Splatter-Punk: Bruce McCulloch on THIS BLOWS
Satan Is Not The Thing
“I think Satan was more powerful in a time when we thought the world was simpler; that there was good and evil,” says Bruce McCulloch. I’m talking to him about This Blows, the new horror comedy series he co-created with sibling duo Cole and Aleita Northey. Since one of the most iconic memories I have of McCulloch involves him summoning Lucifer and playing guitar on Kids in the Hall, I’m curious to know how he feels about the Demon Prince of Darkness today. “I think it’s more complicated now but I don’t know if Satan is the thing.”
Satan is too simple for This Blows, which follows struggling actress Anna Gowan (Aleita Northey) as she learns to live with terrible new powers she received after being hit by a car. Recovering from the collision in the first episode, Gowan discovers she can make people explode with her mind, and quickly goes on to detonate the sexual harassers and general assholes she encounters on her way to work. The old pervert checking out her ass – pop. The customer saying he’d like to run his credit card through her slot – bang. That guy’s giggling pal sitting next to him – splat. It’s cathartic in that morally ambiguous way that makes the devil seem too partisan and sparks the realization that one person’s empowerment is another person’s nightmare.
McCulloch thinks horror can be empowering. “I mean, why do people like zombie things? Because some part of us always wants to take a hockey stick and take the head of a zombie off. Which is really, you know, our ex-boyfriend or our boss. And listen, I’m a 50 year-old punk. I’m punk. I don’t see her as a bad guy. I see her as responding to her situation and having to deal with the amazing power she’s been gifted.”
“I think good horror isn’t just people blowing up,” he says. “It’s something psychological is going on and something more important that – if you look at the greatest horror movie ever, The Tenant, the Polanski film – It’s people trying to figure out who they are – it’s about identity.”
Identity struggles have always been at the core of good horror – 'who are you after encountering the un-human?' is the driving question in everything from Frankenstein to Shaun of the Dead. For McCulloch, the theme touches on a deep obsession. “One of the things I’m obsessed with is a character in over their head. And everybody is in over their head. Everybody is going, ‘Who am I, mommy?’”
“I’m always attracted to the more human,” he tells me. “Star Wars doesn't scare me. I have no interest in seeing that shit. Like, none of that is of interest to me. The Fly is interesting because it’s about a guy who’s in over his head and becomes a fly! Like what do I do with that?
Bruce McCulloch would “try to blow up no one,” he says. Or at least that’s his first instinct when I ask him what he would do in Anna Gowan’s situation. “But would I blow up terrorists? I guess I would?” He thinks it over. “I wouldn’t? I honestly don’t know. I mean I’ve been in a few fist fights but I’ve never...You know, I don’t believe in violence.”
As the series progresses the shifty morality of This Blows gets tested when Anna’s boyfriend (played by Tim Carlson of Young Drunk Punk fame) poses the superhero dilemma: shouldn't one use people popping powers for good? But it’s not so easy.
“Well what’s good?” says McCulloch. “Should we blow up developers who are raising our rent? Should we blow up cartel leaders? Like, who do we blow up? I think that’s a question I can’t even answer that is hanging over this project in a really good way, thematically.”
The question has been there since the show’s conception. McCulloch tells me that before it was a series, This Blows was a music video. Series co-creator and director Cole Northey shot a video for the song “Zombie Eyed” by Toronto band The Dirty Nil. In the video, Aleita Northey is hit by a car and then proceeds to skip down the road gleefully exploding everyone she sees, (starting with her dad, McCulloch's long-time collaborator and best friend Craig Northey of The Odds), littering a sunny suburb with juicy organ meat.
“I kept saying, ‘let’s get something cool for [Aleita] to do,’ and then I remembered how much I loved that video and I said, ‘I think that’s a show.’”
Attack of the Zeitgeist
Aleita Northey’s telekinetic massacre in the “Zombie Eyed” video is tonally part of This Blows, but morally I think it’s something Satan would have been able to get behind: executing every smiling person she sees and reveling in their blood for no apparent reason. It’s textbook evil. Real classic devil stuff. The show, on the other hand is dealing with today’s problems, and let's face it, the man downstairs is just too simple for the charged social landscape of being a young woman right now.
“I’m never political,” says Bruce McCulloch when I ask him about This Blows’ feminist themes. “I’m using the energy of what Aleita cares about. She’s the co-creator of this.”
McCulloch tells me Northey’s real encounters inspired the abuses Anna Gowan experiences in the first episode of This Blows. A casting director telling her to lose ten pounds or gain fifty, the aforementioned bar customer telling her where he’d like to stick his card, these are based on real life assholes. The difference is, in horror we have permission to really do something about it.
According to McCulloch that’s probably what got such a hyper-violent project picked up by the CBC. “I think what they were attracted to – which is what I’m attracted to – this kind of a strong female character trying to figure out what to do with her power, and perhaps anger... I think they were on board with young fresh talent from CBC collaborating with me and something that really had something to say about where we are in the – a word I’ve never used – zeitgeist.”
“Sometimes I think when you make good art you get lucky and it’s what’s in the air,” he says. “And I know women using their power is in the air. And it’s always been in the air but it wasn’t probably as much in the air when I sold this. So I’m not trying to be political but… it’s always been in the air but now it’s fantastic that it’s coalesced in the – again I’m gonna say it – zeitgeist.”
It’s true. The zeitgeist is on the attack. Horror has shifted from fear of the outsider to empowerment of the other. We’re surrounded by minor evils, everyday sadists and would-be Patrick Batemans (Batemen?). We don’t need new devils, they’re too simple. They’re boring.
“It’s not American Psycho,” McCulloch says. “She’s a sweet girl who can cock her head and blow people up. That’s cool!”