A poster for one upcoming release by SC Entertainment, A.K. Art Killer, shows a paint-splattered naked blonde lying dead against a gold picture frame—the movie is about a murderer who hangs his victims as works of art. Asked about the moral implications,

SC producer Nicolas Stiliadis shrugged and said, “My distributor in Spain doesn’t even know what sexism means.”

The founding partners of SC, Stiliadis and Cappe, have churned out a dozen features in the past four years. Most of their movies are shlock, with one notable exception. Murder One (1988), a gritty drama based on the true story of a mass murder, drew high praise from some U.S. critics. But the film was ineptly distributed and passed almost unnoticed in Canada.

SC is notorious for its shoot-from-the-hip entrepreneurial style—often filming movies before financing is in place. Its first, 1986 feature was a sublimely dreadful horror spoof called The Pink Chiquitas, starring Sylvester Stallone’s brother, Frank, making his screen debut. The investors wanted a name they could recognize, recalled Cappe, “so we said, ‘Let’s give them a Stallone.’ ” Now, SC employs real actors, its budgets have escalated to $6 million a movie, and it has built up a network of buyers from Britain to Brazil. The company’s offices and studio sprawl through a lavishly renovated former factory. But Stiliadis, 34, and Cappe, 37, still sit behind facing desks, as they did in their first office nine years ago, in a room above a pharmacy owned by Cappe’s father.

They say that they may soon move their base to Los Angeles. “It’s very frustrating working in this town,” said Stiliadis. “Who do you make deals with? Who do you have lunch with? In L.A., you never run out of people to have lunch with.” Cappe added that Telefilm has rebuffed SC’s appeals for financial assistance. “Telefilm has created an artificial industry,” he said. “If there is no way for a viable company like ours to turn to Telefilm for business support, then there is something wrong with its guidelines.”

Bill House, operations director of Telefilm’s Toronto office, said that the agency has denied funding to SC films “specifically because of the sex and violence.” House maintained that exploitation movies do not need or deserve public support. He added, “SC is part of an industry that exists all over the world and has nothing to do with anyone’s cultural priorities.” But House acknowledges that some genuine artists have worked in the medium. Many film-makers develop their craft on the sets of low-budget horror films. And Toronto director David Cronenberg used the horror laboratory to create his own form of art. Cronenberg went on to direct Dead Ringers (1988), one of the most acclaimed Canadian movies ever made. Its plot sounds like that of a B-movie—twin gynecologists swap lovers, take drugs and commit suicide. But it is, in fact, an elegant tragedy.

Prom Night III, however, is unapologetically crass. The characters are shallow, the gore is profound, and the script is clumsy. Like any good B-movie, it is a bumpy carnival ride into the dark—a trail of blood to a dead blonde. And despite the subtitle, The Last Kiss, as long as there is an audience looking for a hollow laugh and a cheap shriek, Mary Lou’s grave will be open for business.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON