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    Categories: Movies

Cinema Canadiana: Strange Brew

Directed by Rick Moranis & Dave Thomas

Good day, eh?

In case you weren’t around in the early 1980s, there were a couple of hosers named Bob and Doug McKenzie who were your lovable, average toque-wearing, beer-drinking, doughnut-eating, back bacon-frying, hockey-loving brothers who had their own television show called the Great White North. It was all about Canada, eh? There was a couch, a crudely drawn map of the country (appropriately labeled Great White North, natch), and a whole lot of boxes of beer as set decoration.

Side note: if you’re not getting the lingo complete with the McKenzies’ voices in your head as you read this, you really should stop now and watch the movie. That’s because I’m not going to stop writing it. If you don’t like it, you can take off, eh.

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas are Bob and Doug, or is it the other way around? Nope, I’m pretty sure I got that right.

With these characters that they originated on the grand ol’ days of SCTV (at one time actually filmed in Edmonton but prominently regarded across the continent), their skit called The Great White North was a fine vehicle for discussion of all things Canuck: winter, hockey, beer, doughnuts, snow tires, and what to do when you’re out camping but you forgot a spatula for flipping the back bacon. All the while, the brothers would razz each other with jokes and pranks in a way that made them lesser hosts perhaps but immensely enjoyable to watch. You wished to be one of them. They were a good couple of guys.

People loved these guys. Cities of people would celebrate Bob and Doug Days across the country. No joke! Rolling Stone magazine even did a feature article on the two nerds from Canada.

So the opportunity came around for their big break onto the big screen. Back in those days, Saturday Night Live had just had a major hit with sending the Blues Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi) to the theatres. That was the first time that they had transitioned TV sketch comedy characters into movie stars.

So why shouldn’t Bob and Doug follow suit? SCTV, like SNL, was a sketch comedy wellspring but maybe there was something about the overall premise that restricted creative crossovers. You see, it was a show about a network in the wonderful weird world of Melonville. Some of the players here are people that became major talents throughout Hollywood: John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, Martin Short, Harold Ramis, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, not to mention our wondrous duo Moranis and Thomas. This was fertile ground so it was a touch disappointing that only the McKenzies gained feature film prominence out of it. Perhaps there’s still a chance for Ed Grimley…

The network consisted of a bunch of shows, the Great White North being but one. There was the soap opera The Days of the Week, the news program with Floyd Robertson and Earl Camembert (Flaherty and Levy), various variety shows within the show, commercials, and Monster Chiller Horror Theater featuring the inimitable (although endlessly imitable) Count Floyd (one of Flaherty’s signature characters) as host. This is the programme where Ed Grimley (Short) first made his appearance. I’m still endlessly bemused by commercials for Tex and Edna Boil’s Organ Emporium (Levy and Martin) and the Battle of the PBS Stars special wherein Mr. Rogers (Short) goes head to head and toe to toe with Julia Childs (Candy). That was a good boxing match, actually.

And Bob and Doug made their first appearance in SCTV’s third season, 1980-81, the one year that it was filmed at Allard Studios, right here in sunny Edmonton. The city needs to hold its head high that somewhere somehow it helped spawn a couple of beer swill belching hosers wearing lumberjack flannels to regale us with their chicanery and buffoonery. Or something like that. They’re like the more wholesome, less offensive forebears of the Trailer Park Boys. A few years back, Avenue Magazine made a pitch to commemorate these everyman heroes with some kind of public statue or somesuch art piece. Nothing came of it but the pitch was solid, I thought. Maybe there’s still some machinations happening behind the scenes. If only Camembert and Robertson were here to report on the public prodding and the backroom dealing…

Anyhoo… koo-lookookoo-kookoo-kookoooo, koo-lookookoo-kookoo-kookoooo. (note: look that up. It’s the theme song.)

Strange Brew was released on a beautiful day in 1983. Just as SCTV was a kind of ‘behind the scenes’ show, this movie was slightly meta, or even possibly meta meta as it starts off with the fellas attending the screening of their new sci-fi film The Mutants of 2051 A.D.

