Movie Violence

What Makes a Horror Movie Intolerable in Canada?


Last week Quebec filmmaker Rémy Couture's trial was scheduled for December 10, more than three years after his arrest for "corrupting morals" by distributing an "obscene" combination of sex and violence. The prosecution is unusual (unique, in fact, according to his lawyers) because it involves horror films—shorts chronicling the crimes of a fictional serial killer, which Couture posted on the website—rather than pornography. Under Canadian law, it is a crime to produce or distribute material "a dominant characteristic of which is the undue exploitation of sex," by itself or together with "crime, horror, cruelty [or] violence." The upshot is that films deemed obscene in Canada would not necessarily be deemed obscene in the United States. (Lest you feel too superior, note that Couture faces up to two years in prison, while sex alone, provided it is disgusting enough, can earn a pornographer up to five years per count under U.S. law.) Here is how a 2007 summary prepared for the Canadian Parliament explains the current legal definition of obscenity:

Whether there is "undue" exploitation is almost invariably determined by reference to community standards, i.e., if a dominant characteristic is the exploitation of sex or of sex and any other enumerated quality, the trier of fact must determine the community standard of tolerance. Would the community tolerate the presentation, publication or distribution of the material as presented or published? If not, the material is deemed obscene. As the Supreme Court of Canada pointed out in the Butler case, the community standards test is concerned not with what Canadians would not tolerate being exposed to themselves, but with what they would not tolerate other Canadians being exposed to. 

In other words, if you think it is intolerable, it is! This sounds like a variation on "I know it when I see it." Except for the fact that violence can make a work featuring sex obscene when it otherwise would have been legal, the Canadian standard seems similar in practice to the American definition, which hinges on whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards," would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; whether the work depicts or describes sexual conduct in a "patently offensive" way; and whether the work "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Indeed, Couture's main defense (like Ira Isaacs') will be to argue that his films have serious artistic value. His freedom depends on a jury's utterly subjective evaluation of that claim.

For more about the case, see the website created by Couture's supporters, which warns that "THE WHOLE ARTISTIC INDUSTRY AND COMMUNITY WILL BE AFFECTED" by the outcome. Previous Reason coverage here.

The provision under which Couture was charged also bans publication or distribution of "crime comics," defined as books or periodicals that consist "exclusively or substantially" of "matter depicting pictorially…the commission of crimes, real or fictitious." In March I noted another weird wrinkle in Canadian censorship: Depictions of fictional minors, including comic books, can be deemed child pornography

[Thanks to Charles Montpetit for the tip.]

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  1. What Makes a Horror Movie Intolerable in Canada?

    When that movie is directed by Jon Hess?

  2. Quebec, you shall be spared from the nukes. Newfies, Scotians and Fredrictonians, OTOH…

    Not odd since French horror lately has been exceptionally graphic and full of gibby, splattery goodness.

    1. Geez…what do you have against the Maritimes?

      1. PEI has been safely spared in its entirety. Anne of Green Gables would approve.

        1. Well, as long as I can get my clams and other shellfish, I see no problem with this.

          1. Here’s a shitty fact: they don’t have steamer clams or quahogs on the West Coast, at least not that I can find anywhere. And they obviously don’t import them. So I am reduced to making clam chowder with razor clam, oyster, or geoduck. It’s just not right, man!

            They have Manila clams, but they’re so laughable that they should just be ignored.

            1. At least you don’t use scallops.


                The razor clam worked pretty well. Oysters are amazingly delicious, but oyster chowder just isn’t clam chowder.

                As for ordering them through the mail, I wonder how many would make it to me alive. It’s a thought, though. I could really go for some quahogs.

  3. Won’t someone please think of the Canadian children?

  4. I wonder if Game Of Thrones and HBO will be getting censored anytime soon in Canada. Probably not, only the little people get stepped on in Canada, or anyplace else.

    1. At least they have access to healthcare!

  5. Slightly fun fact: Quebec has a different movie rating system from the rest of Canada (which of course has a different system than the MPAA’s), and I always seemed to notice a pattern of the US being strictest (especially with regard to sexual content) and the Quebecois being most lax. Now, I don’t watch horror movies, but to take a girly example I remember as particularly varied (which does include both sex and violence, though not really together), Legends of the Fall is rated R in the US, 14+ in most of Canada, and G in Quebec. Yes, that’s right, G–all ages.

    So, this is a little odd to me.

    1. I haven’t read the gritty details on this but most of the rest of the world is less concerned about sex and more concerned with violence. In my experience, Canada follows this trend.

  6. Lest you feel too superior

    It’s Canada. There is no such thing as an American feeling “too superior”.

  7. Eighty percent of Canadians live within one hundred miles of the U.S. border. They are under a bad influence.

    1. Best line in “scott pilgrim”: you and your tragically canadian sensibilities”

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