Monday, 19 August 2019

Hey PEI! We've Got an Arts Scene!

While reading John Waters’ latest book, Mr. Know-It-All (Pub: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), he hit upon something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:

“Nowadays you don’t have to leave where you were born. Actually, you shouldn’t leave.  Stay where you are and make it better! There’s no new youth movement happening in New York or L.A. that you are missing. It’s too expensive there for any revolutionary ideas to even breath.”

As everything is not so much location as it is timing when it’s not a coffee shop you’re running, a friend’s show recently completed its 6-show run - Meanwhile in Ward 16. This friend, Rob MacDonald, has been creating local theatre for what… more than 30 years now. Together, he and I have made short films, worked on a published book, and released a CD as Chimp (aka Chimp CA), among other realized and unrealized projects. 

Over the years, as both Rob and I have worked professionally as copywriters and honed our craft as writers of other material, I’ve gotten to know a lot of others in Prince Edward Island who are of similar talent and circumstance, and I’ve come to realize that we’ve all helped to create a scene here in PEI. 

We are our own local versions of John Waters, of Diane Arbus, of Debbie Harry. The thing is, we will never achieve the level of renown that these people have, but locally, we create something essential, and something that artists from other places can’t create for those of us who live here. 

That’s not to say that there’s not a lot of local garbage. Of course there is, there is everywhere. And who’s to say that I haven’t created some of that garbage myself? 

There are also those who dub themselves this or that type of creative person without the experience, talent or understanding of what it takes to actually earn that title. You can’t just call yourself a heart surgeon and go out and perform open-heart surgery, you know. 

And on the other end of the spectrum, there are Islanders who actually achieve success and/or recognition beyond our shores; painters, musicians, writers. And many of them remain here while helping to build the reputation of the Island’s cultural scene elsewhere. 

On that note, I think the Island’s film scene is genuinely exciting right now and we’re going to see more and more growth there, maybe even a few breakthroughs beyond what we’ve already experienced. 

The kismet of reading the above mentioned section of Waters’ book and the wrap of Rob’s show created my come-to-Jesus moment; realizing just how exciting PEI’s creative scene is, realizing that I’m a part of it, and understanding that its value is something I think we all ought to recognize and nurture. When work deserves it, that is. 

More than anything, I think, people who write, act, paint, shoot or sing crave a response. The arts are a conversation, and if you’re not responding, that conversation doesn’t take place. 

To make sure that it does take place, first and foremost, we’ve got to get out there and engage with local cultural experiences. And when we do, we’ve got to let the people behind them know that we saw their show, read their book, listened to their music. Congratulate them if you don’t have anything positive to say — all creation takes work, and a “congratulations” is wonderfully noncommittal. Criticism is welcome only if you know how to give it and you are invited to give it. Otherwise, silence is king. 

We're always birthing new people here who have something new to add to the cultural landscape, and technology has been making it easier and easier to share that work. We’ve got a pretty amazing thing going here, but I fear we don’t always know it. Or maybe it’s just that it’s something we don't notice because it’s always been around us, or worse, because of the misconception that local means no good. Whatever the case, I’m just glad that I had my epiphany. I’m ready to be ordained. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: I Drink Your Blood

I Drink Your Blood
Dir: David Durston. Cast: Bhaskar, Lynn Lowry, Tyde Kierney, Jadin Wong, Iris Brooks, George Patterson, Elizabeth Marner-Brooks, Alex Mann, Arlene Farber, John Damon, Rhonda Fultz, Riley Mills, Arlene Farber and Richard Bowler. 1970

Created to cash in on the surprise box office success of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, I Drink Your Blood is more of a day-glo affair, with a pinch of Manson Family grotesquerie thrown in for topicality. 

Horace Bones and his Satanic cult wander into Small Town, USA. After dosing the elderly Doc Banner with LSD, Doc’s pre-teen grandson Pete slips the hippie cultists meat pies laced with rabies, and rabid pandemonium ensues. 

I Drink Your Blood is a ridiculous film, but it tries so hard in all the right ways that it fits the bill exactly when you’re in the mood for a sick, comic book-style splatter flick. The tone is set by Horace Bones himself during the opening black mass, wherein he intones the oft quoted: 

“Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acid head. Drink from his cup; pledge yourselves. And together, we'll all freak out.”

Do it. 

Monday, 12 August 2019

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: High Tension

High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance)
Dir: Alexandre Aja. Cast: Cécile de France, Maïwenn & Philippe Nahon. 2003

Bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to the 1995 Dean Koontz novel Intensity, High Tension becomes its own animal with a twist ending that many have criticized, but which I feel gives it its essential and defining sting in the tail.

