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Hobo With a Shotgun

Director: Jason Eisener

Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: 35mm/Colour
Runtime: 86 min
Producer:  Chris Bell (associate); Rob Cotteril; Niv Fichman; Paul Gross; Kevin Krikst (associate); Andrea Raffaghello (line); Frank Siracusa; Mark Slone (executive)
Writer: John Davies
Cinematographer: Karim Hussain
Editor: Jason Eisener
Prodcution Design: Ewen Dickson
Music: Adam Burke; Darius Holbert; Russ Howard III
Cast: Rutger Hauer; Brian Downey; Gregory Smith; Nick Bateman; Molly Dunsworth; Jermey Akerman; Robb Wells
Production Company: Rhombus Media, Whizbang Films, Yer Dead Productions

A fierce and grisly splatterfest which riffs off of grind house classics like The Good,  the Bad and the Ugly (1966); Death Wish (1974); The Warriors (1979); The Exterminator (1980); and Escape From New York (1981), Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (written by John Davies) is one of the more singular debuts in recent Canadian cinema. The film stars Rutger Hauer as the eponymous transient who journeys to the big city to, believe it or not, buy a lawnmower. Upon arrival, he quickly runs afoul of a psychotic, white suited gangster named The Drake (Brian Downey) – a huckster version of Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru with Tom Wolfe’s fashion sense and the humanitarian impulses of The Humungus -- and his two equally screwed up sons, Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman).

The city here is even more feverishly dystopic than the nightmare version of New York presented in its predecessors/influences. (The film was actually shot in Dartmouth, Eisener’s hometown.) In one of the first scenes, The Drake and his boys execute his brother (Robb Wells, best known as Ricky from Trailer Park Boys) in the middle of a crowded street using their preferred method: decapitation by manhole cover. Things only get worse from there.

Kids shake down their mothers for drug money; The Drake and his gang whack anyone who gets in their way – including an on-air icing of a news anchor (played by talk show host George Strombolopoulos) – when they’re not torturing people for kicks in their video arcade/drug den/torture chamber; a pedophile Santa lurks in the background; Slick sets fire to a packed school bus; the cops openly hang with The Drake; and a videographer pays bums to beat one another senseless so he can tape it. The only bright light is prostitute Abby (Molly Dunsworth), whom the demented Hobo believes is a school teacher.

As gruesome and grisly as any film ever made in Canada, Hobo with a Shotgun boasts the same, encyclopedic knowledge of schlock one finds in a Quentin Tarantino movie – and a similar campy, dumpster diving, post-modern self-consciousness – but the film’s well crafted crude-ness invests it with a weird and twisted kind of sincerity ala Death Wish and The Exterminator (which contrasts starkly with the well-funded sheen of Tarantino’s work), while the prominent cameos by domestic TV stars gives the film a decidedly Canadian flavour. Among the performers, Downey and Smith stand out – brazenly relishing their roles. Karim Hussain’s cinematography pays rather gleeful homage to the visual style of the film’s influences.

Certainly not for the squeamish, Hobo with a Shotgun may seem an abrupt, defiant and violent departure from the middle-brow aesthetics which have traditionally dominated official English Canadian culture and the auteurist image of English Canadian cinema. While conventional histories have presented Canadian cinema as an exclusively auteurist cinema – either doggedly cerebral or issue driven – they almost inevitably elide over significant home truths.

The most celebrated filmmaker in English Canada, David Cronenberg, cut his teeth in schlocky, disreputable horror. And we have produced more than our share of genre work that’s sympatico -- virtually since the early days of cinema here, stretching back to the juvenile delinquent movies of the 1950s; Julian Roffman’s The Mask (1961); Gilbert W. Taylor’s Flick/Dr. Frankenstein on Campus (1970);  William Fruet’s Death Weekend/ The House by the Lake (1974); Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974); Brian Damude’s Sudden Fury (1975); through Cronenberg’s early work, Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997) and Splice (2010); the Ginger Snaps franchise and up to the flurry of recent horror movies from younger directors (such as Warren P. Sonoda’s 5ive Girls, 2006; Maurice Deveraux’s End of the Line, 2007) – and perhaps most of all, Paul Donovan’s Siege/Self Defense (1983), which was shot in adjacent Halifax. Our filmmakers’ deep rooted affection for tawdry genres is even apparent in auteurists like Atom Egoyan (who worked on numerous horror based Canadian TV shows like Alfred Hitchock Presents and Friday the 13th – The Series) and Guy Maddin whose affection for failed and/or forgotten genres invests all of his films to some degree.

Significantly, one of the film’s producers was Rhombus Media founder Niv Fichman (who is best known for some of our most prestigious films including Francois Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, 1993, and The Red Violin, 1998) – an irony which only serves to highlight the elisions and misconceptions at the heart of conventional misconceptions about Canadian film. (One of the other producers was Frank Siracusa, a partner at Whizbang, which produced both of Paul Gross’s films, Men with Brooms, 2002, and Passchendaele, 2008.)

The film began as a fake trailer made as part of a competition co-presented by the website, Ain’t It Cool News, and the South by Southwest Film Festival in conjunction with the release of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007). Eisener’s friend David Brunt played the hobo in the original trailer and had a cameo in the movie as a cop. Jim Sherry, then head of Alliance Films, and colleague Michael Robson were so taken with the trailer they placed it in front of Grindhouse for its Canadian release -- which eventually led to the feature being made.

When Hobo was being planned, Eisener and his collaborators were asked who they might like in the lead role. They had dreamt about casting Hauer but assumed they would never get him. When Hauer and Eisener first connected, Hauer intended to turn the role down, but they found a shared interest – marine biology and the conservation of oceans – and Hauer eventually accepted the role.

Premiering at Sundance in 2011, Hobo with a Shotgun was voted one of Canada’s Top Ten films of 2011 by an independent panel assembled by the Toronto International Film Festival.

For a thorough history of Canadian exploitation movies see Caleum Vadenstal’s They Came From Within (from Arbeiter Ring publishing, 2004); Paul Corupe’s website Canuxploitation; or, on a more theoretical level, Aaron Taylor’s “Blood in the Maple Syrup: Canon, popular genre and the canuxploitation of Julian Roffman”, originally published in CineAction!, number 61, 2003.

By Steve Gravestock
Updated March 2013