Guest Post by: Anne Millar
There is a seemingly unbridgeable divide between the two reputations of Canadian film making: the one stream of serious, thoughtful, depressing films on weighty subjects, and the other of exploitation flicks of varying degrees of budget, taste, and a penchant for the viscerally upsetting. To confuse one with the other is allowable only in the case of certified Cronenbergian genius, and then only with the tacit acceptance that subversion won’t get you all that far. For the most part, Canadian cinema is either homework, or unmentionable in polite company.
Why bother with this morass of generalities? Like most of what “everyone knows” regarding film, it doesn’t stand up to any sort of case-by-case scrutiny. But, like the rules of road hockey or half remembered childhood admonishments, it’s a framework that sits somewhat unquestioned under the skin of our engagements with the subject. The difference between say Ilsa and Incendies indicate there must be some sort of unbroachable duality.
What better vehicle to reconcile the irreconcilable than the duality tale of a werewolf, and, moreover, one that embraces both the ridiculous and gorily repellent? Wolfcop (2014) and Another Wolfcop (2017), both spawned from Lowell Dean, a man once referred to as The Saskatchewan indie film industry, exist not only as exuberant R-rated horror comedies, but in direct relation to the context of Canadian Cinema, with themes and concerns of more well-regarded oeuvres hung on the shoulders of—well, a wolf-cop. A werewolf’s a werewolf, whether they’re fuzzy at the moment, and a film can wrestle with conventional, serious issues even when not conventionally respectable.
This may seem a more dubious connection than the makeup effects in the two films, but much as both Wolf-Lou’s are products of Emersen Ziffle (albeit with an intervening stint with Weta), the Woodhavenverse is a manifestation of the usual concerns of more serious films. You would be forgiven for thinking this is a bit of stretch, especially given that the founder of Cinecoup, aka the Coup Company, the major production company behind both of these films, has outright stated that the reason he got into film funding is that he was sick and tired of Canadian films being homework— a duty to watch, not entertainment. That would be J. Joly, in the tuque to my right, and that most certainly would seem to hold true for Wolfcops 1 and 2. How could you possibly make homework out of sex, violence, and lycanthropy? Read on.
As a deliberate but non-nostalgic revival of the Canadian Horror boom of the 1970s and 1980s, Wolfcops have some definite chops. There is a certain natural connection between the brightly coloured aesthetics, practical effects, dark humour, and vivid blood splatter prevalent in what films have survived time’s fickle attention, and the academic consideration of the unrespectable edges of the horror genre has produced some interesting reflections on social expectations, criticisms, the boundaries of the permissible, et cetera. Four Canadian films– Death Weekend (1976), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), Prom Night (1980), and Rabid (1977)—all ended up on the Video Nasties lists in the United Kingdom, subject to seizure and fines for existing, so they must have been doing something right.
But I’m not here to talk about the video nasties. I’m here to talk about the other side of Canadian cinema, where the going is dour, the endings are dark, and misery is the only thing anyone has an abundance of— or so it sometimes seems. What comes immediately to mind are some typically heavy Canadian fare: the cancer road trip movie One Week (2008), the Alzheimer’s and aging romance Away From Her (2006), and the laundry list of traumas and family drama of Incendies (2010). Not that those are bad things or bad movies -- it’s just possible to treat heavy materials without having to leave the audience weighed down too. Sometimes catharsis doesn’t have to leave you catatonic. This is the ‘tradition’ of film being satirized that drives hairy Lou to uproarious laughter via grim medical drama in Another Wolfcop’s creature comforts cell.
I did have the very good fortune to attend the world premiere of Another Wolfcop where I got to watch Lowell Dean, the writer, director, legendary madman, do the 1000 yard stare while explaining that indeed, the grim squalor and rundown look of Woodhaven wasn’t, as the questioner put it, “an homage to the 80s,” but, quote, “that’s just Saskatchewan.” And so we come to the first point of correspondence, the repeated emphasis on small town angst and sadness.
