There was something strange in the air last year and, for once, it wasn’t the smell of the harbour. Halifax---known as a “nice” city where drivers stop on a dime for pedestrians and everyone says hi---felt a bit sinister. It had nothing to do with crime rates or road widenings; 2008 was the year where Haligonians embraced the dark and macabre side of life.
You’re right, this wasn’t the first time people went on zombie walks or shot horror movies. But this past year, more of your average Joes and Jills started dressing up as the undead and creating music with darker intentions. So we decided to track down some of the artists, entrepreneurs, filmmakers and musicians who created work in 2008 that bypassed sunshine and lollipops for fake blood and guts. After all, as Vincent Price once said, “It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.”
Art, fashion, photography
The dark arts
Photographer and NSCC student Sarah DeVenne has always been attracted to “the dark and the odd.” Even in her commercial shoots for various clients around town, she plays with shadows and unusual angles. On July 19 DeVenne photographed a zombie walk, where about 100 people dressed as the undead shuffled and lurched around the Common, then through the city, many on their way to the final destination of Masq, a popular monthly themed costume party.
DeVenne loved the experience, although it’s a “crazy workout,” running after zombies. Her photos---posted on this issue’s cover and the zombie walk’s Facebook group ---capture the glee and freedom the participants obviously experienced dressing up in tattered clothing, with blood and entrails exposed. There’s an odd community spirit here, too, kinda like an organized picnic in the park. Really, it all looks like old-fashioned fun. DeVenne says it’s amazing who comes out for zombie walks. “There are people that seem so average, so normal. You know, ‘I’m a librarian but I have an axe in my head.’”
Of course, zombie walks only come around once or twice a year. To get her fix, DeVenne, along with friends Troy Kirker and Henry Townsend, stage gore shoots, involving models and props, with a cinematic gory aesthetic. “I have a lighting kit, you have molasses,” she laughs, referring to how the sweetener makes a fine fake blood. But the key to a good gore shoot, DeVenne says, “beyond the obvious blood, is that it has to tell a story and it has to have emotion.”
Growing up, Kirker, who is also a member of the Halifax metal band Hellacaust (more on this in “Murder sounds”), says he was “obsessed with horror films and splatter films and stuff like that. I watched so many in my life I thought, ‘Why don’t I start doing this stuff?’ I’ve been artistic my whole life, but I’m more hands-on, making props and heads explode and that sort of thing. That’s right up my alley.”
Along with Townsend and Courtney O’hearn, Kirker is building a special effects team, currently working on their first feature-length film called Splatterday Night.
“Splatterday Night is going to feature Hellacaust. They get a jam space and they have a party and it’s overrun by all these attractive girls and no one knows they’re cannibalistic and then it turns into an all-night gorefest,” Kirker laughs. “It’s ridiculous over-the-top special effects and gore and a lot of music. A mix between Dead Alive and Rock ’n’ Roll High School, but way more metal.” Shooting starts with the nice weather.
Kirker thanks the unholy trinity of Jason Eisner, Rob Cotterill (Treevenge, Hobo with a Shotgun) and John Davies (Hobo) for cultivating a new generation of horror filmmakers. “More and more people are getting interested. I think it’s been dormant and it’s about time someone did something about it. They’ve been inspirational.” (See “Scary movies” for more details on the film scene.)
OK, so now the city has horror movies and zombie walks and anything-goes masquerade parties. Gap t-shirts don’t quite look the part, do they? Another sign of our penchant for the dark side is the number of clothing boutiques opening up that cater to alternative dress. Fashionably Dead on Blowers Street is a dream for the damned, or for those who just like to make-believe. Specializing in goth, rockabilly and psychobilly fashions (with obvious ties to music), the store is a nightmarish dream of platform boots and buckles, latex and leopard skin. Fashionably Dead is Kate Rankin’s dream come true: She and her husband ran the business as an online venture for three years in Calgary before opening the store in Halifax.
“We’re huge horror buffs,” says Rankin. “That’s our main point of interest and inspiration.”
Over the last year she’s observed the local scene and discovered it’s not that different from other cities. “The themes are pretty much the same wherever you go,” she says. “I did find that when I first moved here a year ago, it wasn’t as much in the open as it was in Calgary. That was another reason we thought it would be a cool idea to open a store here---to give everyone a centralized focal point. A place where everyone could get together and figure out what’s going on and get their clothes.”
Rankin says the scene has definitely opened up and the response has been crazy, even from outside the punk and goth communities. Right now there isn’t a lot of locally made clothing, although there are corset and jewellery designers showing their wares at Fashionably Dead and other shops like Pretty Things Boutique. Rankin sells local art as well---there are gothic vampire prints from Alex Myers, and Becky MacKeigan’s cavalara paintings have a Frida Kahlo flair.
Across the city on Agricola, during the month of November, Rachael Parsons’ mixed-media drawings were displayed at the vintage shop Lost & Found. For a while it seemed like there was an abundance of young artists drawing naive animals, but there seems to be a shift away from that cutesy aethestic. Parsons’ people are mesmerizing---their sunken-in cheeks, shifty eyes and odd mouths. She draws them with easy, loose lines, as if someone (or something) else is controlling her pencil.
