There’s more than scares to surprise you in these boundary-pushing Canadian horror films

October 30, 2021
There's more than scares to surprise you in these boundary-pushing Canadian horror films

There’s still time to scream…um…stream a movie before Halloween, but what you may not know is there are a number of new cliché-busting, critically successful Canadian horror flicks among your choices.

This year has seen the release of a series of well-reviewed Canadian horror films, some of which had to navigate pandemic-related production delays and digital-only festivals on top of the traditional challenges faced by Canadian filmmakers. 

Titles like The Retreat, Bloodthirsty and Brain Freeze all came out in 2021 to “fresh” scores on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.  If this is the first you’re hearing about them, academics, critics and some of the filmmakers themselves aren’t necessarily surprised. 

“Notoriously, Canadians don’t watch Canadian film,” said Emily Sanders, a PhD candidate in screen cultures and curatorial studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

According to a report published by the Canadian Media Producers Association, just three per cent of theatrical box office revenues in Canada came from Canadian films in 2020. That number has been between two and three per cent every year since at least 2010.

She said it can be more economic for Canadian films to release theatrically in the U.S.

“Often, what determines if Canadians see Canadian movies is if Americans see them,” she said.

Director Pat Mills said the feeling among many Canadian filmmakers is that they’re “under the underdog.” 

“There’s American indies [independent films] that are, like, the true underdog, and then there’s us,” he said. 

However he noted his latest film, The Retreat, has been a streaming success, especially on the platform Hulu in the U.S.

Good crop of horror this year

Edmonton-based film critic Sarah Clements said Canadian independent films can sometimes be missed by the general public at home after showings on the festival circuit — playing to cinephiles at events such as Montreal’s Fantasia or Toronto’s After Dark. 

“They sort of just disappear and go on video-on-demand, and you have to be searching through the video-on-demand catalogue and stumble on it,” she said.

But for Clements, the quantity and quality of Canadian films, especially in the horror genre, has been impressive.

“I’ve watched more than I normally would,” she said. “I can’t recall if any of them from Canada have stood out to me as much as they have this year.”

Here are a few of this year’s crop of Canadian horror films available to stream this weekend:

The Retreat

Sarah Allen, left, and Tommie-Amber Pirie in The Retreat. In its critic-consensus section, film review website Rotten Tomatoes describes the movie as ‘a wilderness slasher that gore-hungry viewers should savour.’ (Quiver Distribution)

What’s it about?: A slasher film about a lesbian couple being hunted during a weekend Airbnb trip gone wrong in rural Ontario.

When writer and producer Alyson Richards and director Pat Mills set out to make The Retreat, they were very conscious of the tropes of the genre.

“There’s a history of queer characters being used as a murderous trope, and that was something we really wanted to avoid,” said Richards. 

She said that during the development process, they would often have to reject pitches to turn one of the film’s queer lead characters into a killer.

When the two were making the film, they also struggled to think of examples of queer horror films that weren’t campy or making a comedic take on the genre, Mills said. 

“Whenever you saw somebody that was an outsider or queer or implied queer or trans or anything that was different sexually, they were bad,” he said.

The Retreat was released in May and is available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube and other video-on-demand platforms.   


Lauren Beatty in Bloodthirsty. Original songs for the film were composed by Canadian singer songwriter Lowell, who co-wrote the script with her mother Wendy Hill-Tout. (Voice Pictures)

What’s it about?: Singer-songwriter Grey heads to an isolated retreat to record a follow up to her successful debut album. But when she gets there, she begins to transform into a creature with a thirst for blood.

Like The Retreat, Bloodthirsty portrays queer characters in leading roles. However, Wendy Hill-Tout, who co-wrote the film with her singer-songwriter daughter Lowell, has said the film isn’t about LGBTQ+ relationships, but about a woman struggling to find her identity.

She said the film straddles the border between psychological horror and drama. 

“There’s a whole side of this film that’s about the artistic process, and at the same time is a werewolf film,” Hill-Tout said in a statement.

Bloodthirsty is available to rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and other video on demand services.

Brain Freeze

Iani Bédard in the Quebec made Brain Freeze, which opened Montreal’s Fantasia Festival earlier this year. (Filmoption International)

What’s it about?: Fertilizer being used at a high-end golf course ends up turning the wealthy residents of a gated community into zombies. 

Made in Quebec, the French-language horror-comedy opened Montreal’s Fantasia festival earlier this year to positive reception. 

In August, director Julien Knafo told Screen Daily that while he’s not typically a horror director, he’s had this film in mind for years.

“There’s a little island in Montreal that’s pretty rich, and I thought it would be funny to set a zombie movie on it,” he said  

Brain Freeze, currently on Shutterbox, is debuting on a wider array of video-on-demand services leading into Halloween. 

Other films on the horizon

A still from the upcoming Don’t Say Its Name, which is still playing the festival circuit, appearing at Montreal’s Fantasia, the Calgary International Film Festival and Toronto’s Blood in The Snow among others. (Vortex Pictures)

Still awaiting a wider release is The Righteous, a film out of Newfoundland about a former priest who gets a visit by a sinister stranger. Clements says it is her favourite Canadian horror film of the year.

Also on the festival circuit is Don’t Say Its Name, a horror film about murders in an Indigenous community after a mining company moves in, and Tin Can, a sci-fi thriller about a new fungal disease called Coral. 

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