They’re there sitting on set on their usual sofa with the projector and a little pull-down screen. I mean, a film that shows two guys projecting a film and interacting with the audience while the same two guys are in the audience sitting in the theatre watching the film? Now, that’s smart. Well, smart-ish…

Strange Brew the larger movie, overall, is patently dumb despite being based on some wonderful source material. It took me probably the better part of a decade to mature into a late teenager, getting past high school years and secondary level English classes before I could put two and two together. The brother usurps his brother and takes power? And he quickly marries his brother’s widow? The two buffoons merrily stumble through a serious family conflict? A castle by the name of Elsinore? It can only be Shakespeare’s Hamlet as translated to an early 1980s Ontario brewery town and on the verge of Oktoberfest too. There might be fewer soliloquies and less swordplay but there is a gnarly scene of hockey players dressed like Star Wars, some ominous ghosts and special effects. Oh, and a flying dog named Hosehead. I’m serious. He’s painted like a skunk, loves beer, and can fly.

Frankly, and why wouldn’t I be frank, this movie is a piece of demented genius. The maniacal villain Brewmeister Smith (played to perfection by Max von Sydow of all people) has grand designs on world domination via tainted beer. This ‘strange brew’ would cause intoxicated beer-drinkers to become mindless automatons whose free will would be turned off at Smith’s whim and make them susceptible to his mind control tactics via musical stimulation. Drink his special formula and you’ll be forced to do his bidding when he plays hockey organ music.

Beauty concept, eh?

Sure, it’s as Canadian as a box of maple glazed. For one thing, it’s all set in the Great White North, didncha know? The McKenzies are also terribly thirsty for northern brews. They pretty much drink from brown stubbies all day long. They’re just a couple of hosers so take it easy, eh? Take off! Don’t be a knob.

(By the way, the DVD has a definition that says a hoser is “a foolish person lacking in judgment, like, maybe your hoser brother, eh?” – meaning slackers in a pseudo-self-deprecating sense perhaps, just so’s you know.)

How’s it goin’, eh?

But I digress…

The dastardly plot might have made our guys into the unwitting villains of some nefarious scheme if they weren’t so… well… unwitting. Not to spoil anything but they come out of things okay even though I’m sure they were well blitzed most if not all of the time. Maybe being drunk helped them overcome the odds. It saved them from drowning (although it might have contributed to them driving into the lake).

Ahh yes… that old adage from the Simpsons rings true: “Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

Did I mention that Bob even helps extinguish a fire because of beer? Actually, it was a whole vat. It’s a scene you have to see but not on a full bladder. Also, I never said that the brothers were icons of the ‘responsible and moderate alcohol consumption’ sector.

The whole movie is a paean to all things Canuck, especially all things Canuck of that period. Ian Thomas – Dave’s real bro and the singer behind Painted Ladies – “feelin’ fine, mama… painted ladies and a bottle of wine, mama” – (also Dougie from The Red Green Show) – does the main soundtrack theme, eponymously titled Strange Brew. Angus MacInnes was in it as Rosie LaRose, a former hockey great, but most people would probably recognize him as the gold leader from a little film called Star Wars. The late great Tom Harvey was in this Canadiana gem too. There’s Paul Dooley, plus Lynne Griffin and a few of the other cast members of Black Christmas, one of Canada’s premier horrors of early 70s. It’s practically a Heritage Minute, except with beer and hockey.

Fun fact: listen for the voice of Bugs Bunny, Mel Blanc himself, as Father McKenzie. There’s also a young Ron James in a red jacket at the theatre near the beginning so keep your eyes peeled. He says, “What a waste of money!” Great delivery! Just don’t blink or you’ll miss him.

The marketing team thought that a beer-shaped book would make a fine companion piece to the film too. Beauty, eh? I’m pretty sure that they also put out a commemorative beer for the die hard collectors out there too.

Every single thing about this movie was great… except that I’m still waiting for the sequel. It was promised years ago and Moranis has since retired from cinema despite standout performances including his scene-stealing work in Ghost Busters and Spaceballs and the impeccable casting that put him in the lead in the off-Broadway revival film adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors. I know all of the lyrics off by heart by the way.

What? Don’t call me a knob, eh?

Second fun fact: the whole premise arose because the CBC required more CanCon. Go ahead, eh? Look it up on the Internet. There’s a story about how the producers were told to add two more minutes of programming and while they were at it, to make it as Canadian as possible. I guess it wasn’t enough that it was filmed in Canada with tons o’Canuck talent. Hence, our heroes, Robert Q. and Douglas McKenzie were born. True story!

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