Welcome to Switchblade Cinema

If you’re going to launch a website devoted to genre cinema then October is the perfect month to do it. Of course, while all cinema could be considered part of one genre or another—comedy is a genre, drama is a genre—“genre” is a term typically equated with horror (and to a lesser degree, science fiction, fantasy and action). It’s often used as a pejorative, a ghettoizing term that indicates not only are these “genre” movies different than “regular” movies, they are also in some way lesser and therefor not deserving of the same consideration and respect. In what way they are lesser I haven’t quite figured out. They may not have the budgets, the A-list (or B-list, or even C-list) casts or the studio publicity machine shoving them down our throats, but the people who make genre films are trying to make something great, just like any other filmmaker. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, just like any other filmmaker. And around here I want to talk about them. Maybe you do, too.

So here we are a few days before Devil’s Night and Halloween. I’m in the midst of my annual viewing of the Halloween and Friday the 13th series (Jason X gets stupider and more fun every time I see it, and I’ve only just made the connection between the Crystal Lake holodeck scene and The Cabin in the Woods). So what better time to talk about horror?

Now, I came to horror late. Sure, I saw Jaws from under a blanket in the back seat of my dad’s Dodge when I was five (The Apple Dumpling Gang and Rollerball rounded out the drive-in triple bill, if I recall correctly). But I didn’t actually see Brody blow up the shark until years later, so in my young mind it was still out there in the waters near my home. Perhaps not surprisingly, I also never learned to swim very well. I saw—and more frighteningly, heard—Halloween from between my fingers when I was seven or eight thanks to a very cool big sister who also took me to see Poltergeist and The Terminator. I was haunted by near-nightly nightmares as a kid—swarms of killer bees, raging fires, escaped tigers, Bigfoot, blizzards (hey, I’m Canadian)—and shouldn’t have fed my already overactive imagination with sharks, Shatner, clowns and killer robots. So I didn’t intentionally seek out horror movies for a long time.

Frankly, I was a Spielberg kid. Jaws aside, I was obsessed with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (I still have the CE3K board game), Raiders of the Lost Ark (I designed D&D dungeons with booby traps straight out of Raiders’ Peruvian temple) and ET: The Extraterrestrial (the last film I recall my entire family seeing together in a theatre). I remember wanting to see Poltergeist precisely because Steven Spielberg helped make it—and despite a scary clown being involved. And I watched Jaws again on TV and got so caught up in the men-on-a-mission adventure aspect that I almost forgot how scary it was. Almost.

Of course, I was also a Star Wars kid. I saw it three times in theatres—I would’ve seen it a fourth time but it was sold out in its umpteenth week of release and my dad took me to see The Jerk instead. I’m not sure he was prepared for the questions I had afterward. Suddenly, I was obsessed with aliens, spaceships and outer space: Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Star Trek reruns, Star Blazers, Project UFO, Jason of Star Command, Mork & Mindy, Battle of the Planets, Planet of the ApesSpace: 1999, even the listless The Star Lost. I filled notebooks with drawings of space battles and I began devouring issues of Starlog, which opened up a whole universe of science fiction. I vividly recall the issue with Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless on the cover. Inside was a story on Escape from New York. One look at Snake Plissken—mullet, eye patch, cobra tattoo, he was like Han Solo’s scuzzier brother—and I knew I had to see that movie. Only later did I realize Snake Plissken was the kid from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, the same kid who kicked Elvis Presley in the shin in It Happened at the World’s Fair and who later played Elvis in a TV movie I loved. I also didn’t realize that Escape from New York and the Elvis movie were both directed by John Carpenter, or that he had also directed Halloween, which remains the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

Steven Spielberg may have been the first director I knew by name and whose name represented a certain kind of filmgoing experience that I found—and still find—irresistible. Call it Amblin-esque. But John Carpenter was something else. His films showed an unapologetic love for science fiction and horror (often within the same frame), and they had a rough-around-the-edges, lived-in quality; you could see the workmanship in every scene, the fingerprints on every frame, and that made them seem more real somehow. And he put his name right there in the title, his imprimatur: My name’s on this so you bet your ass it’s gonna be good. And I dove in headfirst: Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China. Each a self-contained cinematic joyride; each a rabbit hole down which I’d scurry, following their respective influences—westerns, kung fu movies, ’50s sci-fi, and deeper and deeper I’d go. Carpenter’s movies were a gateway drug and they are still among my all-time favourites, right alongside movies by Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, the faces on my cinematic Mount Rushmore.

