Then...From the North! Or, my weekend with John Paizs By Skizz Cyzyk.
In late 1998, two coincidental things happened to me. First, Cashiers du Cinemart editor, Mike White, convinced me that I should write an article about one of my favorite films of all time, John Paizs’s Crime Wave...
In late 1998, two coincidental things happened to me. First, Cashiers du Cinemart editor, Mike White, convinced me that I should write an article about one of my favorite films of all time, John Paizs’s Crime Wave. His idea made sense considering neither of us had ever seen an article about it.
Second, Jed Dietz founded the Maryland Film Festival and asked me to be on the advisory board. When asked for programming suggestions, I quickly piped up, "There’s this great, but criminally obscure Canadian film from 1986 called Crime Wave, that really needs to be discovered by a new audience because it never got proper distribution so no one knows about the film". I went on and on until I had Jed convinced it would be a good idea to get it for the festival.
I should mention that for five years previous, I had been trying to track down a print of Crime Wave and bring it to my hometown of Baltimore, MD. Talk about obscure—if I hadn’t owned my own VHS copy of the film, I could have easily gotten the impression the film didn’t exist. Year after year I would hit brick walls while trying to find Crime Wave: it wasn’t listed in any catalogues; every company ever associated with it had long since gone out of business; and web searches turned up very little if anything. Attempting to write anything more than a review seemed hopeless and I had no idea what to tell Jed as far as how to program a film I couldn’t find.
Then, as luck would have it, I stumbled upon a website for Winnipeg filmmakers, and there was John Paizs’s name listed. Not only that, but under his name were listed a few films of his besides Crime Wave. And that’s not all: the films were available to rent.
With new contact info in sight, I had two concerns: how could I bring a print of Crime Wave to Baltimore, and how could I arrange an interview with John Paizs? Within minutes I had all the print traffic info I needed and had been granted an interview by Paizs himself. I quickly came up with all sorts of questions about Crime Wave, as well as his earlier films and his latest, Top of the Food Chain, and emailed them back to him.
To make this part of a long story a little shorter, by February I had finished the back and forth email interview, written the article, and forwarded the print traffic info to the Maryland Film Festival.
Imagine my shock when MD Film Fest Programming Consultant, Gabe Wardell, called to tell me that he not only booked a print of Crime Wave for the festival, but he also managed to convince the distributors of Top of the Food Chain to book an April screening in Baltimore, five months before the film’s scheduled premier at the Toronto International Film Festival! And not only that; Paizs would be attending the MD Film Fest in person and I would be introducing him before his films. My article ran in CdC #9, and immediately began a small but steady flood of fan mail from people who have loved Crime Wave but either couldn’t find anyone else who had seen it, or couldn’t get anyone else to like it as much as they did. I described the film as "tragically obscure" without realizing how large, yet unorganized, the film’s cult following really was.
Cut to April. I’m standing in the lobby of The Charles Theater during the packed Maryland Film Festival, when I notice a man standing by himself looking a little uncomfortable. Sure enough, he looks like Crime Wave ’s silent star, Steven Penny, but a few years older. The first time I heard him speak I was shocked. There I was standing in front of a character from a movie I’ve watched a hundred times, yet this was the first time I ever heard his voice. It never dawned on me that he had one.
We hung out for awhile and talked. He was so nice. Knowing that I was a fan of his work, he brought a 16mm print of an earlier film for me to watch (which unfortunately, I never had time to do before he had to go back to Canada).
That night I introduced John Paizs to a very small audience who turned out to see Crime Wave. Despite my efforts to hype the screening, many people thought the $10 admission price too risky for an obscure film they had only heard of because of my incessant raving (in the meantime, the screening of the obscure Liz Taylor/Richard Burton flick, BOOM, was standing room only because it came with John Waters’ recommendation). Nevertheless, those who came to see it loved it and stuck around afterwards for one of the longest Q& A sessions I’ve ever stood through. Paizs was charming and funny, with his modest views of his work and his quiet demeanor struggling through his strong accent. Most of the audience wanted to know why they had never heard of his film when it so obviously deserved much more recognition. Paizs explained how his distribution deal was to pay him out of profits from the film’s theatrical release, but how the distributors had no intention of releasing the film theatrically. He also told the crowd about how he left the theater during the film to slip into one of the other screenings to watch Divine Trash, Steve Yeager’s documentary on John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. Knowing that Paizs was a big John Waters fan, it was a real thrill for me to introduce him to Mary Vivian Pierce out in the lobby. He seemed almost as star-struck by her as I was by him.