“I always like my art a dark side of funny,” she says. “I don’t consciously try and do that. A lot of things I think are funny are dark and evil.” Right now, she’s inspired by different phases of music---especially metal and country---and books on groupies for bands like Led Zeppelin. Sometimes Parsons sees people walking down the street and mentally catalogues them for later: “I’ll see a man who thinks he’s Elvis and I’ll delight in how weird or old or decrepit he is. Or I make them up---people I’d like to see.”
But it doesn’t matter what they look like, Parsons always gives them ugly teeth. “I just like it better that way.”
---Sue Carter Flinn
The average daily temperature in Halifax is approximately seven Celsius and the average rainfall is well over 1,000mm per year. This is Atlantic Canada; we see rain and cold more often than not. If you’re looking for a reason for the deluge of horror and exploitation movies coming out of this scene, that just might be one right there.
Or it could just be that we have more than our fair share of genre junkies: filmmakers who love the dark, the pulp and the viscera---movies fun and inexpensive to make.
On the vanguard of the local movement is 26-year-old Dartmouth resident Jason Eisner, who impressed Rodriguez and Tarantino in 2006 with his fake trailer for the Grindhouse picture Hobo With A Shotgun and who, with cohorts Rob Cotterill and Blindness producer Niv Fichman, will shoot the full-length feature in 2009. His blood-spurtingly funny horror short Treevenge, a hit on the festival circuit, was invited to screen at Sundance next month---a huge deal, by the way. And he’s still busy cutting his gang action epic Streets of Domination for release... soon, we hope.
Eisner enjoys watching movies almost as much as making them, and hosts Thrillema, the regular cult film screenings at the Empire 6 Dartmouth. (It started with two classics: Friday the 13th and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Look for a related horror genre program there soon called Startle Fest.) There’s also the Night of the Killer Reels at Ginger’s bar, an annual screening of locally made horror movies.
The bloodlust infects plenty of others in town. This year Sorcery Films produced the documentary Zombiemania, directed by Donna Davies. Michael Melski shot his own horror comedy trailer, Suburban Zombie Christmas, which, according to producer Chris Cuthbertson, has secured development financing from Film Nova Scotia and Telefilm Canada for a full-length script. Then there’s Jay Dahl’s internet phenomenon, There Are Monsters, a horror short that was a massive viral hit on YouTube in November. He’s aiming for a Halloween 2009 release for the feature version. And New Brunswick transplant Jason Shipley recently shot a short called Blood Shed, described as “scary, funny, gory, disgusting.”
It would be a mistake to think of all the blood and guts as a new thing. Remember Thomas Harvey and Josef Beeby’s El MonsterCabras? What about The Teeth Beneath? (Eisner again.) Or Coast film reviewer Mark Palermo’s 2004 cannibal epic The Killing of Kings?
Horror and exploitation are woven into our cultural fabric, like the rats that run in our sewers. Blame it on the rain, if you’d like. Or maybe, down deep, we’re all just evil.
There are certain kinds of music that have an inherently dark quality to them. Whether it’s a lone synthesizer busting out gurgles and blips or a metal band shrieking and shredding away, the shit can’t help but sound a bit evil.
Halifax has had its share of noisy moments over the last year. Local label Divorce Records held its second edition of the Obey Convention this past May. A melting pot of edgy music, the festival featured some of Halifax’s noisiest bands alongside visiting groups Nadja and Shearing Pinx (who also released a single on Divorce this year).
One of those acts was D/A A/D, the brainchild of Alex Pearson, who also runs the Snapped in Half experimental music label. “Both of those in my opinion---the first and second Obey Conventions---were two of the best shows Halifax has seen in the last two years,” he says in summing up the heart-pounding chaos of Obey. “I’d love to see a noise scene blossom here in Halifax, cause I know there’s people into it. Festivals like Obey help that become a reality.”
Already that reality is coming closer to fruition. The Black Christmas “unholy sound festival” at Lost & Found boutique (see also “the dark arts”), which happened on the December 12 weekend and was again put on by Divorce, featured a whole slew of artists making strange, unconventional music.
Halifax metal group Hellacaust have continued to lead the pack when it comes to creating dark and gloomy metallic mayhem. They released a new album this year, Disgust, and toured across the country. Guitarist Graham Ferguson says the metal scene here is doing great thanks to a new wave of bands that have started up this year like Terminator and Obsydian---the latter being probably the sickest teen metal band you’ll ever hear.
Shows have happened on a regular basis, and Ferguson was particularly pleased with all the heavy music nights at the Halifax Pop Explosion (Hellacaust played as part of the Diminished Fifth showcase). “They were all packed, and I think it’s cool Pop Explosion does heavy music now.”
On the noise-rock side of things, Journalists, Wolf (who released their first album, In Love, this year), ECT and Scribbler can be heard most weekends sharing bills with like-minded adventurous souls. If Scribbler’s bold contributions to their recent split with Pig and !Kung San are to be taken at face value, that band is mutating into a free-folk fright fest that will either delight or induce vomiting.