As the pandemic goes further along, I’ve been going down holes deeper and further to dig out interesting things to watch. This past month I’ve been on a stint of watching Canadian films. Does Canada have films? Yes — of course. Notable directors such as David Cronenberg, Don McKellar, Atom Egoyan, Bruce MacDonald and Sarah Polley are relatively well-known, and likely some whose films I aim to cover at some point. Canada has also brought forth mega-blockbuster directors like James Cameron and Denis Villeneuve, although they tend to work on American films.
This whole thing came up in a conversation where the question was asked, what are some Canadian films? There’s a lot of them but most people won’t recognise they’re Canadian. In the 70s and into the 80s a lot of foreign directors would film in Canada because of the tax credit scheme that made filming in Canada more affordable than elsewhere. These films would often feature some Canadian acting talent, such as Donald Sutherland, Geneviève Bujold — and the list goes on. From this unique situation a number of thrillers/horrors came out from foreign directors working in Canada such Black Christmas, The Silent Partner, The Disappearance, The Uncanny, The Pyx and a lot of other films that apparently start with the word “the”.
Canada also has a lot of great acting and comedy talent, but a lot of that talent opts to go and work in the US market as it’s bigger, more lucrative and most Canadians can pass as Americans in a film or TV show because, to be frank, most Americans wouldn’t even know the difference.
The Two Towers
So I started digging around and there’s a lot of great lesser known films from the 70s until more present day that are noteworthy. Along the way I found some curiousities, including a 1985 Canadian TV movie called The Tower, which had the hilarious tagline “CANADIAN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE”. Apparently this film was one of around a dozen films made by an ambitious Canadian TV film magnate Lionel Shenken under the banner Emeritus Productions, who found home for his low budget productions on the TV channel CHCH — a local TV station based out of Hamilton, ON. Sitting on the south edge of Toronto’s massive urban sprawl, Hamilton is a city unto itself, comparable to the population of Glasgow, and like many Canadian cities at the time, each had it’s own local TV station.
The Tower (1985) was an attempt by Emeritus to do a Michael Crichton-style sci-fi tech thriller, with the plot involving a master computer that controls the functions of a corporate office becoming sentient. This fares very badly for the employees of the state-of-the-art building, especially as the computer was programmed to enhance the environment of the building. After its self-aware awakening, it decides to “vapourize” people (through a process the computer calls Activate Heat Gain) in order to gain their “BTU Potential” so that it may power itself without tapping into the main grid. This the computer sees as an “environmentally friendly” way to continue to power the building and itself — a bit odd, and is one of the many loopy aspects about this film.
I’m not going to vouch for this film too much as it’s actually pretty terrible, but in ways very entertaining. The acting is very stiff and as being a citizen of the country, very, um, “Canadian”. The plotline and various situations the characters get into are also somewhat baffling. Of course the fashion choices of the time lend to a nice retro-wardrobe fix. I’m not sure of many people going to work in a corporate office building wearing enough make-up to mistaken for going to disco, but some of the leads in The Tower don’t seem to mind. With the minimal made-for-TV level budget, the special effects are quite low tech, including the countless shots of the computer’s screen graphics, which look like a cross between a retro text-controlled computer game and a primitive 80s version of Mac Paint as used by a maniac. The visuals created to represent the computer “vapourizing” people gave me a slight déjà vu feeling to the special effects used in the cult, new wave film Liquid Sky.
Equally odd is the film’s soundtrack, done by a mysterious duo of David Chester & Julia Hildy, which is heavily laden with synthesizer pads and swells, and odd, minimal patterns on what sounds like a mid-80s sample-based drum machine.
It is pretty stiff, wooden and low-budget and probably would only reap rewards for folks that like watching that sort of thing, such as myself. Apparently this film falls into the Canuxploitation category, which to be honest I didn’t know existed as a term.
Canuxploitation is a film genre that encompasses B-movies made in Canada, especially those produced throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s to take advantage of government tax incentives. Often derided or outright ignored by Canadian critics and cultural historians, these horror, science fiction, comedy, action and exploitation films present viewers with a film legacy that challenges a traditional understanding of Canadian movies as either languid art films or happy tales of Prairie life.
So that’s where the tax credit thing kicks in, as exploitation. Not as obvious as one would suspect, like a film titled Hockey Players In Prison.