The simple story tells of two friends, young adult students, who head to the home of one woman’s parents in the French countryside in order to study. Once there, a serial killer attacks and takes one of the women hostage in his beat up van which looks like a travelling abattoir. 

The actors are utterly convincing, the cinematography rife with sickly colours, and the film is violent, gory and suspenseful with special effects provided by Italian splatter master Giannetto De Rossi who is known for his work with Lucio Fulcio among others. In short, it delivers the goods. 

During the climax (SPOILER) we discover that one of the women is the serial killer and has taken the other hostage, although we’ve been shown the craggy, 60+ Nahon as the killer until now. The reason for the chaos: Her denial of being a lesbian. Note, it’s not the fact that she is a lesbian, rather the fact that she suppresses it that facilitates the tragedy. 

While many have criticized this twist, ignoring the admittedly subtle clues, and saying that it creates oversized plot holes, I think it’s really up to the audience to fill in those gaps by accepting that what we’ve been seeing is a story told through the point of view of an insane participant, and so things as we’ve seen them up to this point are simply not as they’ve seemed. (END SPOILER)

This French film was picked up for North American distribution by Lion’s Gate who trimmed it and dubbed it into English. Needless to say, the uncut version in its original language is the one to seek out. 

Friday, 9 August 2019

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: The Haunting

The Haunting
Dir: Robert Wise. Cast: Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell, and Rosalie Crutchley. 1963

Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting is perhaps the greatest ghost story ever committed to paper and to film. Director Robert Wise had worked with producer Val Lewton in the 1940’s directing The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher for RKO, and so was well versed in the sort of psychological, shadowy horror found in Jackson’s work. Shortly after directing West Side Story and immediately before The Sound of Music, Wise returned to his roots and gave The Haunting the onscreen treatment it screamed for.

Each actor is perfectly suited to his or her role, inhabiting the by now overly familiar premise of a group of people who gather to explore reported psychic phenomenon in a haunted house, a massive one at that in the case of Hill House. The question here is, is the phenomenon they experience real, or some sort of manifestation created by the lonely Eleanor? 

Additionally, the score by Humphrey Searle, cinematography by Davis Boulton, screenplay by Nelson Gidding, set design and sound work contribute immeasurably to the film’s impact. This is an example of a film where all departments, much like The Exorcist, are at the top of their game. And for my money, the hand-holding scene, later aped in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, deserves to be included on any list of great scenes of horror. 

On a similar note, the opening paragraph of Jackson’s novel is among the best to be found in the horror genre or any genre for that matter, and Wise matches it with the film’s opening montage. Here, Jackson's opening deserves the last word:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Monday, 29 July 2019

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: The Fury

The Fury
Dir: Brian De Palma. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving, Andrew Stevens, John Cassavetes, Carrie Snodgress & Charles Durning. 1978

Like the idea of horror movie as opera? If so, this one’s for you.

Brian De Palma followed his hit Carrie with this blood and thunder adaptation of the John Farris novel of the same name. Both films use telekinesis in their plots concerning teens with psychic powers, only here we’ve got two teens trying to reach each other physically while a dastardly plot set in motion by a secret government organization goes off the rails. 

With its intricate plot and heightened tone, The Fury is often dismissed as a mess, but I love its operatic histrionics which are matched by one of John Williams’ finest scores. It’s certainly over the top, but what Brian De Palma movie isn’t?    

Fine performances, classical fimmaking, excellent make up effects from Rick Baker and William J. Tuttle (despite a brief bit of seam showing), and an ending that theatre-goers talked about long after they’d exited the theatre make this a favourite with some wise deviations made from its source novel.

Monday, 17 December 2018

This Fucking Movie

I'm done talking about this movie. Seriously. I don't want to ever talk about it again. It's the only piece of celluloid that I truly hate, and this coming from someone who saw Nazi propaganda films in college film appreciation class, Faces of Death with some college roommates. I assume people think it's funny to engage with me about it - to poke the bear - because they think my reasons for hating it are a matter of taste, snobbery maybe, or because they assume my reasons for hating it are frivolous.

I don't hate Love, Actually because I think it's silly, or because it steals its best scene from another lesser known filmmaker, or because its fluff, or because its ridiculous, or because no one gets axe-murdered in it. It's mostly because it hates you and you gobble it up. You're in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend, and as truly offensive to abused spouses as that comment is, it's the most accurate allegory I can make. I've seen cynical filmmaking before, even loved some of it, but your entertainment in this case thinks you're shit.

