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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Pop CultureDecember 20, 2023

What made 2023 such a monster year for NZ-made horror? 

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Aotearoa has provided the backdrop for some of the biggest moments in horror cinema this year. Alex Casey asks what’s made this our era of terror. 

Horror movies generally elicit feelings of fear, shock and disgust, but a surprising new emotion has been stirred up among New Zealand fans of the genre this year: patriotism. Whether it was the killer dolly slaying her way through the AUT atrium in M3GAN, Curtis from Shortland Street losing an eye to a murderous Mommy in Evil Dead Rise or an axe-wielding ingénue swanning about backwater Whanganui in Pearl, New Zealand has played host to some of the biggest and bloodiest horror moments of the year. 

Add in The Tank, a creature feature made in Bethells Beach, and Loop Track, a hiking horror shot in the wilderness of Tāmaki Makaurau, and 2023 really starts to look like the biggest year on record for locally-made horror releases. “You could be right,” says producer and horror aficionado Ant Timpson, rather diplomatically, when presented with the list. “In terms of horror films made in New Zealand and released within the same year, it would probably be impossible to top that.” So why is it, then, that Aotearoa was in its era of terror in 2023? 

Pearl thinking about 2023, probably

Timpson was being diplomatic, he explains, because New Zealand is just tiny one part of an enormous international horror boom. “Globally, horror is nearly at a saturation point, which is what reaches in these cycles of boom and bust that it’s traditionally had,” he explains. “The main reason this time around has been the growth of the streamers, and the monumental availability of titles on demand. Traditionally the pathways towards release for horror were quite limited and so the volume wasn’t as high for audiences.”

Horror movies are also attractive for producers and studios when belts tighten and markets get cluttered, Timpson adds. “Production values, big names, everything else like that is secondary in horror to freaking audiences out,” he says. “You can make a lo-fi horror film like Terrifier, which costs $250K and goes on to make $30 million globally, or even something like Skinamarink, which was all set in one house from a child’s perspective. That was a huge success for a film that cost $15k – even if some people thought it was like watching paint dry.” 

But there’s more than economics driving the trend. Erin Harrington, senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury, has spent much of her academic life studying horror media. “Historically, there have been lots of discussions about horror as this articulation of, or pressure valve for, certain types of repression and societal tensions,” she explains. Through this lens, horror can be a fascinating vehicle to map our shifting concerns, whether it’s zombies and civil rights in the 1960s, or 2000s torture porn as a reaction to the televised violence of 9/11.

Erin Harrington, senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury (Photo: Supplied)

“So that brings us to the pandemic,” Harrington continues. “And this current moment that’s associated with a lot of anxiety – global anxiety, war anxiety, health anxiety, all of which might influence the sorts of films that people are interested in engaging with.” Mix these anxieties with the growth of elevated folk horror such as Hereditary and The Witch, which embrace a more artful indie aesthetic, and the mainstream success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and more women and gender diverse people behind the camera, and you get nothing short of a big old boom.

“You’ve got anxiety, you’ve got audience, you’ve got taste, you’ve got demand, all kind of crashing up against each other,” Harrington concludes. “And here we are.” 

For Aotearoa, the pandemic had a huge role to play in luring horror productions that would have otherwise gone elsewhere. “We were actually going to shoot in Montreal,” says M3GAN director and New Zealander Gerard Johnstone. “But when Covid hit, you’ll remember that New Zealand became a haven from the pandemic.” Johnstone, who has a history with horror in his local cult hit Housebound, was far from the only one homebound. “There were so many productions that came rushing to shoot here that we were jostling for space,” he says.

Who knows what the alternate Montreal reality M3GAN would have looked like without the pandemic, but local audiences certainly wouldn’t have got so many delicious cameos. “There’s some incredible acting talent here,” says Johnstone. “For the population it’s very impressive.” Local easter eggs included Clinton Randall from The Edge appearing in a fake commercial, Millen Baird’s iconic line delivery, and the 12-year-old Auckland girl providing 2023’s first truly viral internet moment: the creepy, wibbly wobbly #M3GANDANCE

Your new bestie, M3gan (Photo: Universal)

Ti West’s Pearl, a prequel to 1970s porno slasher X and a movie that we nearly didn’t get to watch in cinemas at all, has an even closer connection to our Covid-19 response than M3GAN. West wrote the entire film during his two weeks in managed isolation, scraping together a last-minute schedule and securing to shoot both films back-to-back. “I remember sitting in the parking lot of the hotel where we were doing spatial diagrams like ‘the barn will go here, the house will go here’, so it was very productive,” producer Jacob Jaffke told The Spinoff in 2021.