Everyone I’ve shown Wolfcop to who grew up in a small/smallish/not absolutely huge town understands and recognises Woodhaven viscerally. Small town Ontario, chalet country Quebec, Lac-Saint-Jean, Nova Scotia-- we know this place. Even Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Texas have nodded knowingly. The economic depression, the slow disintegration of buildings and services, the tight circles of recognisable faces— that’s one of the places we’ve had to call home, to the life, irrespective of geography or language.
And while Another Wolfcop has a plot explicitly centered around “horrible poor small town given economic boost by outright evil businessman exploiting needs and addictions,” the previous chapter has the subtler touch of local politics being kept for generations within a closed circle of those who have power, and the forces of justice and order being hand in glove with local crime circles. Admittedly, this is for the slightly more visually exciting reason of shapeshifters, but the point remains: blow up your local meth lab, kids! O, don’t we all wish it were that easy.
All this to say, the small town horror show with inter-generational legacies of bleak suffering is not a novel thing on the silver screen. New Waterford Girl (1999), Séraphin (2002), even Les Feluettes (1996) have all dealt with various iterations of “this place is terrible and I want out”. The important difference between these and Wolfcop is the absence of loathing, of deep bitter hatred, and desperation to never return. Woodhaven is home, even in spite of its hellishness. It’s a big enough narrative to allow that, yes, poverty is endemic and seemingly unfixable as economic opportunities are only thinly veiled further guttings, and yes, local authorities have a tendency to be just about in league with local criminalities, and yes, power structures seem embedded in the same groups as time continues on, but it’s still the place the characters want to be better than it is, to love home in spite of its flaws. Albeit most of the serious films don’t boil the problem down to “alien lizards,” explicitly unaffiliated with any anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and the partial solutions to “explosions”, but this is also wish fulfillment. Dare I say, borderline magical realism, a small town fairy-tale but with murder, à la Babine (2008).
This was the realization that led to the core of this essay: Wolfcop is just a leaner version of Serious Canadian Cinema, dealing with the same Deep Important Problems, but with a lighter touch. Redder touch. Whatever. Every arty film school shot, every intricately crafted story loop of setup and closure-- but also every ludicrous gram of the premise-- is treated with sincerity and skill. This is just another Canadian film about a depressing small town, but it’s actually fun. The mysteries and traumas of the past are exorcised, evil is defeated for today (though never forever), Aristotelian concision of time and setting are acknowledged, but with healthy amounts of blood, sex, explosions, and friendship.
One point of potential correlation I am going to eliminate from the get-go is the Horror-as-Metaphor film, because unlike the history of werewolf films before it, Lou Garou’s lycanthropy merely is what it is. It’s not the ‘black dog’ of his depression, it’s not the wildness of his alcoholism-- it’s just, now, another thing. Sky’s blue, Lou’s a wolf, Tina’s the best, Woodhaven’s rotten. It’s a condition, not an illustration. Previous films have played very Meaningful Themes within lycanthropy— Ginger Snaps (2000) has a lot to unpack, but even a very pumpkin spice reading gives you “puberty is hard and the expectations of womanhood from girls are Demanding,” and, on a trivial note, the earliest Canadian horror film, a lost film from 1913 called The Werewolf, seemed to use ghostly lycanthropy as intergenerational revenge for wrongs done to indigenous women.
Subtlety does not factor into Dean’s creation, fully embracing the possibilities of an R rating. The ‘r’ is for Art, and realism, ripping the veil off the grittiness of life— and, let’s not deceive ourselves, nudity usually figures, whether critically acclaimed or less so. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), among the most lauded films in Canadian history, is pretty, has acts of brutality and violence, and features a lot of sex and dramatic male nudity, ending with an act of communal reparation after a fantasy battle. Wolfcop is funny, full of brutal violence, notable sex scenes and the infamous official hashtag #Wolfcock transformation sequence, and ends with a fantasy battle and healed interpersonal relations among the survivors.