I guess word of mouth about how cool Crime Wave was had spread around the festival, because the next night’s screening of Top of the Food Chain was packed. Not only that, but the audience roared with laughter through the entire movie. Again, many people stayed for a long Q& A session afterwards. Originally Paizs seemed like he was shunning Food Chain as an example of his work simply because he didn’t write it. But his touch is obvious throughout the film, and he seemed to reconsider his stance once he realized people liked it.
At the closing night party, I was genuinely sad that he would be heading back to Canada soon. I gave him a videotape of some of my work and a copy of The Forbidden Zone (one of my other favorite movies). Days later he emailed to tell me how much he liked one of my films—even better Richard Elfman’s! What a compliment. What a relief that he was a cool guy and not some snooty film jerk. But he’d have to be cool to have made such unique and worthwhile films.
With my John Paizs Weekend behind me, I now spend frequent moments planning how to bring him back to Baltimore for a retrospective of his films, and how to get Crime Wave re-released so that it can get the recognition it deserves.
Top of the Food Chain
The Boston Review described John Paizs’s previous feature, Crime Wave, as "the funniest Canadian movie ever made." Almost a decade and a half later, Paizs is back with a new comedy, this time one armed with a cast moviegoers may have heard of and a script less likely to scare away general audiences. While being very different from Crime Wave, Top of the Food Chain still maintains Paizs’ trademark touch of absurd humor set in a 1950’s looking setting.
Welcome to the town of Exceptional Vista, once famous for producing "the finest damned nuts in the Western Central Northeast" (not the snack food but the kind you screw onto bolts—now the colloquialism is appropriate for the town’s residents). Nowadays, Exceptional Vista is run down and filled with bored characters obsessed with TV, fishing, and weird sex. Though not entirely obvious at first, it turns out that when the nut factory closed, the town’s more sane residents packed up and moved to the neighboring burgs of Right Hemisphere, Left Hemisphere, Bladdertown, Dunk, Walkadogathon, New Imbroglio and Fetus. When a comet knocks out the town’s TV transmitter tower, the remaining residents suddenly find themselves at risk of being eaten by aliens.
Meanwhile, Exceptional Vista is paid a visit by vacationing Dr. Karel Lamonte, a famous atomic scientist from the Atomic Institute, who speaks with amazing intelligence without saying anything intelligent (an amazing over-the-top performance by Campbell Scott). A romance immediately blooms between Dr. Karel Lamonte and motel keeper, Sandy Fawkes (Fiona Loewi), a girlish femme fatale who puts her incestuous affair with her brother, Guy (Tom Everett Scott), on hold in order to pursue the doctor. When mutilated bodies begin turning up (in the lumpy, bumpy part of town outside of town), along with government agents and flesh eating aliens, Dr. Karel Lamonte, Sandy, Guy and the rest of the town are thrown into a battle to remain at the top of the food chain, plunging the audience into sophisticatedly-twisted cornball territory.
This is not just a very funny film, it’s a tribute to classic sci-fi/horror films of the ’50s and ’60s (War of the Worlds, Them, The Blob, Night of the Living Dead) mixed in a setting that is equal parts David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and any silly world created by the Abrahms/Zucker team. Paizs’ directing is flawless with help from a brilliant script by Phil Bedard & Larry Lalonde, and amazing performances from the cast, each given very cartoonish characters to flesh out. Overall, the film serves as more of a tribute within a comedy setting than a flat-out parody, and as a result, comes off seeming familiar while remaining original. With pacing that never lets up, Food Chain delivers one gag after another—whether it’s one of many absurd lines of dialogue uttered by Dr. Karel Lamonte, or ongoing references to fish (such as a table laid out with all sorts of food dishes, each with entire fish sticking out of them for either decoration or flavor).
Much like Crime Wave, Food Chain is laced with amusing, yet mostly insignificant details. All of the male characters have women’s names (Michel O’Shea, Dr. Karel Lamonte, Mayor Claire, Officer Gayle, Deputy Dana, Jan Bathgate) excluding Guy of course. Two different traveling salespersons arrive in town at the same time—one sells vacuums, the other sells banjos. A Night of the Living Dead homage consisting of a country house being attacked by zombie-like aliens all wearing Polo shirts and Khakis. A seemingly unrelated detail earlier in the film involving women bringing a fish back to life and turning coal into gold leads to a happy ending—much happier than any viewer could have expected.
The sci-fi/horror genre has often left a lot to be desired, and genre spoofs often take that which is lacking a step further by being funny only to those who love that particular genre. Top of the Food Chain, however, rates high on all counts. As a sci-fi/horror film, it contains some good suspense and special effects. As a spoof, it lovingly celebrates the genre it’s spoofing. But overall, as a comedy, it’s humor is universal, not to mention gut-busting.
Top of the Food Chain was released on video in the US in November of 2000 as Invasion!
Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection