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Genre-Defining Movies Set For Canadian Cult Revue

December 2010

By John Yemen, Lost Dominion Screening Collective

The December 15 Canadian Cult Revue films at the Mayfair Theatre include two non-traditional Christmas movies sure to thrill those looking for an alternative to the typical seasonal fare. The Silent Partner and Black Christmas both deserve a little consideration for the Canadian Cult Film Hall of Fame (if there were such a thing).

Elliott Gould in The Silent Partner. Courtesy of the Lost Dominion Screening Collective.

The Silent Partner is a fun suspense film, set in late-1970s Toronto when the newly-opened Eaton Centre was the place to be. The cast is stunning, starring Christopher Plummer, Elliot Gould, Susannah York, with a special appearance by a young John Candy. It’s an effective thriller with a edges of both wit and violence (very sharp edges).

Still able to unsettle with violent depictions of ruthless criminality, it’s also a very well-plotted film, written by a young Curtis Hanson, who later went on to write/direct L.A. Confidential and The River Wild, among others.  B.C.-born director Daryl Duke infuses the film with enough visual flair to keep the keep this plot moving and the actors vibrant.

Some see it as a critique of Christmas consumerism, but its true pleasure is the portrayal of a younger, and possibly more innocent, Toronto. For people familiar with the city’s urban geography of Toronto, there glimpses into a different era.

Producers in the 1980s and 1990s (and still some to this day)  have argued that audiences are unwilling to accept Canadian cities as themselves, but The Silent Partner disproves that point pretty spectacularly, making a virtue of its location. It’s too bad there aren’t more Canadian-made films willing to make the same leap of faith and trust the audience’s ability to be entertained by the specifics of a Canadian locale.

The second part of the double feature is director Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, often credited as the originator of the slasher genre of horror films. I think that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho actually deserves that distinction, but nevertheless, Black Christmas certainly can claim to have popularized it, setting the stage for the later Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises. There’s a bit of Black Christmas in the later Scream films as well.

Margo Kidder in Black Christmas. Courtesy of the Lost Dominion Screening Collective.

The film features a cast of familiar faces, including Keir Dullea, John Saxon, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and beautiful Argentinian actress Olivia Hussey.

Clark later went on to direct the only modern-day Christmas movie classic, A Christmas Story, in 1983 (also using some locations in Canada). The contrast in tone shouldn’t really be a surprise, because a good director should be able to handle a variety of genres, and Clark was a good director. He was born in America and later moved to Canada where he produced his best movies.

He had a strong understanding of what appeals to audiences on a primal level and went on to inflict a different kind of horror on the world in the Baby Geniuses, (though it must be noted that it was successful enough to spawn a sequel).

In Black Christmas he displays a good understanding of what is scary, and how audiences respond to suspense. The key, as Hitchcock knew, is to gain the audience’s sympathy for the characters onscreen, before subjecting them to terror. It seems pretty straightforward, but this facility with basic human psychology is a skill that not all directors, or all writers, possess (though all good ones have it).

For directors, it’s an ability that won’t always guarantee awards for quality, but it will generally allow them to keep working, because their films tend to make money. Even bad scripts are usually staged in a way that engage their target audience on an emotional level.

Clark also owns the distinction of having directed Canada’s most successful film ever, Porky’s, proving his sense of comedy was as deft as his sense of suspense.  As with Black Christmas, Porky’s went on to define an important genre, in its case, the teen-sex comedy. It was not a critical darling, and a set of lesser sequels followed, obscuring the fact that the first one was actually a pretty good movie.

Sadly, Clark and his son were killed by a drunk driver on a highway in California in 2007,  a shocking end to the life of a man who provided the world with more than a few good films, and perhaps, a couple of great ones.

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