Canadian horror cinema turns 50

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on October 27th, 2011 by Eric Veillette

If a modern-day horror film were shot in the Royal Ontario Museum, a director might be inclined to set some action in the museum’s bat cave.

But the revered exhibit didn’t exist 50 years ago when Julian Roffman directed The Mask, a psychological 3-D horror film which made use of the museum’s iconic totem pole. Premiering at Toronto’s Downtown Theatre on November 10, 1961, it ushered Canadian cinema into the horror genre established by Hollywood in the 1920s.

Screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox this week, the film, a drug-use allegory in which an archaeologist blames an ancient mask for terrible nightmares and murder, has always been a personal favourite of Paul Corupe, a Toronto-based writer and editor who founded Canuxploitation, a website examining the history of Canadian exploitation cinema. “The Mask is one of the first Canadian genre movies I saw that I truly recognized as Canadian,” says Mr. Corupe, comparing Mr. Roffman’s effort – the first Canadian film distributed by a major Hollywood studio – to a spook-show ride at the CNE: “A little creaky and campy, maybe, but still thrilling fun.”

In horror films – from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, to late-night cable staple Murder By Phone, in which a disgruntled employee kills customers through the phone lines and Deadly Eyes, where dachshunds dressed as large contaminated rats overrun the city and the TTC – Toronto typically seems cold and impersonal, says Mr. Corupe. “The quasi-futuristic concrete architecture so popular in the 1970s appears a lot because it gives the impression of soul-destroying bureaucracy and sinister government agencies up to no good,” he added.

The TIFF Bell Lightbox screening of The Mask on Wednesday coincided with UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. Sylvia Frank, director of the Film Reference Library, says that while much attention is paid to the preservation of early cinema, many more recent Canadian films are in danger of disappearing due to limited restoration funds. “The Mask is a perfect example,” said Ms. Frank. “It’s one of the only prints available in the world.”

Both Ms. Frank and Mr. Corupe agree that the uncertain survival status of many early Canadian horror films is partly due to the intense criticism they received upon their release, but late-night television viewing, DVDs and the interest generated on the internet have kept them alive – although Mr. Corupe still awaits the horror film debut of the ROM’s bat cave.

The above article is a slightly edited version of what ran in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, October 22, 2011. Image: The Toronto Daily Star, Nov 10, 1961.

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Michael Gough, star of British horror films, dies at 94

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on March 19th, 2011 by Eric Veillette

Like many kids of my generation, my introduction to British actor Michael Gough was through his appearance as the butler Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman, but the man also had a lengthy career starring in schlocky British horror films from the ’50s through the ’70s, many of which appeared on Toronto screens.

My intention was to find an ad for Freddie Francis’ fantastic Trog, where Gough plays a scientist alongside Joan Crawford, but then I saw this great ad for Horror of Dracula opening at various 20th Century Theatres like the Downtown and the Midtown on June 24, 1958. In Hammer’s second foray into the world of  the characters popularized by Universal in the 1930s, Gough played Arthur Holmwood alongside Christopher Lee’s debonair Dracula.

The above ad claims “all performances will be stopped at a moment of supreme shock so that patrons may prepare themselves for the greater nerve-shattering scenes that follow!” Gotta wonder when, and if that even happened.

Although the film — and its double-bill counterpart The Thing That Wouldn’t Die — were both rated Adult Entertainment, a special children’s matinee was held at the Odeon and Scarboro Theatres on Saturday, June 28. On the Sunday, the Downtown held a midnight show featuring Cry Baby Killer with a young Jack Nicholson and Hot Rod Girl with June Kenny.

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Abbott & Costello at the Downtown Theatre

Posted in Vintage Ads on March 15th, 2011 by Eric Veillette

From September 13, 1955, a Universal double-bill featuring Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy and This Island Earth playing at various 20th Century Theatres, including the Downtown and the Westwood. Source: Toronto Daily Star.

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Tales from the Downtown Theatre

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on January 6th, 2011 by Eric Veillette

With the awful blaze that decimated the former Empress Hotel at 335 Yonge St. over the weekend, I’ve been thinking about the evolution of the Yonge and Dundas area — the former Yonge Street Strip. One of the most noticeable changes over the past decades is the disappearance of store-front movie theatres and their sky-jutting, neon-lit pylons. In the above day-and-night photos taken by John Wallington in March of 1972, behold the long-forgotten Downtown Theatre, located on what is now the south end of Dundas Square (Streetview shot here).

The Downtown opened in 1948, but is featured here on the opening day of the fantastic Amicus horror film anthology Tales From The Crypt.

In the week leading up to its premiere, newspaper advertisements for the film generated buzz when they announced that the first 500 patrons of the Friday matinee  would receive the Bantam Books novelization of the flick.

Many thanks to John Wallington for the photos.

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Mothra Attacks Toronto!

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on December 11th, 2010 by 32elvismovies

Well, not really. But since Lightbox screened Gojira alongside Mars Attacks last night, I thought I’d dig into the archive and share this June 1, 1962 Toronto Star advertisement for Mothra, the atomic fire-breather’s fellow kaiju. The “most monstrous beast ever created” — which could be referring to Rod Steiger —  played the Downtown Theatre and other screens. Horror and monster fans had plenty to work with that week: the New Toronto Biltmore was showing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Horror of Dracula, A Bucket of Blood, and depending on your definition of horror, at the Metro, Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy.

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