Saturday, January 1, 2022



My never-ending fascination with John Paizs’ Crime Wave led me to his follow-up feature; Top Of The Food Chain - a sci-fi/horror-comedy about aliens disguised as hyper-sexual human beings who try to take over the small Canadian town of “Exceptional Vista”.
Paizs explores everything from the negative stereotypes sometimes associated with small town North America, to the sometimes creepy & kinky things that lie just beneath the surface of seemingly conservative communities modeled after Norman Rockwell paintings. I know it’s lazy to call things like this “Lynchian”, but given Paizs’ coincidental connection to David Lynch - I’d say Top Of The Food Chain deserves the “Lynchian” stamp. 

Not only does the basic description of Top Of The Food Chain sound like a late-night movie of the week (or even a twilight zone episode), but Paizs keeps the same spirit & ambiance as the many genre films that came before it.
Between folks like Quentin Tarantino & James Gunn, there’s been a more mainstream resurgence of interest in “grindhouse cinema” (Grindhouse, Inglorious Basterds, etc) and old school Troma films (James Gunn’s background is rooted in Troma). My issue with all of this is that their films have multi-million dollar budgets which, in my opinion, is almost anti-Troma or anti-grindhouse. That doesn’t mean a movie with a nice budget can’t reference smaller/lower budget films, but when you’re Quentin Tarantino saying you’re just making a grindhouse movie with smooth/sleek computer-generated graphics and clear big budget resources - I don’t fully buy it. But that’s just me.

Top Of The Chain is in no way “low budget” but you can tell where John Paizs relied on practical visual effects & old school camera tricks that you would literally find in actual old-school science fiction films of the past.

There are tons of references here. Intentional & Coincidental…

Scenes like these from Lifeforce (above) & Top Of The Food Chain (below) are hardly the first to pull of moments like these but they’re both from a long line of classic science fiction tropes.
For unexplained reasons, the residents of Exceptional Vista always seem to be horny. The aliens use this to their advantage when luring their victims…

Lifeforce /
Top Of The Food Chain

And while John Paizs is his own filmmaker with his own unique style, I’d be remiss to not make some type of surface correlation between two exploding head scenes from fellow Canadian filmmakers…

Scanners /
Top Of The Food Chain

Another example of more recent practical effects used by modern filmmakers with the magic of make-up/prosthetics & editing…

Lost Highway /
Top Of The Food Chain

And while the connection between Paizs & Lynch is coincidental (in the words of Paizs himself), there is an awkward dinner scene early on in Top Of The Food Chain that reminds me of the dinner scene in Eraserhead

Top Of The Food Chain

Top Of The Food Chain co-star Tom Evert Scott pretty much confirmed that this moment (between two movies about aliens) was 100% intentional…

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind/ Top Of The Food Chain

Paizs also incorporates his unique modern satirical style. Like Crime Wave, elements of Top Of The Food Chain are presented through the eyes of generation-x looking back on the 1940’s (they weren’t alive then but their parents were). The only thing is the gen-x lens behind this movie has a huge smirk on the whole time. It’s respectful but still smirky. There’s lots of overly cheesy tongue-in-cheek dialogue mixed with the ambiance of Leave It To Beaver on edibles.
The entire cast, from stars Campbell Scott & Tom Evert Scott, right down to the smaller supporting actors do a great job of imitating the old-school b-movie style of acting all while showing those films respect. That’s another slight issue I have with modern directors paying homage to “b-movies” and grindhouse movies. 8 times out of 10 it’s like they’re poking fun more than making a genuine statement or paying a respectful homage to smaller/low budget films.

The finale is like an homage to The Night Of The Living Dead

The Night Of The Living Dead / Top Of The Food Chain

Or the very loose adaptation of Dr. Caligari from 1989…

Dr. Caligari / Top Of The Food Chain

and I would love to see these two films screened as a double feature...

Meet The Applegates / 
Top Of The Food Chain

It should also be noted that a lot of the skeletal elements of Top Of The Food Chain are a callback to Crime Wave (Sandy’s fascination with/crush on Dr. Karel is reminiscent of Kim’s childlike crush on Steven in Crime Wave).

I also hate to be that guy but there’s even dialogue in this film about a potential vaccine that can control the population. Given today’s climate - some might call that topical or even prophetic. Now…I’m pro-vaccine (I’ve had both shots and even had the Covid anti-body procedure for other various health reasons). I’m not saying the vaccine is bad. But the dialogue around it is very prescient and sometimes divisive at the same time. The scientist Dr Karel represents the pro-vaccine crowd while the small town locals represent the anti-vax side. Clearly this wasn’t what Paizs was trying to say intentionally as Top Of The Food Chain predates Covid by 20+ years, but it does play in to the simple-minded social media talking points where small town automatically equates misinformed or downright dumb (which obviously isn’t always the case).

If you’re a fan of Crime Wave, Kids In The Hall (another thing Paizs worked on in the past) or select Guy Maddin films, Top Of The Food Chain is a great continuation. The energy, which is more subdued this time around, is still a first cousin to the modern Canadian art films that came before it.
There’s a very strong continuous thread that starts with Paizs’ short films which went in to Crime Wave. the DNA from Crime Wave (which was birthed from the ideas in his earlier shorts) are all over Top Of The Food Chain. If you’re a fan of standalone films that also come together to form a bigger cinematic collage - I highly recommend Paizs’s work.


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