Sep 24, 2020

[Thursday Nostalgia] Frankenstein Must Be Snowed In

In its day, Frankenstein On Campus (1970) gained some notoriety as the first film to be produced with assistance from the Canadian Film Development Corporation, and summarily was met with jeers that such a film was funded by taxpayers' money (and this was years before David Cronenberg's Shivers received greater controversy for its public funding). The film (re-titled Dr. Frankenstein On Campus) was picked up for American distribution on a drive-in double bill with Night Of The Witches, but has been seldom seen since, except for sporadic revival screenings, or late night viewings on Canadian television (when they still showed movies). To date, it has never had an official video release (although, as of this writing, Sinister Cinema offers it for sale, and a funky copy can be viewed on YouTube). 

Way back, in a time before YouTube really became a thing (that is, when singular uploads could only be ten minutes in maximum length), yours truly had planned to attend a revival screening of this "should-be cult classic", at the University of Toronto (where it was filmed). One March weekend, the U of T Film Festival was scheduled at Hart House. 

On the Thursday night (when our tale took place), the festival would commence with Horror 101, a series of horror-related student films, followed by a screening of Frankenstein On Campus, with a panel of participants from the film! Scheduled to attend were the film's director Gilbert W. Taylor, writer-producer Bill Marshall (later a founding member of TIFF), and Paul Hoffert (of the band Lighthouse, who appears in the film's party scenes), with Rodrigo Gudino of Rue Morgue magazine, and Adam Lopez of Toronto’s After Dark Film Festival

Alas, I didn't go, because.... and this is so Canadian... Hogtown was hit with a freak snowstorm! 

A blizzard, coupled with wind and thunder, descended upon the city, which created a big snarl of traffic. (Our city usually turns into a commuting nightmare with the first raindrop or snowflake, but this was something else!) At the time, I was still working downtown. Our office had closed early because of the weather. I was the last to leave, either because I was still debating going to the screening after work, or just waiting it out to see how the weather would change. I now forget exactly what prompted the decision not to attend. Perhaps it was the hour-long streetcar ride to the subway (a jaunt that normally took fifteen minutes), after which I was too dragged out to wait around for an event that may have been cancelled for all I knew. Or if I had decided to go home and head out later, that decision would have changed upon arrival in our neighbourhood, when I had to walk thigh deep in snow to the front door!

Instead, the evening was more low-key, spent in the kitchen with a couple of drinks, and watching Larry Buchanan's Curse of the Swamp Creature on the portable DVD player, while making pot roast. Still, to this day I wonder if that screening continued. This week, I finally got around to seeing the film (via a squiggly bootlegged copy), and was reminded of that crazy day all over again. Art and life were in sync: that day's frustration and ultimate surrender mirrored much of Canadian cinema in a nutshell. Our movies could be sub-titled "Cinema Of Frustration", as many narratives are characters falling short of their goals, and our feature film industry in general has a pervasive tone of self-deprecation. (This notion is deserving of its own future blog post.)

Frankenstein On Campus deserves better than its resignation to bootlegs or the occasional screening, because it is much more entertaining than its reputation would have you believe, with its hip (though not jokey) sense of humour, and inventive ideas. It was understandably picked up for American distribution (such as it was), because the film doesn't feel Canadian, if that makes any sense. It lacks the self-conscious tone of so many Canadian genre pictures of the time. If proper film elements still exist, a boutique company like Vinegar Syndrome should restore it for a DVD or Blu-ray release. After fifty years, it is time for this Frankenstein to rise again. 

While I regretted skipping that screening as soon as I set foot in the snow, I smile while thinking of those days, for it was a true Cinema Paradiso back then. For three years, Susan and I worked around the corner from each other. We were steps away from Cinecycle, Queen Video, Trash Palace, Centre For The Arts (where I hosted my own screenings at the time), to say nothing of numerous restaurants and taverns we'd frequent between gigs. By the end of the decade, we were both gone from this location. Our departure seemed synonymous with much of the area's re-development. Many of our favourite haunts (and "slop shops") would soon disappear as the landscape began to resemble something out of Blade Runner.

Oh yes, about the U of T Film Festival. The Friday night had three programs (student films, plus an initiative entitled UofTube, followed by a feature, Drop Box). On Saturday, Super 8 films were projected, with live accompaniment by Guh! (Oh, where was I then? Were we still snowed in?)