I know how crazy this sounds (It's just a movie), but discussing it actually causes me anguish. I literally forget that it exists, and then come December, well meaning people start sharing their love for this, the Donald Trump of rom-coms, all over my Facebook timeline. Some start poking me about it in order to get an over the top reaction. Sigh.

Everything you enjoy about this movie, everything, makes me see the figurative Trump supporter in you, willing to believe anything it says for God knows what reason. It grabs you by the pussy and you think that's okay... because it's cute. 

If I said to you, "Shut up. You're fat. Go fetch me a meal" would you think I'm cute? That's what this movie says. Whatever else you might think it says, this is its core. It might sweet talk you when it's not abusing you, but it will still say, "Hey ladies, give up whatever is important to you for my needs, okay?" Is that still cute?

Love, Actually is the only movie in existence that I loathe and that brings out such deep feelings of hatred and confusion in me that even I don't fully understand it. I think it has a lot to do with how smart people are drawn to it. Such harmless entertainment. Makes them feel good. By telling you that women are shit. Ha, ha. Such a good joke. Forget the film's shoddy storytelling and thievery. I get that it's a fantasy. But if you're a woman, this film doesn't like you. Regardless of viewer gender, this movie hates women, and that's fucked. Isn't that enough to make you sick when you watch it? 

I always feel like Miles at the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, running down the freeway trying to warn people, being totally ignored, when I engage with other people about this movie. 

Yeah, it should exist, yeah people should watch it if they want, but watch it fully. Understand the shit that's being flung in your face. Think about what you're supporting. Think about the lies you're buying. If it still entertains you, makes you feel good, then so be it. It might only be a movie, but it's an ugly and sick one. It's greatest trick is that you'll find excuses to like it. That's where I give it props - the very people it hates are its biggest fans. How in the hell did director Richard Curtis pull that off??? If it were intentional, if Paul Verhoeven made this, it would be a fucking subversive masterpiece. 

I'm sorry if I've offended anyone here. Some people I love dearly are fans of this movie, but I just finally - with Love, Actually making it's ninth appearance on my Facebook timeline this season - had to have my definitive say about it, and get on with my day-to-day. Love, Actually, you're dead to me. 

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

I Put a Book Together, and It Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done

I had an idea for a collection of horror short stories, each written by some of the talented people surrounding me. Contributors to Fear from a Small Place: Writers from Canada’s Smallest Province Unleash Their Greatest Fears were tasked with defining horror as they saw it, with the understanding that their story could be as short as they wanted it to be. Tying it all together was the theme of Prince Edward Island, a province that had been home to most of us at one time or another, or had touched each writer in some way. It was the fact that each of us had a relationship with PEI that was important here, not the Island as setting. 

I would edit the book, with my friend and co-contributor Laura Chapin doing a subsequent grammar edit, with notes added about anything she’d noticed as being amiss. I had a story in mind that I would contribute, and then I set out to invite the others.

Most people were interested in taking part, and began work on their pieces. Some declined or didn’t respond to my invitation. After my initial pass, I thought that the book could use a little more diversity in its make up, so I actively sought to diversify further. A few months later, I had to put that notion aside as nothing had panned out despite negotiations.

Disappointed, but not discouraged, my first “uh-oh” moments occurred. People began asking, “Why didn’t you ask so and so?” or saying, “I can’t contribute, but so and so can!”

Contributions began to come in, and I collected them, beginning the editing process. I worked back and forth with writers to make their stories the best I thought they could be without losing their personalities or the voice of the writer. 

I also began approaching publishers. Typically, it can take up to six months to hear back from a publisher, so I wanted to get to work on this immediately. I put together what was needed for submission, and I approached a handful of regional publishers. My thought was that the book would appeal most to them as Prince Edward Island was such a key component in the collection’s make up. 

“Interesting idea, but not a fit for us. You should try Acorn Press (a PEI publishing company)” was the response I got across the board. Of course, I’d already submitted it to Acorn. 

I was encouraged when, eight months after submission, I didn’t get a “no” from Acorn, and we started communicating, albeit sporadically. Acorn is pretty much a one-woman operation in terms of daily operations, and they have a sizeable publishing schedule, so this was understandable and expected. 

