Spookers: More than cheap, twisted thrills
83 mins ★★★★★
With his latest film Spookers, New Zealand's wizard at melding fact with the fantastical, Florian Habicht, has produced a surprising, compassionate and insightful portrait of one of the country's more unusual "amusement" parks. By going behind the scenes of a place which ostensibly peddles in terror and death, the documentarian has uncovered something much more important than the cheap thrills it sells: a community of much-needed love and an outlet for personal growth.
After a petrifying opening which takes you into the underbelly of the park's twisted mind-games, it is a relief to cut to black and white archive footage of Kingseat psychiatric hospital south of Auckland, which closed in 1999 when patients were released from such institutions to be cared for in the community and in rehab centres.
Spookers Haunted Attraction Theme Park trades on its location's history, and humanity's eternal fear of "crazy people", inviting visitors to test their bladders and their tolerance for ghoulish noises and gruesome sets, peopled by a dedicated cast of young performers whose Hallowe'en makeup ensures you need very little imagination in order to be horrified.
If you have some discomfort about Spookers as a place, you're not alone. In recent (thankfully enlightened) years, mental health bodies have been working tirelessly to destigmatise mental illness, and given our country's appalling suicide statistics and growing appreciation that as many as one in three Kiwis will experience mental illness in their lifetime, it seems at worst exploitative, and at best insensitive, to stoke the flames which still say that mentally unwell people are to be feared.
While some readers will already be dialling the "PC-gone-mad" police, it is arguable that an amusement park in which cackling "psycho" nurses deliver deformed babies in blood-splattered operating theatres is as unsavoury as it is scary.
The director of Kaikohe Demolition and the quasi-doco Love Story is well-known for embracing the absurd, the weird, and making great art. With a willing cast of zombies, he has great fun dramatising his interviewees' nightmares in a typically light-hearted fashion.
However, his fascinating and often moving film also addresses the inherent tension by interviewing a former Kingseat nurse and patient (both of whom make very reasoned and gentle objections), as well as the bevy of (mostly young) actors who find release – from shyness, from a strict upbringing, from loneliness – by donning wild costumes and giving customers a night to remember. While delving into their propensity for dressing up and snarling, Habicht questions these young folk about issues of disrespect or mockery, and their thoughtful responses garner frequent surprises.
Spookers proves to be a surprisingly heartfelt investigation in which expectations are overturned, even if not all concerns are put to rest. It has the added benefit of either saving you the trip to Karaka, or giving you enough of a taster that you'll want to test your own mettle.