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More Dark and Light Cult Classics

August 2010

By John Yemen, Lost Dominion Screening Collective

John Paizs’ Crime Wave is a film that inspires great devotion among its fans. In some ways it’s the quintessential Canadian cult film. Shot on 16mm with rented equipment on a shoestring budget, using a (really) small crew on weekends over the course of two years, it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1985 and had a theatrical release in 1986 in just one city: Winnipeg – the place it was filmed.

Courtesy of Lost Dominion Screening Collective.

Overshadowed by a similarly named film by Sam Raimi that was also released around the same time, it could have fallen into obscurity. Also known as The Big Crime Wave (to distinguish it from Raimi’s film), it has reached new devotees through patchy video distribution, scattered appearances on cable-TV and pirated VHS-copies passed from friend to friend. Not yet released on DVD, it’s the perfect candidate for us to show as one half of the Canadian Cult Revue August 18 at the Mayfair Theatre.

The main reason for Crime Wave’s popularity is that it is a genuinely entertaining film. Unlike the films of Guy Maddin – Paizs’ fellow Winnipegger and another archly-stylistic filmmaker – this film eschews the more bizarre imagery of dreams and the subconscious for the lurid, melodramatic visuals of Technicolor crime films of the 1940s and 1950s. This gives Crime Wave a solid narrative and visual tradition to play around with.

The comedic tale of a man trying to write the best “colour crime movie ever”, it features Paizs as the quiet writer Steven Penny, a man who can come up with great beginnings and endings for his stories, but has trouble with the middles. As Penny never speaks, it’s up to his co-star – Eva Kovacs playing young neighbour Kim – to narrate the film, playing off of Penny’s deadpan expressions.

The preternaturally poised Kovacs does a great job with her role and pretty much steals the film from her co-stars. Interestingly, as an adult, she went on to co-host the evening news for 12 years at the local Global TV station in Winnipeg – another role where poise and narration were key parts of the job description.

Paizs later went on to direct some of The Kids in the Hall TV shows on CBC, and it’s clear why they sought him out. Absurd, yet still rooted in some kind of recognizable reality, his comedy has a dark edge that gives it bite without compromising the laughs.

Other than Top of the Food Chain (also known as Invasion) in 1999 and the direct-to-video Marker in 2005, Paizs hasn’t directed other feature films, and it’s a shame.  He’s currently the director-in-residence at Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre, mentoring the next generation of young Canadian directors.  It’s a worthy position for someone of his talents, and, hopefully, one that will help him find the inspiration (and cash) to grace the screen again with more of his films.

The second film on the bill is Skip Tracer, the feature debut of Vancouver director Zale Dalen. Some consider it an example of Canadian Film Noir, and indeed, it does share some of the characteristics of the Noir genre, being essentially, a detective movie set on the mean streets of Vancouver.

Courtesy of Lost Dominion Screening Collective.

Much like  Crime Wave, Skip Tracer has also suffered from haphazard distribution and has mainly been kept alive as a cult title through appearances on TV.  Better known in England and parts of Europe than in Canada, it has nevertheless been rediscovered by wider audiences in recent years thanks to select revival screenings such as that which occurred at the Ontario Cinematheque in December 2006.

We managed to secure permission from Dalen to screen a print obtained from Queens University and are proud to be able to bring it to the Mayfair for this rare appearance.

The film stars David Petersen as John Collins, a bill collector hunting down those “skips” who don’t pay their bills. Praised for an intensity in a film that explores the harsh realities of a ruthlessly capitalistic society, Petersen’s performance is the central driving force of the movie. He went on to a long career acting in Canadian television and various films (The Grey Fox, First Blood) as a supporting actor, but he really shines here as a leading man.

Emerging from the Tax Shelter years, Skip Tracer is yet more proof that the 1970s helped form the basis for the modern Canadian film and television industry. When they screened it in 2006, the Ontario Cinematheque called Skip Tracer a “Canadian classic”, and we’re not going to argue with that description. Like Crime Wave, we expect the cult following will continue to grow.

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