The summer after grade 7, I took the money I’d saved up from birthdays and mowing lawns and shovelling snow and delivering newspapers and I bought my family’s first VCR, a hulking Panasonic VHS front-loader with a remote control on the end of a long wire (yes, remotes weren’t nearly so remote back then). It cost $374 tax included (I think my parents chipped in the last 74 bucks) and it was the best investment I’ve ever made. Some people look back fondly on their first car, but for me it was that Panasonic VCR. It came with two free rentals, and because I knew that first night would be a family double feature, I chose movies I thought everyone would like: Top Secret, a comedy I was dying to see and which 20 years later I’d get the chance to talk to Val Kilmer about, and Places in the Heart, starring the actress from Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper (two of my dad’s favourites; he was a cop and loved anything with a car chase). But every day for the next two months I biked 10 blocks to the video store to rent movies just for me at $2 a pop, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Apocalypse Now to Taxi Driver to Zardoz.

But I wasn’t just into science fiction and horror. In junior high, action became my new addiction. The Road Warrior, Top Gun, Lethal Weapon, anything with Arnie or Sly or Chuck Norris, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Robocop, Platoon, Aliens (which led me back to Alien, and then Blade Runner), Back to the Future, whatever Bond was in release. Actually, now that I think about it, James Bond is probably my second cinematic love (after the crush I had on Olivia Newton-John when she went from poodle skirts to hot pants in Grease; eight-year-old me just didn’t know how to process that). I remember renting a VCR for my birthday one year just so that I could have two and be able to make copies of my favourite movies: First Blood and Rocky III, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sudden Impact, and Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only (Roger Moore was my introduction to 007 and those two movies are still among the best in the entire series).

Then I got to high school and met a metalhead named Manny, whose locker door was wallpapered with pages from Fangoria. He became one of my best friends and my Obi-Wan of horror, introducing me to the Evil Dead and Clive Barker and Fright Night and House (ding dong, you’re dead!) and Freddy Kruger and The Shining and Summer School, which is the most horror high school comedy ever and left us both wishing we had a teacher as cool as Mr. Shoop. I got a job at a video store, the same shop where I bought that first VCR, and I broadened my film experience with Kurosawa and Hitchcock and Polanski. And I started writing movie reviews for my high school newspaper, starting with The Fly. Reviews of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Raising Arizona, The Princess Bride, Prince of Darkness, The Running Man, Bloodsport, Alien Nation, They Live, Child’s Play, Pet Sematary and Dirty Dancing soon followed. Silence of the Lambs kicked off an obsession with serial killers and real-life serial killer hunters like FBI agent John Douglas. I was devouring everything Hollywood could throw at me, but I was still years away, though, from discovering some of the best foreign cinema, like the Italian greats Argento, Fulci and Bava.

After a misguided foray into graduate school, I landed a job as a sports reporter for my hometown newspaper. At least the goalies looked like Jason Vorhees and there was often blood on the ice. Later, I moved to Toronto and became a film writer for the National Post, which sent me to New York and LA and Cannes and to movie sets and studio backlots. I’ve also contributed to the late great Eye Weekly, the equally late great Saturday Night Magazine, Rue Morgue, NOW Magazine and the Globe and Mail among others.

And now, here I am starting something new, which, as you can tell, is actually something that goes back quite a ways.

So what is “Switchblade Cinema”? Well, if you haven’t figured it out, I’m not sure I can easily define it. Like porn, I know it when I see it. The Wild Bunch is switchblade cinema, The Avengers definitely is not. Reservoir Dogs is. Oldboy definitely is. Texas Chain Saw Massacre is (especially the remake, which I prefer over the original). 13 Assassins is. Conan the Barbarian and Brazil are. So are Man Bites Dog and Audition and The Raid and Let the Right One In and The Ring and 28 Weeks Later and Hostel and Martyrs Mad Max is. So is Mad Max Fury Road. It’s blood, sweat and fear, baby, movies that flick open, taunt and glint in front of you, that cut and stab and slice, that knick you, gut you, dig in and twist, that leave you bloodied, dazed, scarred, or at least leave you talking. Hopefully, that’s what Switchblade Cinema does, too.