Kiwi director David Blyth: From fantasy horror to the very real horrors of war

Chris Skelton/STUFF

Director David Blyth talks about a career in filmmaking.

A little over a month ago I had barely heard of New Zealand filmmaker David Blyth.

His name vaguely rang a bell - as did the title of what some might call his magnum opus, Death Warmed Up, New Zealand's first horror film - but I'd never seen any of his movies and wouldn't have been able to name one if I'd tried.

But then it was announced that classic old black-and-white 60s sitcom The Munsters was being rebooted in the States and a spark of recognition kindled.

Director David Blyth (R) with The Munsters and Grampire star Al Lewis and Grampire producer Murray Newey (L).
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Director David Blyth (R) with The Munsters and Grampire star Al Lewis and Grampire producer Murray Newey (L).

Earlier this year I'd had the pleasure of talking to former Shortland Street actor Karl Burnett, who'd happened to mention that his first ever role was in a 1992 movie called Grampire, which also starred the original Grandpa Munster himself, Al Lewis, in the lead.

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Grampire - originally titled Moonlight, and then changed again to My Grandpa Is A Vampire for distribution in America - was directed by Blyth, so I thought I'd track him down and see if I could coax out a memory or two about what it was like working with The Munsters star.

Filmmaker David Blyth's long and storied career has seen him work with everyone from Christopher Plummer to the man who ...
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Filmmaker David Blyth's long and storied career has seen him work with everyone from Christopher Plummer to the man who wrote The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It didn't take too much digging - I soon found his email address online and less than 20 minutes later he'd gotten back to me with a phone number.

We ended up speaking at length - about not only Grampire, but also some of the dozen or so other feature films Blyth has directed. Death Warmed Up of course, and his first movie Angel Mine, as well as more recent efforts like Wound and Ghost Bride.

Blyth is an interesting fellow, to say the least, and I felt a more in-depth interview might be in order, so arranged to meet him at his home on Auckland's Whangaparaoa Peninsula.

Actor Michael Hurst made his feature film debut in Death Warmed Up.

Actor Michael Hurst made his feature film debut in Death Warmed Up.

The 61 year old greeted me with a smile and a handshake in the imposing entranceway of his proudly purple home, long but greying hair tied back in a rough ponytail.

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Stacks of DVDs - hundreds in fact - were very much in evidence, posters from his various films adorned the walls, and a prop tombstone from Wound lay leaning against a fence in the backyard.

Again, our conversation ranged far and wide - the type of film stock he used in his early days, the time he met a very drunken then-PM Rob Muldoon, cryogenics, ethno-botany - like I said, an interesting fellow.

Director David Blyth: "I would describe myself in a simplistic way as a filmmaker that looks at the horror in the everyday."
CHRIS SKELTON

Director David Blyth: "I would describe myself in a simplistic way as a filmmaker that looks at the horror in the everyday."

Since shooting that first film Angel Mine at the age of 21, Blyth has always leaned towards the more horrific and/or fantastical side of things when it comes to making movies.

Sexuality and the unconscious desires of the human mind have also proved fertile ground.

Even Grampire, easily the most family-friendly of all his films, lightly touches on sexual themes, including an oddly jarring scene in which a woman at a wake engages in some food-based flirtation with the two young leads.

A scene from David Blyth's Death Warmed Up, New Zealand's first horror film.

A scene from David Blyth's Death Warmed Up, New Zealand's first horror film.

Blyth grew up mostly on a diet of war movies himself - The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Great Escape - but notes that seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in his late teens "terrified the hell out of me".

He lists Ridley Scott's Blade Runner among his favourite films - "one of the great movies of my generation" he says - and admits to awaiting the sequel "with great anticipation".

Studying art history and anthropology at Auckland University in the 1970s, Blyth "ended up" in a film appreciation class taught by Dr Roger Horrocks, one of New Zealand's most eminent film academics, who first introduced him to the joys of European cinema.

David Blyth and Patricia Stroud with a picture of David's grandfather Lt Col 'Curly' Lawrence Blyth. This started their ...
GEOFF DOBSON

David Blyth and Patricia Stroud with a picture of David's grandfather Lt Col 'Curly' Lawrence Blyth. This started their joint project to record Silverdale & Districts RSA people who served in various conflicts.

Not long after that came Blyth's directorial debut Circadian Rhythms, a 14-minute-long, black-and-white psychological drama that went on to screen at film festivals around the country.

Then the controversial Angel Mine in 1978, the first film to be funded by the New Zealand Film Commission, which in retrospect might seem a rather unusual decision on their part.

Vividly illustrating a suburban couple's descent into madness, it caused quite the stir, and even provoked calls for the immediate dissolution of the fledgling Film Commission.

"Because of course it's got all sorts of outrageous things like sodomy," Blyth explains.

"There used to be a television commercial that featured these little sweets called Hot Shots," he continues. "And there was a Wellington actor called Michael Wilson - 'Captain Hot Shot' - who we had burst out of a closet and jump on this guy. I just took the person from the ad and put him in the same uniform, but instead of selling the sweet he's having sodomy with the leading actor."

"I remember sitting with the chief censor at the time, down in Wellington, and I had to explain to him that because his head wasn't moving up and down, it was actually a fantasy.

"It was a projection by the wife - because you see the husband and wife in Angel Mine basically torture each other with various commercials. It's quite innovative. It was way ahead of its time, and in a way it hasn't dated."

Fast-forward 40 years and Blyth's most recent endeavour sidelines fantasy horror for the very real horrors of war in the form of his ongoing documentary project Memories Of Service, a series of 50 interviews with veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, available for viewing on the NZ On Screen website.

Memories Of Service grew out of his 2002 documentary Our Oldest Soldier, in which Blyth interviewed his 97-year-old grandfather, a veteran of the First World War.

"I realised that by making this little 23-minute documentary of my grandfather that in a way I'd made him eternal, and his story eternal, so it represents not just my grandfather, but a lot of other grandfathers," says Blyth. "Most people who have a grandparent who was in World War I, all they've got is a yellowed photograph. I was lucky - I've got the living, talking grandad."

Subsequently Blyth decided to give that wonderful opportunity of storytelling on film to more veterans – which in turn led to a four-year labour of love on Memories Of Service.

"I've done it in a way as my service for this country," says Blyth. "Because there's very little interest in funding from any of the main bodies. It's almost like you have to be dead to get your story told as a veteran in this country."

"So I feel very proud that I've given 50 other families that unique opportunity to have their grandfather - or father, or mother - speaking of their service."

As for his services to the New Zealand film industry, while David Blyth's 40-year career certainly hasn't always gelled with mainstream appetites and expectations, there's no doubt we've been better off having him around than not – from Angel Mine to Memories Of Service and all the movie madness in between.

 - Stuff

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