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Kiwi horrormeisters scare up auds

Directors ride genre films to box office success

SYDNEY — They could easily be a regional outpost of the recent Stateside Splat Pack phenomenon, a collection of New Zealanders cutting their teeth on quirky frighteners.

Helmer Chris Graham (“The Ferryman”), director-scribe Jonathan King (“The Tattooist,” “Black Sheep”) and scribe Matt Grainger (“The Tattooist”) have all had recent breakout horror hits.

“Black Sheep” leads the flock with worldwide B.O. of $4.5 million (including a Blighty haul of $1.7 million in three weeks), while “The Tattooist” has earned more than $500,000 at home, where it bowed at No. 2 behind “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

“The Ferryman” is yet to have its theatrical bow but is already a fest hit — First Look Studios has snapped up Stateside distribution rights. But pic’s producer-scribe Matthew Metcalfe says it is less about a horror collective and more about “a new generation of directors bringing their own stories to New Zealand cinema.”

King agrees: “There’s a generation of us who, rather than looking to an older generation, take encouragement from successes that our generation is having.”

And so far that is horror, a trend that the helmers put down to a hefty diet of video nasties as they grew up.

“A 10-year-old, given the right set of circumstances, could watch ‘The Evil Dead,'” says Grainger. “And to suddenly see this visceral form of entertainment and see the effect it had on my peers was incredibly powerful.”

Kiwi cinema champion Peter Jackson has also given weight to indie horror as a career starter. “The Lord of the Rings” director began on horror pics “Bad Taste” and “Braindead” before graduating to the “Rings” juggernaut.

While suggesting the mini horror boom could be a coincidence, New Zealand Film Commission topper Ruth Harley says that genre can be a common start.

“We’ve always done the odd horror film, starting with Peter Jackson, and it’s a reasonably common first-time director’s form of expression,” Harley says.

“New Zealand’s own market can’t possibly support our films so we have to find a way that the world will buy our films,” says King. “It’s a way of making something that gets noticed in the rest of the world.”

But the filmmakers also are tackling new subjects after making their initial splatters. Most of this new wave has already come to the attention of the broader industry, and the next outings range from locally focused pics to international co-productions.

Harley points out that of the next eight pictures backed by the NZFC there is no genre fare.

Most notably, Grainger will helm a biopic of New Zealand racing driver Bruce McLaren, who became the youngest winner of a Formula One race when he won the U.S. Grand Prix at 22.

Pic is produced by “Rings” producer Barrie M. Osbourne, who says that he came to Grainger primarily as he was “a huge Formula One buff.” The two met when Grainger was an uncredited researcher at Weta during “Rings.”

Osbourne sees no problem in making the shift from horror to drama.

“If you are able to differentiate yourself from the background noise (in genre) by being innovative and creative, then you will get a career,” he says.

But first Grainger and King will reteam on “Under the Mountain,” a dark fantasy adventure from author Maurice Gee, who wrote 2004’s “In My Father’s Den,” a successful Kiwi film by Brad McGann.

Teen fantasy “Mountain” will lense in Auckland next year and is backed by the NZFC with coin from London-based Capitol Films and NZ On Air. Capitol will handle international sales through its ThinkFilm shingle, excluding Australia and New Zealand.

Inspired by Geoff Murphy’s Kiwi ’80s road movie “Goodbye Pork Pie,” Graham plans to stay in NZ for his next pic.

“It’s a hip-hop road movie based on a true story about two young graffiti artists who go on a long rampage across the country on the run from police,” he says. ” ‘The Piano’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ showcased the local landscape but not in a contemporary setting, so that is what I want to do.”

And with international attention coming their way, it seems Jackson is a creative inspiration and has provided a business model.

“Its been very inspiring what Peter Jackson has been able to do just in terms of bringing projects back here while still being based here,” says King.

Adds Grainger: “There are huge incentives to stay working in New Zealand: We have good stories to tell, and we have experienced crew, and we have an infrastructure that can deliver films to the highest standard, and its needs to be supported. I would like to think that I would be able to do that in the future.”

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