Sydney Film Festival Review: Spookers (NZ/AUS, 2017) finds therapy under a mask of terror

Kiwi filmmaker Florian Habicht jumps from making documentaries about Pulp and demolition derbies to modestly prodding around the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest horror theme park with Spookers, a stylish 85-minute piece that manages to weave together stories of exploitation and therapy amongst a whole heap of (fake) blood, guts and playful vignettes. It’s clear Habicht and his various subjects, most of whom are amateur actors at this theme park just south of Auckland, had a lot of fun piecing together this documentary and although it overindulges in style while sacrificing deeper themes, it succeeds at presenting us with a unique take on how important it is for someone to feel like they belong.

Beth and Andy Watson run Spookers, the attraction which is situated on the former grounds of New Zealand’s long abandoned Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital and includes multiple themed rooms (even an outdoor corn maze). The way it operates and how Habicht illustrates this is fascinating, focusing in on the many amateur actors – both young and older – who for each shift take on impeccably detailed characters like zombie brides, psycho clowns, zombies and ghouls and scare the living crap (sometimes literally) out of people. As such, the documentary is interwoven with frantic scenes of these workers – caked in self-applied make-up and self-expression – twitching, shouting and going to quite extreme lengths to (safely) terrify the public. Of course there are rules, particularly surrounding touching, but these scenes highlight such a visceral and in-your-face atmosphere of fear that there’s a true sense of horror to the point where it almost seems unethical to put members of the public through this.

Why would anyone want to do that job? Almost immediately the documentary begins to peel back these layers and focus in on some of the colourful and at times tragic stories of these workers. What starts to form is a tale of alternative therapy, whereby these workers, many whom have suffered from depression, learning disorders and general insecurity in the past, have found a sense of belonging by working for Spookers. Their costumes and what they’re required – or inspired – to do once under all that make-up brings out themes which are common to all types of acting and creative roles: freedom and expression.

The quiet and shy become the empowered and confident, and that much is clear from various interviews that stick with these fascinating subjects who by-day dabble in more mundane employment like insurance claims, flight attendant, retail, and hospitality. Though the documentary can be tonally confusing throughout, the thread of Spookers as a way to “reverse the damage” some of these workers have been through or are going through, is admirably held taut and remains the major crux of the piece. In some kind of strange way, the site is a psychiatric hospital of a different kind.

But ignoring the history of Kingseat would have been foolish; luckily Habicht is self-aware enough to tackle these questions and start to explore the ethics of acting out the stereotypical idea of extreme and violent insanity in such a location. A brief history of the psychiatric hospital, which opened in 1932, is included in the first half of Spookers, giving way to a thoughtful message of mental health stigma, even going so far as to interview a former patient who is rightfully concerned that the gimmick of a horror theme park lends to unintended mockery. It’s a concern evidently shared by the owners and staff, who are shown to be self-reflexive and inquisitive rather than dismissing or unsympathetic when discussing the history of Kingseat.

Habicht doesn’t mine this topic of discussion for all it could have been though, failing to explore in-depth these important questions which could have given Spookers a bit more gravitas. Granted, there ends up being plenty of different points of discussion which could have each been the basis of their own documentary, positioning Spookers as a conversation-starter more than anything else.

Rather – and as I’ve mentioned above – there’s too much fun to be had with the staff, who even stage stylish dramatic interpretations of the dreams and nightmares they’ve had since getting into these characters; it’s a nice touch, although many come across as disruptive to the flow of the more reverent material, like how the staff have become like family who support each other through issues ranging from suicide to even a diagnosis of HIV.

Running Time: 82 minutes

Spookers is screening as part of Sydney Film Festival. For more information and tickets click HERE.