I used to see this guy occasionally when I returned to visit America from New Zealand, and every single time he saw me, he’d unleash a stream of lame dad jokes about hobbits and orcs.
…Because that’s all some Americans know when they think of New Zealand, you see, is Peter Jackson’s admittedly excellent Lord of the Rings movies (and the rather less excellent Hobbit follow-ups).
New Zealand movies are so much more than that, of course, from Oscar-winning director Jane Campion or the askew comedy of Taika Waititi to the awesome talents of Bruno Lawrence, Karl Urban and Sam Neill to some brilliant Māori filmmaking. The now-New Zealand-based James Cameron films his gazillion-dollar Avatar movies here and Wēta Digital’s special effects are all over screens from Marvel superheroes to Cocaine Bear.
But also, New Zealanders are really good at scaring the crap out of you.
A pre-hobbit Peter Jackson made some of the first NZ horror movies to gain notice worldwide with the splatter-horror/comedy low-fi genius of Bad Taste, Brain Dead and Meet The Feebles. Many other great NZ horror movies have followed ever since, including Black Sheep, Deathgasm and Housebound.
But in the last year or so, even more New Zealand-made horror has kind of taken over the world, with four well regarded scare-fests topping the box office or winning critical acclaim – M3GAN, Evil Dead Rise and Ti West’s X and Pearl.
These films aren’t generally entirely made by New Zealand directors, actors and writers or explicitly even about New Zealand, but by simply being filmed down here and using a hefty amount of local cast, crew, and behind-the-scenes personnel, they’ve got a heavy kiwi sensibility packed into their DNA – a little alienation, a little finding horror in everyday objects, a little wry black humour.
Scary robot doll movie M3GAN is deeply silly but fun spin on the whole “evil technology fears” trope, and while its generic America suburbia and offices setting doesn’t scream New Zealand, big chunks of it were filmed here and NZ director Gerard Johnstone gives the material a nice, creepy edge and added in the viral dance scene that helped make the movie a surprise hit.
I haven’t seen the intensely gory brand new Evil Dead Rise as it looks a little too much for me, to be honest, but I love that a blood-soaked elevator scene prominent in the trailers was filmed near the mall I used to go to all the time. The whole Evil Dead franchise has many ties to New Zealand – producer Rob Tapert has been with Sam Raimi’s goopy undead franchise since the very beginning, co-created ‘90s kiwi TV sensation Xena: Warrior Princess and is married to its star Lucy Lawless, and the excellent Ash Vs. Evil Dead TV series was all filmed down here.
But the best of the lot of recent NZ-shot terror for me are the psychosexual horrors of Ti West’s X and its prequel Pearl, which after many delays is finally being shown in NZ cinemas. Both films were filmed at a spooky Whanganui farm, and feature many familiar NZ acting faces.
X is a proudly sleazy movie about a 1970s porn movie being filmed at a sinister farm that plunges into unexpected depths of emotion amidst its gore and sweat, while the prequel Pearl shifts back in time to tell the story of the elderly woman at the centre of X as a young, hopeful girl with dreams of escaping her stifling family farm. Both movies star Mia Goth, one of the most unique presences on screen in quite a while (without spoilers, she plays multiple roles across the two films).
I think Pearl is the first great movie I’ve seen to take on the COVID pandemic and all the uneasy, awkward feelings of fear and anxiety churned up by it. Set during the 1918 flu pandemic, it’s a world of recovering trauma where young Pearl (Goth) fears she’ll never fulfil her dreams. Much of Pearl was written while West and Goth were in quarantine here in New Zealand, and the script richly evokes how uncertain the world felt in those early pandemic days.
An awful lot of movies are shot in New Zealand these days – we’re a hip, cool place, we’re cheap, got a lot of great screen talent built up here, but really, enough with the hobbit jokes, already.
It’s OK if you want to start thinking of New Zealand as the place you go to get scared, too.
2 thoughts on “Horror movies Aotearoa style: New Zealand can be a pretty scary place”
New Zealand can be a pretty scary place, especially when you have talented filmmakers who know how to create suspense and terror.😱
I’m a big fan of Peter Jackson’s early horror movies, especially Brain Dead, which is one of the funniest and goriest movies ever made.🤣