Stranger With My Face International Film Festival - 2017

The Tasmanian horror festival with a focus on female filmmakers returns for its fifth year. Originally founded by Briony Kidd & Rebecca Thomson, the festival is programmed and run by Kidd over the course of four days, this year 4th - 7th May, and amongst showcasing a small selection of features and shorts, it also sports numerous Q&As and symposiums, as well as being home to the 48-Hour Tasploitation Challenge. 

This year’s program includes the following features: The Book of Birdie from the UK, Dearest Sister, a co-pro from Laos/France/Estonia, the American anthology XX, Innuendo from Australia, and three retrospective screenings; Wes Craven’s 1991 The People Under the Stairs, and from New Zealand, Gaylene Preston’s Mr. Wrong (1984) and Perfect Strangers (2003). The cinematographer from People Under the Stairs will be present for a Q&A, and Gaylene Preston will be present for Q&As for both her screenings. 

Mr. Wrong was one of those runaway success stories, a sleeper that kept a lot of Wellingtonians awake back in 1984. I remember it ran in Wellington for months and months. A micro-budget affair, based on a story by Elizabeth Jane Howard, the screenplay was co-written by Preston, Graeme Tetley (who would go on to script several other successful New Zealand movies, such as Vigil, Bread & Roses, Ruby and Rata, and Out of the Blue), and director Geoff Murphy. 

Murphy was probably still riding high from the huge success of his road movie, Goodbye Pork Pie, which came out a few years earlier. In fact, both movies, along with Smash Palace (1981), were part of the first wave of Kiwi movies to make an impact overseas. In 1986 Mr. Wrong was released on VHS in the States, and re-titled Dark of the Night. Quentin Tarantino must have seen it while he was working at Video Archives, as he was eventually quoted as saying how impressed he was with the movie in particular the unconventional (plain Jane by Hollywood standards) casting of Heather Bolton as the central character.

Bolton plays Meg, a lonely Wellington woman, who buys a second hand Jaguar (a beautiful machine), and finds that the car is haunted. David Letch is perfectly cast as a leering stalker (he’d appear as Spider in David Blyth's cult exploitation-horror Death Warmed Up released the same year), as is Perry Percy, as a silent ghost waiting for revenge. Meg struggles with her fear and the car’s supernatural clinginess.

It’s a classic example of the low-key, but surprisingly effective approach Kiwis have had in telling cinema stories. Sure, the movie moves a little slow for a horror, and the suspense and scares, while atmospheric, aren’t exactly going to have you on the edge of your seat, yet there is a quaintness to the movie, both in performance and vibe, that works in its favour, especially watching it more than thirty years later. Thom Burstyn’s cinematography (with legendary Alun Bollinger doing the camera operating) is excellent, especially the location shooting, in particular a creepy set-up with the car by a creaking fence by the edge of the cliff, up on Paekakariki Hill. 

Mr. Wrong has aged in a pleasantly surprising way. For X-Gen Kiwis it's curious to spot the local actors in their younger years (including a very young Rebecca Gibney in a blink and you’ll miss her moment), but it’s also a fascinating example of very economical, but effective storytelling. 


Mr. Wrong screens at 8pm, Friday May 5th, followed by Q&A with director/co-writer Gaylene Preston, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, Tasmania, as part of the Stranger With My Face International Film Festival