NZIFF Review: Spookers

Confession: I didn’t expect to come out of Florian Habicht’s Spookers feeling as buoyant as I did. While the trailer for the film had utterly charmed me into making Spookers part of my NZIFF viewing this year, trailers can be deceiving. Thankfully, Spookers turned out to be a funny, engaging and life-affirming documentary experience.

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Spookers looks at the lives of the actors behind the grisly characters at the popular horror theme park of the same name. The brainchild of Beth and Andy Watson (operated in conjunction with their daughter Julia), visitors come to be scared by zombie brides, tortured souls and killer clowns; some characters so terrifying that there’s no guarantee that people will make it right through the entire park. Adding to the character of the story is the fact that the theme park is located in the former Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital, a place which has ghosts of both the literal and sociological kind.

With Spookers, Florian Habicht cheekily plays with the conventions of documentary, straddling the fictional and real world by having whimsical dream sequences scattered throughout: hazy, visually distorted scenes with each interviewee as the pivotal character in the “dream”: young Cameron rises from a wormy grave to be enveloped by his Spookers family after talking in character about his struggles with ADHD and dyslexia and precocious Huia walks on water after talking about the two most important things in his life: Spookers and his Mormon faith.

It’s a refreshing way to create a film around documentary material, and it works. Habicht also gets bonus points for fun and creative opening titles. There’s also some lively and exhilarating camerawork. Instead of relying on static exteriors, Habicht takes you on a dynamic journey through the Maize Maze, including a breath-taking aerial view to show the sheer extent of the maze, and a fast-paced and thrilling journey through the Spookers park by spotlight, encountering the terrifying characters in their various nooks and crannies. While nothing beats the experience of going through the theme park yourself, Spookers comes close.

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Another important thread in the film regards the use of the old Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital for the Spookers theme park. Whereas some films may aim to exploit the issue and make it more salacious, Habicht handles it in a balanced and compassionate way by interviewing not only the Watsons and the Spookers actors about it, but also a former Kingseat nurse and, most memorably, former Kingseat patient Deborah. It’s an element in Habicht’s documentary that is to be commended.

And while there are genuinely laugh-out-loud and terrifying moments in the film, deep at its heart Spookers is about people- not just the wonderful interviewees, but society as a whole and the ways in which we are isolated from one another and longing for connection. Some of the people who come to work for Spookers may have had difficulties connecting with the people around them, and thanks to their co-workers and the family atmosphere provided by the Watsons, they feel empowered and in a place where they belong. How much of what we go through as humans is driven by loneliness and the need to connect, especially in the digital age? On the whole, Spookers is a genuine delight – not only because of Habicht’s deft hand, but because of the people at the heart of the story.

Lynnaire MacDonald, Publicist and Founder, Film Sprites PR

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