Four words: New Zealand film industry. I guarantee the first thing that came to mind is four more words, Lord of the Rings, amirite? Well, it turns out other kiwis besides Pete Jackson make movies too, and some of them are quite good.
The task of seeing these movies is easier for me since I own a region-free DVD player. I highly recommend them if you love movies like I do. I can’t remember what originally prompted me to get one, but I’ve been enjoying obscure (to Americans) British telly since long before Hulu and Netflix started carrying it (I also have a friend in London who sends them to me. I highly recommend you get yourself one of those too).
So, three films from “down under” (two New Zealand and one Australian; I don’t know if the distinction is necessary, they’re the same to me as an American–a sentiment maybe some kiwis might not appreciate).
First, Housebound, which I only watched because it came up on Amazon Prime Video every time I searched for the other two (as if poor Amazon, bless its heart, was saying, “New Zealand movie but not Lord of the Rings? You’ve lost me. Oh wait, we do have this? Close enough?”) Housebound was better than I expected, though didn’t excite me as much as the other two. It’s a ghost story that turns into a home invasion movie, then back to a ghost story. But it’s very twisty and turny, with unexpectedly witty dialogue thrown into scary scenes and memorable characters. All in all, far worse movies to waste your time on.
If pure, non-witty horror is more your scene, then you have to see The Babadook. People seem to either love it or think it’s overrated; I don’t consider myself someone who scares so easily, but it had me staring unblinking at shadows making absolutely certain they weren’t moving.
(I will try my very hardest not to spoil, but I haven’t figured out yet how to review movies without discussing what happens in them.)
Amelia is the single mother of the emotionally disturbed Samuel, and boy does she have her hands full. He sees boogeymen everywhere and even brings homemade weapons to school. He undoubtedly loves his mum, but can’t stop himself from making her life hell.
She’s already practically at her wit’s end (as is the audience; this kid does an outstanding job of REALLY making you want to throttle him), then Mr. Babadook appears. He’s the fairy tale monster in the eponymous pop-up book that mysteriously appears on Samuel’s shelf. The book very quickly takes an unsettling turn and Amelia hides it away, but it’s too late: Mr. Babadook has come to stay.
Very gradually, Amelia starts imagining seeing him everywhere. She starts getting creepy phone calls (see trailer), until she burns the book, only to have it show up on her doorstep, this time with a new, much more graphically violent plot (my favorite review described it this way: Jennifer Kent (the director) has the audacity to tell us exactly what’s going to happen, then makes it happen, and still terrifies us).
Too terrified to sleep, Amelia goes through her days in a stupor, and the insomnia angle cleverly makes us wonder how much of the Babadook is her overwrought imagination. She begins to change as well, losing her patience with Samuel and lashing out shockingly; again, it’s up to us to decide how much is physical exhaustion and how much is the Babadook possibly possessing her.
As his mother changes, so does Samuel. He cowers from her, stops acting out so much, and in doing so finally becomes sympathetic–a child who doesn’t understand what’s happening or why mommy is so angry with him.
This horror is my favorite, a slow but relentless psychological build. And only tantalizing glimpses of the monster, because it’s very very hard to put something on the screen scarier than what our brains can create. The movie also left scars-I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks after. That happens increasingly rarely, it seems.
BIG HUGE SPOILER: The ending was a little confusing. She faces down the Babadook with the unbridled fury of a mother pushed to her limit defending her child, and the monster becomes a whimpering puddle. Then later we see she’s keeping it in the basement and feeding it dirt and earthworms. I was utterly perplexed until I read someone’s take that the Babadook actually represents her depression that she battles with and can temporarily defeat, but it never truly goes away. I quite liked that. And that the movie can be watched either as a superficial monster movie or with that deeper level.
HERE ENDETH THE BIG HUGE SPOILER
The final might be my favorite. What We Do In The Shadows is a mockumentary about vampire flatmates, starring (and co-written by) Jemaine Clement (one half of Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Boy, which also was pretty good, available on Netflix).
Ever wonder how vampires split up household chores, or get dressed for a night on the town if they don’t have a reflection? This film answers those questions and a few more.
It’s also the funniest damn thing I’ve seen since Shaun of the Dead (in fact, comparisons abound).
I can barely say more than that without giving too much away. I knew I was in for a treat when Viago, the main subject of the film (and probably the cuddliest, least frightening bloodsucker ever), invites Petyr, the 8000-year-old nosferatu, to a house meeting and notices his bedroom is a bit untidy. “Zere’s a lot of stuff on ze floor down here. Vhat’s zis? Oh, it’s a spinal column, yuck! Vould you like me to bring down a broom or…” Petyr: “HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!” “Okay, zhen, we’re having ze meeting in a few minutes…”
If you thought vampires were completely tired and overdone, this movie will prove you wrong. It goes the tiniest bit astray near the end with a low budget werewolf attack that’s a little laughable (not in a good way), but the ending ties things up satisfyingly, and the jokes are more or less consistently excellent through the rest (thanks to the New Zealand sense of humor that’s so incredibly dry and tongue-in-cheek you’d better have a Big Gulp on hand). As are the effects, which are amazingly pretty seamless and well done for a clearly shoestring budget (except for the werewolves).
But why am I telling you this? There’s a Kickstarter campaign to bring the movie to America. Failing that, you’d better pick up a region-free player. This movie makes it worth it.
*Okay, Housebound is on Amazon, and Babadook is in extremely limited release. How about “The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of”?