From fantasy hor­ror to hor­rors of war

The Southland Times - - TELEVISION - SHAUN BAMBER

Alit­tle over a month ago I had barely heard of New Zealand film-maker David Blyth. His name vaguely rang a bell - as did the ti­tle of what some might call his mag­num opus, Death Warmed Up, New Zealand’s first hor­ror film - but I’d never seen any of his movies and wouldn’t have been able to name one if I’d tried.

But then it was an­nounced that clas­sic old black-and-white 1960s sit­com The Mun­sters was be­ing re­booted in the States and a spark of recog­ni­tion kin­dled.

Ear­lier this year, I’d had the plea­sure of talk­ing to former Short­land Street ac­tor Karl Bur­nett, who’d hap­pened to men­tion that his first-ever role was in a 1992 movie called Gram­pire, which also starred the orig­i­nal Grandpa Mun­ster him­self, Al Lewis, in the lead.

Gram­pire - orig­i­nally ti­tled Moon­light, and then changed again to My Grandpa Is A Vam­pire for dis­tri­bu­tion in Amer­ica - was di­rected by Blyth, so I thought I’d track him down and see if I could coax out a mem­ory or two about what it was like work­ing with The Mun­sters star.

It didn’t take too much dig­ging - I soon found his email ad­dress on­line and less than 20 min­utes later he’d replied to me with a phone num­ber.

We ended up speak­ing at length - about not only Gram­pire, but also some of the dozen or so other fea­ture films Blyth has di­rected.

Blyth is an in­ter­est­ing fel­low, to say the least, and I felt a more in­depth in­ter­view might be in or­der, so ar­ranged to meet him at his home on Auck­land’s Whanga­paraoa Penin­sula.

The 61-year-old greeted me with a smile and a hand­shake in the im­pos­ing en­trance­way of his proudly pur­ple home, long but grey­ing hair tied back in a rough pony­tail.

Again, our con­ver­sa­tion ranged far and wide - the type of film stock he used in his early days, the time he met a very drunk then-PM Rob Mul­doon, cryo­gen­ics, eth­nob­otany - like I said, an in­ter­est­ing fel­low. Since shoot­ing that first film, An­gel Mine, at the age of 21, Blyth has al­ways leaned to­wards the more hor­rific and/or fan­tas­ti­cal side of things when it comes to mak­ing movies.

Blyth grew up mostly on a diet of war movies but notes that see­ing The Texas Chain­saw Mas­sacre in his late teens ‘‘ter­ri­fied the hell out of me’’.

He lists Ri­d­ley Scott’s Blade Run­ner among his favourite films and ad­mits to await­ing the se­quel ‘‘with great an­tic­i­pa­tion’’.

Study­ing art his­tory and an­thro­pol­ogy at Auck­land Univer­sity in the 1970s, Blyth ‘‘ended up’’ in a film ap­pre­ci­a­tion class taught by Dr Roger Hor­rocks, one of New Zealand’s most em­i­nent film aca­demics, who first in­tro­duced him to the joys of Euro­pean cin­ema.

Not long af­ter that came Blyth’s di­rec­to­rial de­but Cir­ca­dian Rhythms, a 14-minute-long, blackand-white psy­cho­log­i­cal drama that went on to screen at film fes­ti­vals through­out the coun­try.

Then the con­tro­ver­sial An­gel Mine in 1978, the first-ever film to be funded by the New Zealand Film Com­mis­sion, which in ret­ro­spect might seem a rather un­usual de­ci­sion on their part.

Vividly il­lus­trat­ing a sub­ur­ban cou­ple’s de­scent into mad­ness, it caused quite the stir, and even pro­voked calls for the im­me­di­ate dis­so­lu­tion of the fledg­ling Film Com­mis­sion.

‘‘Be­cause, of course, it’s got all sorts of out­ra­geous things like sodomy,’’ Blyth ex­plains.

‘‘There used to be a tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial that fea­tured th­ese lit­tle sweets called Hot Shots,’’ he con­tin­ues. ‘‘And there was a Welling­ton ac­tor called Michael Wil­son - ’Cap­tain Hot Shot’ - who we had burst out of a closet and jump on this guy. I just took the per­son from the ad and put him in the same uni­form, but in­stead of sell­ing the sweet he’s hav­ing sodomy with the lead­ing ac­tor.’’

‘‘I re­mem­ber sit­ting with the chief cen­sor at the time, down in Welling­ton, and I had to ex­plain to him that be­cause his head wasn’t mov­ing up and down, it was ac­tu­ally a fantasy.

‘‘It was a pro­jec­tion by the wife - be­cause you see the hus­band and wife in An­gel Mine ba­si­cally tor­ture each other with var­i­ous com­mer­cials. It’s quite in­no­va­tive. It was way ahead of its time, and in a way it hasn’t dated.’’

Fast-for­ward 40 years and Blyth’s most re­cent en­deav­our side­lines fantasy hor­ror for the very real hor­rors of war in the form of his con­tin­u­ing doc­u­men­tary project Me­mories Of Ser­vice, a se­ries of 50 in­ter­views with veter­ans from World War II, Korea and Viet­nam, avail­able for view­ing on the NZ On Screen web­site.

Me­mories Of Ser­vice grew out of his 2002 doc­u­men­tary Our Old­est Sol­dier, in which Blyth in­ter­viewed his 97-year-old grand­fa­ther, a vet­eran of World War I.

‘‘I re­alised that by mak­ing this lit­tle 23-minute doc­u­men­tary of my grand­fa­ther, in a way I’d made him eter­nal, and his story eter­nal, so it rep­re­sents not just my grand­fa­ther, but a lot of other grand­fa­thers,’’ Blyth says.

Sub­se­quently, Blyth de­cided to give that won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity of sto­ry­telling on film to more veter­ans – which in turn led to a four-year labour of love on Me­mories Of Ser­vice.

‘‘I’ve done it in a way as my ser­vice for this coun­try,’’ Blyth says.

‘‘Be­cause there’s very lit­tle in­ter­est in fund­ing from any of the main bod­ies. It’s al­most like you have to be dead to get your story told as a vet­eran in this coun­try.

‘‘So I feel very proud that I’ve given 50 other fam­i­lies that unique op­por­tu­nity to have their grand­fa­ther - or fa­ther, or mother - speak­ing of their ser­vice.’’

As for his ser­vices to the New Zealand film in­dus­try, while Blyth’s 40-year ca­reer cer­tainly hasn’t al­ways gelled with main­stream ap­petites and ex­pec­ta­tions, there’s no doubt we’ve been bet­ter off hav­ing him around than not – from An­gel Mine to Me­mories Of Ser­vice and all the movie mad­ness in be­tween.

Di­rec­tor David Blyth: ‘‘I would de­scribe my­self in a sim­plis­tic way, as a film-maker that looks at the hor­ror in the ev­ery­day.’’

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