'Spookers': Film Review | Hot Docs 2017

Courtesy of HotDocs
Tells you more than you ever wanted to know.

Florian Habicht's documentary goes behind the scenes at New Zealand's largest haunted house attraction.

Have you ever attended a haunted house attraction and — after being scared silly by the performers pretending to be zombies and psycho killers — asked yourself, “Gee, I wonder what they’re like in real life?” If so, Spookers is the film for you.

Florian Habicht’s (Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets) new documentary, which recently received its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs, goes behind the scenes at New Zealand’s largest and most heavily attended scare park. Located not far from Auckland on the grounds of a notorious former psychiatric hospital, the place would be scary even if it wasn’t trying to be, and as the film illustrates, it tries very, very hard.

Owned by Beth and Andy Watson, a perfectly nice-seeming married couple who one would normally not expect to be reaping a windfall by literally (in some cases) scaring the crap out of their customers, Spookers is a massive attraction that even includes an outdoor corn maze. The film largely concentrates on its mostly young employees who clearly enjoy putting on their ghoulish makeup and pretending to be demonic characters.

In some cases, their performances prove practically therapeutic. One performer who plays an evil clown admits that he’s always been scared of them. Some describe how the family-like camaraderie among the employees has helped them deal with such personal crises as an HIV-positive diagnosis and suicidal thoughts. Another talks about how much he enjoys donning a gown to play a zombie bride, although he’s never particularly felt like dressing in drag before.

The attraction’s former incarnation, Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital, was built in 1932 and at its peak housed 850 patients attended to by a staff numbering 250. So large it even had its own morgue, it operated for nearly 70 years and has long had the reputation of being haunted. The film includes an interview with a former patient who expresses understandable resentment at what she sees as exploitation of the pain and suffering of those who were committed there.

While the doc includes many fun, insider-ish details — such as the “Code Brown” message indicating that a clean-up is required after one customer suffered a “really bad fright,” or that the employees had to be restrained from scaring patrons in the parking lot because some were subsequently too frightened to go in — it ultimately proves repetitive. There’s only so much excitement to be garnered from watching the performers endlessly cavort in maniacal fashion, and the dramatic recreations of their nightmares proves as interesting as, well, listening to other people talk about their nightmares. In the case of Spookers — the film, not the theme park — less would definitely have been more.    

Production company: Madman Production Company
Director: Florian Habicht
Screenwriters: Florian Habicht, Peter O’Donoghue, Veronica Gleeson
Producers: Nic Batzias, Lani-Rain Feltham, Suzanne Walker, Virginia Whitwell
Executive producer: Paul Wiegard
Director of photography: Grant Adams
Editor: Peter O’Donoghue
Composer: Marc Chesterman
Venue: Hot Docs

82 minutes