The robust sexuality of both Wolfcop films is also a welcome change of pace. We forgo the staple of many werewolf plot lines: the coy murmurs about “the animal within.” Metaphors are for people with more than 17 days of shooting scheduled. Both films feature extended sex scenes in the fluffy altogether, lit in tones reminiscent of inner cover illustrations on romance novels, with Gowan singing passionately in the background. You can embrace being both explicit and ridiculous, bizarre and yet still fun to watch. Additionally, Willie Higgins’ presence as an in-text canonically explicitly non tragic bisexual, who just happens to be surrounded by two things he loves (weaponry and pretty people), is similarly a relief. Sex in your film doesn’t have to be stressful, and queer representation doesn’t have to be either a martyr or personal perfection.
Having eliminated two main avenues, how then can I link the worries of Woodhaven to the trauma dramas of less niche film goers? Even as Another Wolfcop explicitly mocks the cinema of heartstring suffering, it follows many of the same threads. The aforementioned intergenerational suffering, dealing with the fallout of tragedy, confronting mortality, depression and substance abuse: all of these feature prominently in the canon of Canadiana, and the background of Woodhaven and our heroes. Both Lou Garou and Tina Walsh, our main protagonists, lose their fathers to murder at a young age, and both develop unhealthy adaptations to this loss. In the first film, Tina has adopted a certain over-precision, for example loading up on mint gum before heading to a firefight—but by the second film is demonstrating a definite callousness towards human life. However, this is not a gritty look at the melancholy of maladaptive habits: this is Woodhaven, where the sheer chaos mode of survival means that these are the means by which you flourish.
Similarly, Lou is introduced as a barely functional alcoholic, living in squalor, and eking out an existence as a failure to his father’s memory. He writes in his notebook about his continued mourning, and drinks, to the contempt of both the people around him and himself. This is not having the luxury of a breakdown, but having to keep going. It's fine because it has to be. It's okay because what other option is there. Before he becomes a werewolf, this is less existence than endurance, in a hopeless, decaying town. Finding your groove of competence and confidence, even if as a murderous vigilante, is perhaps not a recommendable route to self-actualization, but in the context of a werewolf movie, it’s a better ending than most. In both films, Lou defines his hairy situation as who he wants to be: to the objection that his barely verbal self is a wolf, he replies in protest, “Cop.”
Realistic depictions of depression are a bit heavy, but these films are not, because Dean has the courage to follow through on his premise. Solving the mystery of the town and their particular family wounds doesn’t solve everything, but it gives a certain peace of mind. Lou and Tina, and in the sequel Willie, Kat, and Daisy too, are only able to save the day by working together. Because the other half of all that depression talk is, you are not alone.
One of the complaints received by Lowell Dean about Wolfcop was that it was insufficiently Canadian...but only to Canadians. Woodhaven occupies a strange Saskadakota, with sheriffs, Willie’s accent, and American flags, but also CP trains and other hallmarks of life north of the border. This was a deliberate setting choice, and where homage comes in: the very nebulous setting of many Canadian films where the details are all Canadian, but the stated facts are somewhat American flavoured. It didn’t work out so well, according to Dean— Americans were super pumped by the foreign Canadian setting, while certain persons were unimpressed by the lack of Canadiana.
As with a lot of things, spite is a wonderful motivator: for the second iteration, Woodhaven leans into that opposite Canadian cinema tradition— aggressive localism. This isn’t just to unify the fact that Woodhaven is now shot in Ontario as well as Saskatchewan, but it certainly helps. Significant amounts of time are spent on plot devices that are not only Canada-specific, but stereotypic: hockey, bilingualism, and ‘local’ celebrity bingo.
