Film review: “Spookers” (2017)

“Spookers” (2017)



Running Time: 90 minutes

Written by: Veronica Gleeson, Peter O’Donoghue and Florian Habicht

Directed by: Florian Habicht

Florian Habicht: “…I held a workshop with some of the actors and asked them to write down their dreams and nightmares on bits of paper. We ended up scripting these dreams which they acted out as dramatic scene, which are now woven throughout the documentary … as filmmakers we were moved by their ability and courage.”

There is no doubt in my mind that New Zealand director Florian Habicht is our best, as well as our most creative director working currently. He also has to rate as one of the best director’s we have ever produced from within New Zealand. Not only has Habicht directed narrative film but he has also directed a number of excellent documentaries – “Kaikohe Demolition (2004), “Land of the Long White Cloud” (2009) and “Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets” (2014). These films not only take place in New Zealand but also show us as we are, as well as reflecting very different aspects of our social culture that make up what it is to be a New Zealander.

Unlike other narrative filmmakers and documentarians that work in New Zealand or are trying to make New Zealand stories Habicht does not use irony or some kind of heightened reality, he approaches his work as well as his subjects with a curiousness that we have if we were making similar stories. Not only that, he also, I believe, sees himself as the outsider or the ‘other’, while he maintains that the people he is filming are the ‘normal’ ones, while we are the strangers looking in on what have become different parts of the cultural, political and social landscape. Now comes what may seem like a strange choice to make for a documentary but once viewed you can see why Habicht was so attracted to it. It covers people who are seen as minorities who are a family that work through hardships as well as successes like people who are related by blood.

“Spookers” (2017) takes viewers inside and behind-the-scenes of the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest horror theme park, located in the former Nurse Hostel in the Kingseat Hospital Grounds in Auckland.

I am not going to spoil this documentary by going to far into each charater or the owners, but suffice to say you are introduced to employees, employers, a nurse who used to work at Kingseat as well as a previous patient. Habicht is wise enough to give a portion of the running time over to the nurse as well as the ex-patient,  offering some commentary through the employees about what it is like to be in a place where former mental patients and carers worked and lived.

If you have seen Florian Habicht’s first film “Woodenhead” (2003) which is a kind of surreal gothic fairy tale which could be said to inhabit the literary works of the Brothers Grimm, you will know what kind of filmmaker he can be as well as the kind of quirky outlook he is able to have within his own films. This is no more apparent than in “Spookers” where he not only interviews the family and employees of the nightclub but also interprets their dreams into a kind of reality for the viewer to experience. This like most of Habicht’s work is something that is unique to himself, he does have a touch of the David Lynch coupled with Jim Jarmusch who I am sure are influences on his work.

This is Habicht’s first documentary and major work since the excellent “Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets” (2014) which coincided with a reunion of the Britpop band ‘Pulp’, it not only highlighted the band as well as their music but used their hometown of Sheffield as a character that becomes a part of the documentary to great effect – as does the populace that know of the band. This is something that Habicht repeats here, but instead of the geographical area being a secondary character it is the primary one, with the people and their stories taking center stage, it is quite a feat to see the people behind the scenes as well as behind the makeup start to reveal themselves within their own narratives.

For decades New Zealanders did not see themselves, the essential ‘us’, on the big screen but now it is commonplace with the advent of reality television to see a brand of New Zealand onscreen or some kind of exaggerated view of ourselves, or even just some made up stylized version that is influenced by US cinema. What I absolutely love about Florian Habicht is that he is not afraid, for better or worse, to let his subjects whether they be an alternative band, some fisherman or an entire town speak for themselves with little filtering. Of course as with any documentary we are still be shown and are invited to see a point of view which is on some level artificial, the people involved are all wearing masks, even the nightclub is hiding what it is, this of course is done by others, such as the owners of the club. While they and their employees reflect on the past of the hospital, I wonder if any real reflection is done by the patrons – I think not.

“Spookers” touches on the employees lives within as well as outside of their ‘Spookers’ environment, we are given glimpses of the experiences that have shaped them, from being HIV-positive, to suffering from depression to physical health concerns. But as a viewer we are always brought back to their lives within ‘Spookers’, what it means to them as well as the stories they have invented for their characters there. It is actually inspiring to see the employees be creative in ways they may have thought they would not get a chance to be – they are listened to as well as respected by their customers as well as their fellow workers.

The style used by Habicht could be considered eclectic as it changes quite a bit throughout the narrative. It starts quite formal, moving though some surreal elements while reverting back to its beginning as being quite formal once again. Some of the best parts are the mixing of background environments that are in a mall or outside a dairy where the subjects are interviewed in full horror make-up talking in their familiar Kiwi drawl – but like anything once you see it a few times it seems ‘normal’.

This is just a great documentary and like Florian Habicht’s other documentaries it really does open the viewer up to other segments of New Zealand as well as a niche business that has been running  for almost twenty years without much real fuss. What is interesting as well is the exploration of the geographic area, that is a horror house, which like the people that inhabit it (albeit as employees and not patients) has a unique story that many may not know about. I recommend this highly as Habicht is once again proving he has excellent taste, can listen to all kinds of people and can really spot and explore ideas that are fascinating to see unfold on the big screen. As I have already stated this is a glimpse of another part of New Zealand rarely seen in true life or in cinema. The fact that Habicht was able to make this into a movie and not a television show is testament to his talent as well as his vision for this story which is what he is primarily interested in as we should all be.

“Spookers” is released on the 14th September in theatres only.

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