Let’s get this out of the way first up – Florian Habicht’s documentary Spookers is the best documentary in 2017. It’s been a great year for documentaries, but this film about the most successful scare house in New Zealand is – for me at least – right up there as being one of the best films of the year. The most enjoyable opening credit sequence in years has the staff of Spookers holding up gravestones with the various film crew names, immediately showing the great community that this business has fostered.
Spookers is a scare house that has been established in the long run down mental care facility, Kingseat Hospital, just near Auckland. What exactly is a scare house? Well, it’s a venue where people dress up in all manner of horror related figures – scary clowns, zombies, chainsaw wielding maniacs – and scare willing attendees. Gore hounds and horror freaks from all over the world come to visit the largest horror theme park in the Southern Hemisphere and have their nerves tested. The goal of this superb documentary is to add a narrative to the people behind the make up – and boy does it succeed at doing that.
Immediately, the ethical question of running a horror fuelled theme park in a facility that once housed mental patients is raised. After all, the horror genre hasn’t always been the kindest to those suffering from mental health issues; from Psycho to Halloween to Lights Out, mental health has often been the defining reason behind various horror villains reign of terror. Thankfully, Habicht is able to interview staff and patients who attended Kingseat when it was operational, with their interviews providing a great contrast to the dark terror that runs through the halls of the modern facility. The leaps and bounds that mental health care has come in such a short time (Kingseat closed in July 1999) is given a brief look as well.
Impressively, this look at the ethics of Spookers helps launch off discussions about the value of the horror community. It’s hard to display just exactly how important the horror community is to many people who live and breath horror every day of the year, but Spookers manages to do just that. For many of the staff who work at Spookers, it is a place of peace and calm, and a place where they can be themselves without judgement. For one staff member, working at Spookers helped with her depression, allowing her to recognise that she was not strange for how she was feeling. For others, it became a sanctuary away from home where they could be open about their sexuality. The community at Spookers moves from being just a place to work, to a place that harbours a great, big family.
For some of the staff, their dreams are recreated in grand fashion – exploring their psyche in fascinating cinematic ways. Through the recreation of their dreams, we see them become the heroes of their own story, allowed to re-enact what they see when they sleep in full make up and glory. In most circumstances, they are joined by their co-workers who gleefully react to the violence or harmony that may be within whatever dream they had.
The loving and caring community at Spookers wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the nurturing owners, Beth and Andy Watson, whose appearance would not suggest that they run a successful horror house. There is a pure dedication to creating a truly terrifying experience that is still a lot of fun. When asked about how they feel about scaring people, they are open and introspective about what they are doing. Most importantly for the Watson’s and the staff they employ, this is a place that is about having fun, and that’s what you get in buckets with Spookers.
Horror is often mistaken as being something that is fuelled by nastiness and hatred, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s possible to enact fear and terror while still being a caring individual. Scenes that show actors dressed up in all manner of insane attire scaring the bejesus out of people are accompanied by many scenes of the same actors comforting those terrified souls as they are escorted out of the maze. There is an affection for the attendees who willingly hand over their money to test the durability of their bladders in intense situations. These scenes are both the funniest, and most oddly touching, moments within the film.
Going in to Spookers, I was merely expecting to get a good film about a horror house in New Zealand. Walking out into the dark cold Leederville night after the screening at Revelation Film Festival, I found myself immensely moved by the stories told within this film. Spookers is, above all else, about showing respect to others and participating in a community. The fear created within the grounds of Spookers is driven by a love for horror, and the affection for those who drive the community. To hear the great respect that the Watson’s have for the people who were treated at Kingseat Hospital is powerful. To see the staff of Spookers who deal with their own mental health problems find a source of healing from a site of pain is powerful.
Spookers is hilarious, heartbreaking, exciting, frightening and important. This is what cinema is about – telling stories that you didn’t know existed, and subverting what the traditional narrative of those stories would usually be. In a year of truly great documentaries, Spookers manages to shock its way to the top of my pile.
Director: Florian Habicht
Cast: Huia Apiata, Juneen Borkent, David Palu
Writers: Florian Habicht, Peter O’Donoghue, Suzanne Walker, Vernoica Gleeson