Heretical as it may be, I have never been keen on the plethora of hockey films produced in tribute to the game for which Canada is known. Perhaps it’s just a lack of team spirit, or an overly cynical eye for the nationalistic overtones, but from Goon (2011; sequel 2017) to Le Rocket (2005), bro-comedy to docu-drama, I try to sit these out. Nonetheless, hockey is a recurring subject for aggressively Canadian cinema, and Another Wolfcop is no exception, with the climactic showdown centered on a local hockey team and arena bloodbath. Understandably, as the evil hockey players are slaughtered to a one, this is now my favourite sport movie.
While it may come off as a given, Canadian bilingualism is an incredibly distinctive feature, and I don’t just say this as a lifelong resident of la belle province. Wolfcop of course opens with the o-so-subtle reveal that, even before things get hairy, our protagonist has been saddled with the name “Lou Garou,” and Another Wolfcop doubles down on the Grade 2 French class puns with Club Phoque. Friendship ended with Bon Cop Bad Cop. Curiously, the Woodhaven saga is far from the first Canadian horror film to exploit the linguistic double life, as approximately a third of the dialogue in The Pyx (1973) is en français, suitable for a tragic drama hurriedly repackaged as a horror film rather than a meditation on encounters with evil. Another Wolfcop’s actual French content, apart from one single line of dialogue, is a blood-soaked bilingual rendition of “O Canada,” much like Playgirl Killer (1968) keeps French confined to the opening song and nightclub sequence. We’re all for culture if it doesn’t slow down foreign market sales.
To be significantly less flippant, Another Wolfcop is a wonder of the Canadian celebrity bingo game, the ouroboros of actor/character, blurring the line of fictional and personal identification. Suffice to say, the prolific production rate of Canadian projects, with the constant visibility of a frequently recycled actor population appearing here and there and everywhere. Thus the identification of an actor with a character can bleed into the perception of another character portrayed by the same person. Two roles in Another Wolfcop uses appearance and recognition in direct opposition. Gowan, already a distinctive presence in the soundtrack, appears in a minor role in most of his own stage clothes and emblematic hair/makeup, while being explicitly an evil alien hockey organist. Yannick Bisson is an excellent actor, but even as he gets to swear, murder and be gleefully evil in the first 5 minutes, the audience is haunted by Inspector Soft Vulnerable Anime Eyes Murdoch, after over a decade of seeing him weekly on the CBC. This delightful disconnect between what is being shown and what is known by the audience, bleed over between what we know of a character and character type, isn’t just for play. The aging Holocaust survivor revenge tale, Remember (2015), hinges one of its blows on what for many is the most known role of Christopher Plummer in a very different film—The Sound of Music (1965). In spite of what the censors may say, part of the act of watching a film is in knowing you are watching a film, and the mind is a marvelous maker of connections.
So, after all this, am I merely talking nonsense? Am I just a normally invested fan trying to justify my interests? At this point, probably not, but that’s not a bad thing. I have walked through two blizzards and twice across midnight Toronto, I have sung Moonlight Desires to a full cinema for a bag of merch, both J. Joly and Gowan recognize me on sight as “That girl dressed as Tina,” and have given me unprompted affection. Amy Matysio is a sweetheart, and one of my best examples of the merits of respectfully meeting people while cosplaying their character. I have burrowed deep into my comfort watching, and it has rewarded me with—well, this essay, for better or worse. One of the greatest strengths of genre cinema in my view is the freedom therein to look at the world, both critically and compassionately, since you’ve already passed beyond the pale bounds of decency.
There is a certain weariness in only allowing Deep and Serious films to be allowed to tackle Deep and Serious themes, or to be well crafted, to be these tokens of respectability when you say you’re “in” to film. Life’s too short to approve only of preapproved cinema. Maybe these films don’t set your heart on fire like they most unfortunately did mine. But if something matters to you, even in all its silliness, it can be picked apart for more, or left on the surface because that’s good too. I’ll concede, the only p