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The horror of it all

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The Ferryman: not scary

Looking back at a horrible run

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[Screen]

As I write this, I’m at the tail end of a week spent doing what aspiring and working screenwriters the world over have been doing for decades.

It involves finding a quiet hotel room in a foreign city away from distractions, plonking down a laptop on the hotel desk (during the golden age of cinema it was obviously a typewriter), unplugging the phone and Internet and breaking the spine of a new screenplay.

If you put your mind to it and have the idea already nutted out in your head, you can write the first draft of a screenplay in a week—a weekend if the inspiration is really biting and you’re willing to stay up very late.

But my week away didn’t start well. That’s because I’m attempting to write a horror movie. No problem in that alone—horror is a great genre and has been for the entire history of film. The problem is that I’m trying to write a New Zealand horror, and the genre has been horribly tarnished by a string of badly-made, badly performing New Zealand-made horror movies.

I was five pages into the first act of Lucky Stiffs when I fell into the trap screenwriters need to avoid at all costs—wondering whether the film they are writing will ever have a chance of being made. I had to admit to myself that given the supernatural themes and the New Zealand setting, the chances of Lucky Stiffs being filmed, even if it was the best written thing in horror since The Shining, were slim.

After three recent flops—The Ferryman, The Tattooist and Perfect Creature—New Zealand horror projects are likely to be thin on the ground for a good while and funding from the New Zealand Film Commission even more elusive.

As Russell Baillie asked in the New Zealand Herald in March: “Why does our NZFC-underwritten industry keep churning out horrors that aren’t particularly scary, that fail to connect with a decent-sized audience at home or abroad, and whose stories and casting seem to groan under the weight of the international production deals behind them?”

The first of those projects, The Ferryman, is the only one I had an inside look at before seeing it on screen—the small screen in this case, as The Ferryman went straight to DVD.

I’d read a draft of the script, penned by the very capable writer Nick Ward (Stickmen), long before the NZFC had committed production funding. There were some obvious problems with the script, but the main problem was that it just wasn’t scary.

Eighteen months later I visited the Ferryman set north of Auckland where the bulk of the $7 million co-production between the NZFC and British company Prescience Films was being shot. The script, as far as I could glean, had hardly changed.

Producer Matthew Metcalfe gave me the plot breakdown and attempted to convince me that The Ferryman would be like one of those classic horror movies from the 70s where everything was “off-kilter from the beginning”.

“The Greek has been around for thousands of years. He’s mortal, but he has this knife that allows him to switch bodies. He’s an absolute sociopath,” explained Metcalfe.

“He will kill you without a blink. You can’t reason with him.”

Metcalfe was already looking forward to The Ferryman’s theatrical release. It never came, so it was with a sense of deja vu that I watched the movie earlier this year on DVD and saw what had failed to work on paper fail to work on screen too.

I knew there was something wrong with Glen Standring’s vampire horror Perfect Creature when to my great surprise I saw it in the DVD budget bin in an electronics store in San Francisco last year, months before its theatrical release in New Zealand.

After the distribution rights to the movie were scooped up in a major deal by 20th Century Fox, the film seemed destined for big things. But it took over a year for the film to be released in theatres, by which time a string of similarly-themed horrors had trampled through the box office.

But Perfect Creature’s failure can’t be blamed on the bad decisions of movie executives alone. As a horror it is forgettable, a stylish piece of work lumbered with a convoluted storyline. The movie seems to have been conceived as a showcase of what the filmmakers were capable of, rather than to entertain and thrill the audience.

The Tattooist has the same contrived feel to it, with a setting in the early scenes quite obviously demanded not by the screenwriter, but by the film’s Singaporean co-producers. It features some awful dialogue and plot points that seemed to have been made up on the day of shooting. It wasn’t scary. What is scary is that it was made.

Black Sheep was a horror that worked, but in the same way Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste worked, as a tongue-in-cheek splatter movie. The others tried at serious horror and failed—something the average filmgoer probably would have been able to spot when reading the screenplays for all three.

If our Kiwi horror pile-up has left a black spot on the genre, it has convinced me of one thing about filmmaking: a good screenplay is crucial to producing a good film, whatever the genre.

In the meantime, I’ve shelved Lucky Stiffs. Maybe I’ll try a nice little coming-of-age drama.