Situated in a former psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Auckland, Spookers is the only haunted house attraction in New Zealand – and also the biggest and most successful in the Southern Hemisphere. In his film of the same name, documentarian Florian Hebicht (Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets; Love Story) largley eschews wallowing in the grim ‘n’ gory FX gags and horror tableux, instead delving into the community of part time monsters, am-dram enthusiasts and genial misfits that has grown up around the venerable institution.
It’s fascinating and surprisingly affecting stuff. What quickly becomes apparent is that, for the majority of the performers interviewed at least, working at Spookers gives them a license to express themselves and explore their identities in a way they can’t in the outside world. One male actor admits to finding dressing up as zombie bride appealing, even though he would never cross dress in his civilian life; others speak about venting their anger and frustration through performance by scaring the crap (sometimes very literally) of the paying audience.
For all the fake blood and hand-made monstrosities on display, there’s a decidedly familial feel to the behind-the-scenes world of the spookhouse, which is presided over by husband-and-wife proprietors Andy and Beth Watson. We spend a fair bit of time with matriarch Beth, who admits to not enjoying horror movies very much and turning off the one she tried to watch for research, as well as a handful of cast regulars who drive home the “family of choice” theme.
That such a morbid work environment has attracted such a tight knit and supportive crew is no surprise to anyone who’s spent a lot of time around the horror genre – horror folks tend to be remarkably nice for people who spend a good chunk of their time thinking up new and gruesome uses for gardening implements – but it should be a useful lesson for non-aficionados. Whether any turn up is another question – one of the gatekeepers of horror is imagery that tends to put off non-fans, such as the terrifying clown that is the key marketing image for Spookers. Hopefully some will push through, though – under all the latex viscera is big heart.
A young couple on a road trip, Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer), run afoul of two opportunistic back-block predators, German (Aaron Pederson) and Chook (Aaron Glenane), in Killing Ground, an assured survival horror from debut feature director, Damien Power.
Killing Ground is the latest in a long tradition of Aussie “don’t go into the bush” terror tales; Wolf Creek is only the latest, most visible example, but Power is savvy enough to draw influences from deeper cuts, such as 1978’s Long Weekend. While the two Aarons provide the most immediate, unnerving threat to our wayward city couple, the setting itself is also a villain. This is a classic Bad Place narrative. We’re casually informed at one point that the isolated camping ground where Power sets his horrors is the site of of an Aboriginal massacre, and it’s no accident that our lead antagonist is played by the Indigenous actor Pedersen (Mystery Road) in an incredibly menacing turn. A sense of foreboding is established early on in the proceedings that never lets up, only growing inexorably heavier and more agonising as the inevitable atrocities loom nearer.
The sense of terror is heightened considerably when the film makes the bold choice of splitting its narrative, jumping back in time to explore the fates of an earlier set of victims once Ian and Sam discover an abandoned family tent at their remote campsite. It’s a clever conceit, subverting the usual straight-forward plot construction of the survival horror genre.
It also ups the body count significantly. Power doesn’t shy away from confronting and, at times, genuinely upsetting imagery, although when it comes to actual depiction of brutality and assault he knows when to let viewers draw their own conclusions from what is implied onscreen. There’s a stark, harsh matter-of-factness to the violence we see; the film doesn’t bother with exotic weaponry or elaborate, ritualised tortures, instead reminding us that a cruel man armed with a rifle is terrifying enough. It’s the plausibility of the scenario that chills; add to that an element of child endangerment (a toddler is thrown into the mix at one point, and the film milks the poor mite’s terrible vulnerability for all its worth) and there are times when Killing Ground is almost unbearable.
In that good way, of course. Horror fans are in for an absolute treat here; Power and his team understand the conventions of their genre and know exactly when to subvert them and when to double down. Killing Ground might lack an iconic figure like Mick Taylor around which a real cult audience could form, but it’s the real deal; a taut and torturous journey into darkness.
Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to 2014’s Annabelle, which is itself a spin-off movie and kinda-prequel to James Wan’s superb 2013 horror blockbuster, The Conjuring. If that sentence makes you want to claw at the walls of reality and unleash a yorp of existential confusion, fear not – Annabelle: Creation tells a mostly standalone story. More surprising – especially after the tedious, scare-free stink-fest that was Annabelle – is works really rather well.
The story opens with Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), a dollmaker who specialises in bespoke dolls that are clearly evil-looking for some reason. Together with his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Annabelle (Samara Lee) they are one big happy family. This being a horror movie that quickly ends with a hideous accident, leaving the parents childless.
Cut to 12 years later and the Mullins have opened their sprawling, creepy house as an orphanage. Our story really begins when Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and a bunch of orphan girls, including polio-afflicted, Janice (Talitha Bateman) and her bestie, Linda (Lulu Wilson) move in. Things start getting weird in short order, and Janice begins to suspect something evil resides within the walls of their new home.
After a slightly stiff beginning, Annabelle: Creation finds it feet, becoming a tense and effective supernatural thriller. The scares are unlikely to startle anyone with their originality, but director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) knows how to skillfully stage a spooky sequence, and Janice’s nocturnal visits to Annabelle’s old bedroom are particularly well-executed.
By the time the third act comes around the paranormal manifestations have become gloriously over-the-top and the film slips into full on spookshow rollercoaster mode. It has fun and it’s quite likely you will too. The cast are solid, with Miranda Otto doing a lot with a little and the child actors being quite endearing, plus the sound design is loud yet layered enough to give your nerves a serious workout.
Annabelle: Creation is the first Conjuring spin-off that actually feels worthy of its source material. There are a number of other spin-off titles in the pipe, including The Nun, The Crooked Man and – oh I don’t know – The Guitar on Which Patrick Wilson Murdered Elvis in The Conjuring 2 (probably) but if they’re all up to the standard of Annabelle: Creation that might not be as silly an idea as it sounds. Regardless, taken as a single entity, Annabelle: Creation is an occasionally crude but effective success.