In the meantime, I continued editing the stories I’d received, and set about the design aspect of the project. I work at Graphcom here in Charlottetown, an advertising company, and my boss was a supporter of the project. He agreed to provide design and layout in kind. Another item checked off the list. 
Things were moving along, and up until this point, I’d been the only one who’d read the stories. A friend, whom it was appropriate to show the work to, asked to read what I had. I handed it over, and that was when I re-learned the lesson about not showing work until it’s viewer ready. To be completely honest, I believed that she hated it, and that threw me into a depression and a negative headspace about the project. Not a good state to allow myself to fall into with so much work ahead.

More stories began coming in, and I thought that our collection could use a more expected and typical dose of horror, so I contributed a different story than the one I’d intended.

As the deadline approached for all stories to be turned in, I sent out reminder messages to all, and gave extensions to those who needed it. As each deadline passed, it became obvious that a couple of writers just weren’t going to submit. Even with the best intentions, that happens. 

Finally, the submissions were in, a nice balance of fiction, poetry, illustrative stories, and even a short film screenplay. Still, I couldn’t shake that negativity that had crept in. I didn’t realize how much I’d let it affect me.

At this point, Acorn asked if I’d be willing to replace some of the contributors with other writers. I completely get that. A publisher is putting money into a project, and they are a business. As such, they have to make business decisions. Firmly believing that this project was very much what it was as is, I declined, but thanked them. They do essential and amazing work, and we need them very much. 

I then looked at how we could self-publish. One of the contributors worked locally at Kwik Kopy Printing, and I got him to look into cost. Once established, I applied for a grant from PEI’s Arts Council… and they promptly dissolved.

Keeping at work on the project, I handed the collected and edited stories to Laura. I don’t think she’ll mind me relating this part of the process, because we have moved so, so, so far beyond it… I asked Laura to only comment on the grammar at this point. What I don’t think I shared with her was that the negativity I’d been feeling since I’d received that initial feedback had me doubting everything.

A few stories in, Laura contacted me with “Dave, I don’t think this collection is horror.” And I absolutely lost my mind.  

I really did. In lieu of getting the “yes” I was craving at this point (not from Laura, from anyone), I heard only confirmation that the initial feedback I’d received was accurate. I was wasting my time and everyone else’s. 

Now I was set to hand the project over to any one of the contributors who wanted the responsibility, and I told them so. I laid out what was left to do from proofing through to the book launch and publicity.

What I’d left out of this account up until this point is the back and forth with writers, something I find very difficult unless they’ve learned to “kill their darlings”. That’s a hard lesson to learn, but one I learned immediately with my first professional writing job. Then there was the seemingly never-ending discussion about how many copies we should print, which I found stressful, but why? I guess it was just one more thing to coordinate and finance.

With my very public meltdown, public in terms of the contributors, I’d let off some steam, and was ready to move ahead. Yeah, I was embarrassed, but the truth was, I really did believe in this project. 

Moving me further ahead was the fact that Laura had finished her edit and returned with the confirmation that what we had here was indeed a collection of horror stories, many of them very contemporary in their interpretation. 

During this turnabout, a new government body that provides grants to PEI’s arts community was in place, and we reapplied. Happily, we were approved, though not for the full amount as the adjudication committee at the time (the members of each subsequent committee are different) supported the “giving less to more projects” philosophy. 

The book gets laid out and designed, published, we have a successful launch, we sell some copies online and at local bookstores (I get a crash course in what the latter entails, i.e. book stores take between 40-50% of the sales price), get some good publicity, including a positive review in Atlantic Books Today, and here we are. 
Reading back over what I’ve written here, the process doesn’t seem all that stressful. All I can say is that, at the time, it was. Oh God, was it! I guess that's because it's all laid out here like a blueprint, rather than the unknown as it was when it was in progress. On top of that, all of the emotion is taken out of it. Perhaps it’s all about the state of mind of the person who’s spearheading a project. Regardless, I’ve learned that a passion project can be a very difficult thing to carry forward, but it’s worth it. I’ve learned some other things as well, but I’m going to keep those private. 

I’m very proud of our book. I truly think it’s something rare, and it stands as a reflection of how a group of under-represented people - PE Islanders - express our fears. Contributors are: Kelly Caseley, Laura Chapin, Margo Connors, Marlene Handrahan, Henry Harvey, Don Heisz, Rob MacDonald, John MacKenzie, David Moses, Dale Nicholson, Laura O’Brien, Randall Perry, Sam Rainnie, Kent Stetson, Dave Stewart, Russell Stewart, Ann Thurlow, Rod Wetherbie, Ivy Wigmore, and Jenni Zelin.

Fear from a Small Place is available at The Bookmark and Indigo in Charlottetown, and here at  

Watch the teaser trailer below.