Isolation-induced inspiration was also behind The Tank, a creature feature about what lurks beneath the surface of an ancient water tank. Writer and director Scott Walker found himself stuck in Aotearoa after what was supposed to be a quick Christmas trip home from the United States in 2020. While staying at a friend’s house built on a large old water tank, Walker found himself lowered in the unnerving depths to do some repairs. The experience spawned a nightmare of a jet black creature, which soon became a script for The Tank

The Tank also benefited hugely from the very local, very specific skillset of Wētā Workshop. Wanting to make a fully wearable creature suit and rely solely on practical effects, Walker paired up with Sir Richard Taylor to 3D print a world first. The result? “A drooling, nostril-flaring, teeth-baring aquatic monster that tears people limb from limb, sprints across the forest floor on all fours and scratches at doors with sharp, knife-like fingers,” we wrote in June. Taylor said this was part of a wider return to practical effects, closer to the ingenuity of Peter Jackson in the early days. 

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about anything to do with horror in New Zealand without talking about Peter Jackson, and the ongoing impact of his splattery, DIY approach to filmmaking first seen in cult classics Bad Taste and Braindead. “Peter Jackson was a huge influence when I was younger, it was initially his sense of humour, his ambition and his inventiveness,” says Johnstone. “To see the progression of his skills on Braindead, through to Heavenly Creatures and Lord of the Rings gave every backyard Kiwi filmmaker hope.”

Tom Sainsbury in Loop Track (Photo: Milon Tesiram)

When Sainsbury recently took Loop Track over to Screamfest in the United States, he was struck by how notorious New Zealand horror seemed to be. “Everyone was aware of Peter Jackson, obviously, but everyone was talking about Gerard Johnstone – not just because of M3GAN but because of Housebound,” he says. “We definitely had a reputation over there, especially because of our practical effects.” Timpson agrees. “We have the ability to execute any type of horror effects down here, digital or practical, no problem,” he says. “We’ve got some rockstars out here.” 

The blood-soaked elevator scene in Evil Dead Rise is a perfect example of our rockstar blood-and-guts economy. Special effects supervisor Brendan Durey told The Spinoff in April about how they pulled off the spectacle a moment so instantly iconic it was praised by Stephen King himself. All it took was a dusty warehouse in Mount Wellington, roughly 6,000 litres of fake blood and a forklift. “‘It was pretty messy on screen,” said Durey, who has also worked on Spartacus and Ash vs Evil Dead. “But we are pretty good at only getting blood where we want it by now.” 

Evil Dead Rise production designer Nick Bassett, reflecting on the horror trend in the same story, said this: “I do think that New Zealand’s particularly good with horror… We are very hands-on here, and the horror process is very down and dirty.” Harrington says this approach lies in stark contrast with our Hollywood counterparts. “Just because we’re so far away from everything, our resourcing is different. We can’t go to Target and buy 200 iterations of the same white T-shirt. Instead, we get 10 of them, and just make sure that we don’t fuck them up.” 

Much protection needed on the set of Evil Dead Rise. (Photo: Supplied)

While our pandemic paradise and highly skilled local crews can go some way to explaining how these horror films in 2023 came to be, financial rebates from the New Zealand Film Commission certainly sweetened the whole deal. “Without the incentives on offer it is unlikely these kinds of projects would be made in New Zealand,” says Annie Murray, CEO of NZFC. “Not only do these projects create jobs and upskill our already talented crews, but for every dollar spent on the rebate we see a minimum of six dollars spent by these productions in the local economy.”

Both M3GAN and Pearl utilised the New Zealand Screen Production Rebate for International Productions, receiving rebates of $3,451,049 and $1,600,306, respectively. The Tank received a rebate of $2,473,182 under the New Zealand Screen Production Rebate for New Zealand productions, and Evil Dead Rise pocketed $6 million under the same programme. Evil Dead Rise was also an official co-production between New Zealand and Ireland, and Loop Track was largely self-funded but did receive an NZFC Feature Film Finishing Grant. 

“The US to NZ exchange rate doesn’t hurt,” says Gerard Johnstone when asked why M3GAN benefitted from being shot in NZ. “But the real reason is the screen production rebate, it’s a massive incentive for overseas productions to come here and keeps our industry afloat.” 