At the same time of discovering this Canadian oddity I came across another movie with the same name, The Tower, that came out in 1993 and has pretty much the same identical plot line: a high-tech computer that controls a state-of-the-art office building using the “latest” technology. This version happened to be a made-for-TV affair as well, along with being, well, somewhat terrible too. And yes, it provided a bit of enjoyment like the Emeritus version however.
One of the main difference to this 1993 version is that the computer opts to kill those it sees as a security threat. Other differences include the set-up circumstances, which revolve around a newly hired marketing rep (who moonlights as a musician) and his first day on the job in the new building. Things go wrong pretty quick when Tony (played by American comedian/actor Paul Reiser) arrives, and due to his laissez-faire “I’m just a musician” type of macho attitude instantly starts making a mess of things and quickly drawing the attention of the security-obsessed master computer. Rather than working we find Tony on his first day talking his mom for ages on work time from his terminal, messing with his ID card, customising his work computer and being generally (obnoxiously?) oblivious to the building’s security protocol. And Tony also on his first day he’s more than happy to pull wisecracks whenever an opportunity suits.
In fact, it’s hard to get on board with Tony’s struggles as he’s just such an annoying protagonist. Needless to say his actions get him in hot water pretty quick with the computer program marking Tony pretty early on with a “MARK FOR DELETION” in its system. From there things go straight to deadly as the film continues on with killer elevators, murderous ventilation shafts, boiling staff saunas, death-defying jumps and lots and lots of explosions.
These differences in the plot definitely measure up to the fact that this version is an American production and we know that general market is all up for action and explosions, as well as being more keen to champion the ideals of individualism. But again both films have their almost identical plotlines, along with other similarities including the of use extensive shots of now-outdated screen/OS design. They differ of course, with the 1993 version having graphics more aligned with the time it was released. There’s also, again, heavy use of synthesizers, although the later film had more emphasis on digital rather than analogue synthesis.
But with all that I’ve forgotten to note one major difference between the two films, and that is what internet-savvy, ketamine-curious youngsters these days call a e s t h e t i c. The 1993 version was released in that time, the early 90s, when a number of films had this weird hangover of stylistic conventions from the 80s. The angular, tech, and urban chic of the decade previous got a bit more “slick” and muted looking in this time. The colours were still somewhat exaggerated but in more drab, grittier and more subdued tones. If anything the look of the The Tower has a feel to the third season of Miami Vice, which came out 7 years earlier, when the colour palette got more dark and threatening. TV shows like Silk Stalkings, which riffed hard off Miami Vice, fell into this same category and feel from this set of early 90s films.
Anyone familiar with the sounds and styles of the vaporwave genre will see that the look and styling of this film could easily see clips of this film land in some 1-2 hour YouTube vaporwave mix. All that obsession with 90s computing and unrealistic yuppie interiors. Heck, there’s even a shot of a sleek, black 80s vase in soft light against a dark blue-grey background — the eye-popping tulips nestled within, wilting in a time-lapse sequence. Now that’s a e s t h e t i c…
I could have stopped watching the American version early on in, as watching one version of The Tower would definitely be enough for most people, but I was curious and had idle time. I got hooked on the 1993 version early on though due to it’s awkwardness. There’s the menacing and evil looking sci-fi opening credits. Soon after there’s an interaction between the master computer and a pigeon that perches itself at the top of one of the main ventilation shafts — a hilarious montage of shots showing the evil computer processing the pigeon with the decision to MARK FOR DELETE, shooting the pigeon with some sort of laser? If that machine is going around exterminating pigeons, I certainly wouldn’t feel safe working in that sort of building! There must be some serious employment contracts to sign when working in a building controlled by a psychotic computer.
And also at the beginning of the film there’s Tony in his apartment banging out some flaccid, funky, electronic “wine bar” jams on what appears to be some sort of early 90s digital workstation synthesizer. Tony’s grooving out the jams in baggy slacks and fresh white undershirt as all the wonky, dated camera angles off his sprawling studio crammed in his tiny apartment — blowing off a little steam before his first day at THE TOWER.
You can compare the two for yourself as they’re both online in full on YouTube — you can check the videos below. I imagine they’ll both be there for quite a while as I’m taking a good guess that there won’t be much effort to contest any reason for these being up there. Weird technological terror tales for their time.
Footnote: There’s actually a whole website dedicated to Canuxploitation, with an exhaustive list of obscure films and TV productions, which you can check out here.
Plus a slightly amusing trailer for the 1993 version for the VHS rental market: