Today we welcome back one of our newest members of the WGN Family – Art Robinson joined us for our Great Monsters Who Aren’t Frankenstein piece in October and returns to share two of his great passions – horror movies and his homeland of New Zealand…
When you think New Zealand and movies, chances are you are thinking of Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Maybe you think about our special effects studio, Weta, which is owned by Jackson and seems to be involved in just about every major movie. Or, perhaps you think of Taika Waititi and his work in the Star Wars and Marvel universes.
What you may not consider is New Zealand horror.
New Zealand has a relatively young international movie history, but for a large part of that history, we have produced horror films. Perhaps it is because of our total isolation from the world and the suffocating loneliness that brings. Maybe it’s the awareness, drilled into us at school, that we live in a volcanic and tectonic nightmare zone. Earthquakes have destroyed entire cities. Coastal towns have tsunami alarms which are sometimes tested to heart-stopping effect. It is scary to live here. But none of these films focuses on the horror of the land. Rather they largely focus on my first point; the isolation of living in New Zealand. We are empty, with many swathes of dense ancient forest and sharp mountain ranges blocking our paths. A small landslip or particularly heavy snow on a main highway and towns can be cut off for days. We are vulnerable and we know it, and this bleeds into our horror films.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
The Quiet Earth is probably the most unsettling of the films on this list so we’ll get it out of the way first. It stars one man for most of the film, Bruno Lawrence, who was a prodigious acting and musical talent in New Zealand during the 70s and 80s. He awakens and finds the entire world has been scrubbed of life. No people, no animals, no insects. Again, the natural silence and lack of crowds in New Zealand, moreso 35 years ago when the movie was released, are the fuel behind this horror story. Was it a side effect of the secretive government project he was working on? What does he see on the road late at night? Will you ever be able to find a copy to watch and learn how he gets on? This is another movie filmed in Hamilton. In one scene he yells at a crowd of mannequins far below, playing a tape of their cheers at the end of each pronouncement. That’s the centre of my city he’s yelling at!
Bad Taste (1987)
This is required viewing for NZ horror and movie geeks, but I honestly kind of hate it. Yes, it’s low budget and yes it shows. Yes, it’s the film that got Peter Jackson’s name on the board and yes that led to a multi-billion dollar movie series being filmed here. And yes, the gore and effects are actually great, considering the general low-fi feel of the movie, but I still don’t like it. Maybe I saw it too young to really enjoy it and just saw it as Peter Jackson’s home movies, a weekend of dress up with his friends. Aliens invade and only gory murder can defend New Zealand. It’s important to New Zealand horror because it started Peter Jackson and that’s about it.
Brain Dead (1992)
If you were born in the 70s or 80s in New Zealand, Brain Dead, along with Bad Taste, were required viewing. Another early Peter Jackson film, Brain Dead (released as Dead Alive in the US) follows a zombie outbreak in a New Zealand town. The source of the outbreak isa Sumatran Rat Monkey, one of the grossest special effects ever created, a bite from which turns you into a slowly collapsing, but wandering, corpse. I must have seen this film once a year while I was at high school. Every VHS of it I ever hired was worn and flooded with static in the most ultra-violent scenes, particularly a scene where a lawnmower is used to great effect against the encroaching zombie horde.
The Locals (2003)
The first New Zealand horror I got a chance to see in cinemas, The Locals was directed by Greg Page, best known in New Zealand at this time for his work on music videos for bands like The Datsuns and 8ft Sativa, and filmed in the hinterlands of my home city, Hamilton. It is a very serious and very bleak film. As with several of the others on this list, The Locals takes hold of our isolation, the nature of our tiny but empty islands, and spins it into a claustrophobia of the sort mostly found in folk horror in England, namely the Wickerman. Two surfers try to take a short cut to the coast via forgotten backroads, their car being trashed by drag racing hillbillies and young women with crimped hair and strangely archaic jeans and jackets. Soon they’re being chased through the night, over and under old fences and hedges, moonlit fields forever surrounded by darkness. This may be the most difficult title on this list to track down but very worth the hunt.
Black Sheep (2006)
New Zealand is well known for its comedy output. The Flight of the Conchords are known globally, as is Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Equally deserving of global recognition are New Zealand’s horror comedies. Black Sheep may be the most well known internationally, but only because the jokes about New Zealand being more sheep than people worked in the favour of this film’s publicity unit. Another film set far from any towns or villages on a sheep farm, Black Sheep is fuelled by the loneliness of New Zealand. However, the isolation is not the major enemy it is in the other films. In Black Sheep, the foe is man’s attempts to make nature “better”, which of course results in flocks of man-eating sheep and an eight-foot tall weresheep. This film is worth a watch if you want a great creature feature and also a good laugh at New Zealand’s expense.
Housebound may be the most clever film on this list. It revolves around a young woman who is put on house arrest in a home which is unfortunately haunted. She can’t leave so she decides to fight back. It has so many great characters and twists and turns that I won’t get too deep into it as I will inevitably destroy your enjoyment, but it’s part Rear Window, part The Sixth Sense and very, very Kiwi. When she’s asked what she’s going to do when she sees the ghost, our heroine announces “I’m going to smash it in the face”. Again, being isolated and vulnerable are the arrows in this film’s quiver, but I won’t say much beyond that other than it is very funny and has amazing twists.
This may be my favourite horror-comedy of all time. A heavy metal guitarist is sent to live with his exceptionally Christian aunt and uncle, who bully him relentlessly, as does their thuggish son, who is the same year as him in school. It’s Harry Potter for metalheads and if there’s a bright centre of the galaxy, he’s in the town it’s furthest from. With help from a few outcast D&D players and the town’s only other headbanger, the hero finds a book of spells, hidden in the home of the World’s Most Mysterious Deathmetal Singer, which just so happens to be in their town. Unfortunately, those same spells that make their band the greatest also give various demons access to the town. Hijinks ensue. If you like horror-comedy, please check this out. If you also like your music on the heavier side, definitely check this out!
Before you complain that I’ve missed out The Frighteners, I should point out that it is not set in New Zealand, despite being filmed here and being a very Peter Jackson film. To be honest, I feel it could have been filmed anywhere, by anyone, just from the excellent Jackson/Walsh script, so I have decided to not dwell too long on it. Wellington and its hills pass for the American Northwest well enough, the cars are all imports with left-hand drive, while enough of what makes New Zealand “New Zealand” has been scrubbed away and sanitised into an empty America, safe for global consumption. It is a New Zealand horror film, but it is not New Zealand IN a horror film.
So there you are, seven of my top New Zealand horrors. Strangely, almost all of them are comedies, but absolutely all of them play on the New Zealand themes of Gothic isolation and loneliness.
Art Robinson is a New Zealander who loves spooky stuff and writes horror and sci-fi. He is very scared of deep water.