The Tank, filmed in NZ but set in the States.

Despite these films providing economic benefits, Harrington has concerns over how much they actually represent Aotearoa at all. “I’m glad these movies are being made here, because the fact that they get made at all sets a precedent, builds connections and relationships and it shows people or you can do it,” she says. “But I would question the extent to which we could say – outside of funding and crew and so on – are these New Zealand stories? Certainly in the case of Loop Track but, for all the other ones, is it just that we’re a convenient girlfriend?”

“Where are our stories being told collectively?” she continues. “And wouldn’t it be great if New Zealanders didn’t have to cosplay as Americans to get horror over the line?” 

Both Harrington and Timpson feel that Aotearoa has so much more left to mine when it comes to horror. Across the ditch, Australia is in a “really specific moment” with the genre, says Harrington, noting the distinct Australian sensibility and point of view evident in a range of films from 2014’s The Babadook, to Relic in 2020, to this year’s bone-chilling Talk to Me. “That’s the big question for me – where’s our Wolf Creek? Where’s our Talk To Me? Where are our horror films that are embedded in our time, place, context and history?”

Perhaps it is because that authentic horror is happening elsewhere. “There’s been a lot of attention to film, but actually, hand on heart. I think the more interesting horror stuff is going on and television and and other forms of media,” says Harrington. She’s recently been working on a research project looking at TVNZ’s Beyond the Veil, six supernatural stories inspired by the Māori, Pasifika, Filipino, and Chinese people of Aotearoa, and Pasifika anthology Teine Sā. Again, they raise more questions. “What’s not happening in the film pipeline here?” she asks “where are our Māori and Pacifica creators in horror film?”

Frankie Adams stars in episode one of the horror anthology Teine Sā (supplied)

A decade ago, Timpson was involved in Make My Horror Movie, which eventually saw the release of heavy metal comedy hybrid Deathgasm, and remembers seeing an incredible range of ideas and makers enter the competition. “Now all these years later I’m just thinking – where did that all go?,” he reflects. “It never quite came to fruition.” He would especially love to see more horror films that delve into our spooky rural outposts. “New Zealand’s already isolated enough, and then if you’re isolated within an isolated area, you’re just amplifying the horror.”

That isolation is a theme currently being confronted by Callum Devlin and Annabel Kean of independent production company Sports Team, who are in the throes of making their first self-funded horror feature film in rural Canterbury. “New Zealand is pretty freaky, scary place,” says Devlin, over the phone. “I turned my head torch off the other night and it was the darkest, quietest thing. It was so dark that there could have been someone standing right in front of me, which made me very frightened about shooting the film.” 

Filmmaker Hweiling Ow, known for her contributions to webseries Ao-terror-oa and The ABCs of Death, is similarly interested in the terror nestled within our local landscapes. She’s currently developing two horror features, and says that she is always looking at the elements we have at our disposal around us. “I’m always thinking, ‘how do I make the black sand beach frightening?’” she laughs. “I want people to be afraid to go to the beach. Everything you love about New Zealand, I want to turn it into a horror movie and make you scared of it.” 

Sports Team promote their mystery horror film

Although they couldn’t be drawn on what their horror film, crowdfunded through Boosted, is about, Untitled Sports Team Horror Film does signal a rejection of the traditional funding methods and processes that created this glut of horror in 2023. “Our model is very much inspired by the permission that musicians give themselves to just make albums and just get on with it,” says Devlin. “We think of Sports Team a bit like a punk band – we’ve never made a horror feature before, so it’s like we’re figuring out how to play our instruments, while also doing gigs.” 

Along with Sports Team breaking the rules and Ow finding new ways to bring horror closer to home, there’s a few more projects in the works that suggest the terrifying trend isn’t going anywhere soon. Grafted, a body horror film about a Chinese student who travels to New Zealand to complete her dead father’s scientific endeavours was in production locally earlier this year. Just last week, it was announced that local horror comedy Mum, I’m Alien Pregnant also received NZFC funding, with Murray alluding to “a flurry of incentive-related projects” to be announced. 

Even if it has been a series of cosmic, pandemic-related coincidences that have led to a landmark year for horror in Aotearoa, Timpson’s main hope is that we come away feeling inspired, if not a little scared. “We shouldn’t let anyone else capitalise on this moment, we should be definitely getting there ourselves,” he says. “The torch has been lit, so let’s keep running with it.” 

Keep going!