Seth A. Smith got into gore early. When he was seven years old he would put on little skits with his dog where he'd pretend it bit people and then use dollops of ketchup to imitate a wound. He wasn't allowed to watch horror movies at home, so he stayed over at a friend's place to view his first fright flick, A Nightmare on Elm Street, which is also known for its generous dispersal of fake blood.
Fast forward to today and you'll see icky stuff abound in director-cowriter Smith's new low-budget horror/sci-fi mind-messer, Tin Can. It's the story of a young parasitologist named Fret (Anna Hopkins) who's on the verge of discovering a cure for a disease that's ravaging the world, but is kidnapped and put in a watery life-suspension chamber. She can hear the voices of others, similarly trapped, nearby. The purpose of their imprisonment isn't immediately clear, but much cringe-inducing removal of rubber tubing from orifices ensues. In one flashback Fret tells her boyfriend "I'm a slime person", which is apt considering how much goo eventually winds up in her vicinity.
"Yeah, fluids have been a part of our films over the last few years," explains Smith on the line from his home just outside Halifax. "You know, I bought some slime mold, and I was studying it, and it was very interesting to watch it under a microscope—it's just unlike a lot of other organisms. I mean, I guess I didn't intend for the movie to be super-slimey, but I started getting fascinated by fungus and slime mold and just kind of the secret world that's in them at the microscopic level."
Smith—whose previous fright flicks include 2012's Lowlife and 2017's The Crescent, both cowritten by Darcy Spidle—comes by his fascination with yucky biological bits honestly. He was heavily influenced by iconic Canadian director David Cronenberg's "body horror" films, which include Shivers and Rabid and his remake of The Fly.
"I grew up on the Cronenberg VHS's," he says. "It was like one of the only horror movies that were at our local store. That totally dates me, but yeah. His son Brandon Cronenberg actually was a script editor on this. We met at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] and I really liked his previous movie, Antiviral, and thought with this that he'd have some interesting ideas, and he did."
The plague Fret's character tries to find a cure for—before she gets trapped in the titular metal box—is a fungal infection that affixes itself to human skin and grows into something resembling a milky jellyfish--picture the "facehuggers" from the Alien movies. But even with all the contagion and quarantining seen in Tin Can, Smith claims that it wasn't inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic at all.
"One interesting thing is that we shot the film before COVID," he says, "and COVID started happening just as we were completing the movie. It made the film a little darker for us, because it made it a little more real. Through the whole two years of making it we were kinda in this fantasy world of confinement, and then all of a sudden it was happening in the real world.
"As the cowriter it has been interesting watching the meaning of the film change, for me, now that COVID's happened. At first it felt like, 'Okay, this is a film about confinement by people at a distance, hearing their voices, not seeing them, and just the isolation that goes with that.' But now that I've been living with COVID it has a slightly different meaning to me, where it's like this ever-present force that's after you and you have to kind of live with it, and, you know—the show must go on."
While COVID, sadly, doesn't appear to be fading away any time soon, neither is Smith's fondness for horror. His next project could be an adaptation of Algernon Blackwood's supernatural 1907 novella The Willows, which H.P. Lovecraft used to rave about.
"I gravitate towards more elevated horror," he says, "horror that is abstract or allows some interpretation or some contemplation. What I'm not really a fan of is just a guy with a chainsaw murdering people for no reason, or just violence for the sake of violence.
"So I have a love/hate relationship with horror," he concludes. "There's some horror that I just am not interested in at all, and on the other side I think it's the genre that's the most experimental of all the film genres, because you don't really have as many restrictions, and you can see a lot of things that aren't often done, and you can do a lot of things that haven't been seen yet."