Saturday, March 14, 2015

New Zealand, the "new" home for horror comedy

For a pretty darn small film industry, New Zealand sure does produce a lot of horror comedy.

Having watched Housebound last night as a themed Friday the 13th viewing, I have now seen two Kiwi horror comedies from 2014 in the past six months. The other of course was What We Do in the Shadows, which I watched on the plane back from the U.S. in November. These might also be the two preeminent horror comedies, period, from 2014, though I'd have to think hard about other contenders before I arrived at that conclusion. (Also, What We Do in the Shadows is really more of a straight comedy with a horror backdrop than a movie that's actually trying to scare you.)

However, calling New Zealand the "new" home for horror comedy is not exactly accurate, either. Kiwi horror comedy dates back to the 1980s and the sensibilities of future auteur Peter Jackson.

Jackson started his career with the horror comedy Bad Taste in 1987, and continued making movies in that vein all the way through The Frighteners in 1996, after which he plunged himself into Middle Earth and other Hollywood blockbusters, and never looked back. Though I understand he is actually going to look back in the next stage of his career.

So horror comedy seems to be in New Zealand's cultural legacy. Jonathan King made the horror comedy Black Sheep in 2006, about a flock of bloodthirsty sheep, and he specifically credited Jackson's early movies as an influence on the film's slapstick style. There have been a few others that seem to fit the bill over the years, but none that I've seen.

Wait a minute, Vance. A handful of movies sprinkled over a country's entire history of making films is not enough to really posit a trend, is it?

Maybe not, but the number of horror comedies relative to the total number of films certainly suggests that Kiwis are predisposed to this type of movie, or at least feel perpetually indebted to Jackson for inspiring them. According to wikipedia's page on films made in New Zealand -- which is by no means exhaustive, since it does not even include Housebound -- only an average of about three movies per year were being made in New Zealand as recently as the turn of the century. Very quaint. And in 2002, one of those three movies was Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which has mostly foreign financing. Only in the past decade has New Zealand beefed itself up to between eight and ten movies per year ... but then as recently as two years ago, only two total films are listed -- and one of them is the second Hobbit film.

So to call New Zealand's film industry "fledgling" would still be quite accurate, which isn't such a surprise for a country of fewer than five million people (compared to Australia's 23 million). I think it's fair to say that horror comedy represents a disproportionate percentage of the country's output.

And they're pretty darn good at it. What We Do in the Shadows was perhaps my favorite comedy of 2014, though that isn't saying a lot as there were few comedies that really impressed me last year. Housebound isn't as consistently funny, though it did make me laugh out loud a half-dozen times. And it made up for that by genuinely scaring me on a couple occasions.

It's probably worth offering you a short synopsis of each to give you that extra little push to go see them. Both have delicious high concepts. What We Do in the Shadows invites a mockumentary crew into the Wellington mansion of a quartet of vampires who live together. They range in age from a sprightly couple hundred years old, and still suave, to an ancient Nosferatu type with gnarled claws and an ability to do little more than hiss. We get interviews with each, and the camera follows them around through their daily lives. It's as delightful and tonally perfect as it sounds. Housebound, on the other hand, takes place in a different type of mansion out in the country. Its protagonist is sent there for house arrest to live with her daffy mother after trying to rob an ATM. Her mother is convinced that the house is haunted, and she starts to believe the same after a series of unexplained events. They can't just leave the house, though -- the convict's ankle bracelet makes sure of that. It's already scheduled for a U.S. remake.

Both are worth your time, especially What We Do in the Shadows. And if you watch, perhaps you will help in some small way to boost New Zealand's meager output from three films per year to four.

And help ensure that there are plenty more great Kiwi horror comedies yet to come.

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