dir. Gaylene Preston
1986 / 83′
written by Geoff Murphy, Gaylene Preston and Graeme Telly
from a story by Elizabeth Jane Howard
cinematography by Thomas Burstyn
original music by Jonathan Crayford
starring Heather Bolton, David Letch, Margaret Umbers, Gary Stalker and Danny Mulheron
Mr Wrong is available on OOP VHS under the American title of Dark of the Night
Meg (Heather Bolton perfectly embodying a mixture of inexperience/naivety and hidden strength) has left her country home for the big city (I’d insert a joke about what “big city” means in New Zealand here, but that would be oh so inappropriate seeing where I live), where she works in an antiquities store. To make it easier to visit her parents over the weekends – and probably as a symbol of her freshly won independence – the young woman buys a used Jaguar.
Her first long drive with the car does not go quite as well as Meg would have hoped for. When she stops by the side of the road to take a night nap, she’s awoken by hard and pretty unhealthy sounding breathing noises from the back seat of the car that start whenever she turns off the interior lights. Worse, or at least even more frightening to her, there’s nothing and nobody to see on the back seat.
After that experience, Meg becomes increasingly nervous and afraid of the car, a state of affairs that is certainly not improved by further peculiar happenings surrounding it. After Meg has had a nightmare centring on a long-haired woman, she sees the exact same woman standing by the side of the road trying to hitch a ride in her waking life. For whatever reason, Meg stops for her.
However, the woman isn’t alone. A man (David Letch) gets in together with her, but he doesn’t seem to actually be together with the woman as Meg assumes. In fact, he doesn’t seem to know about the woman’s presence at all, which becomes understandable but not exactly less peculiar when she suddenly just disappears from the car. The guy is more than just a bit creepy too, and Meg has a hard time getting rid of him.
This experience is nearly enough to convince Meg of getting rid of her car as soon as possible, and when she learns that its last owner was a young woman about her age who was murdered, and whose killer has never been caught, our heroine does try to sell it off.
That, however, is much easier said than done, for the car begins to sabotage Meg’s efforts in ways that could be explained away by bad luck, if it weren’t clear to the young woman her car was haunted.
While all this is going on, a mysterious someone begins to send Meg roses – surely, this won’t have anything to do with the rather more horrible things going on in her life right now?
I know little about the movie scene in New Zealand (with the exception of being quite intimate with the films of Peter Jackson and Jane Campion), so I can’t really say how typical Gaylene Preston’s Mr Wrong is for the cinematic output of the country in the mid-80s. What I can say is that it is a pretty fantastic little film in mode and mood of the clever – and quite weird – ghost story. Given that this is based on one of the handful of supernatural tales Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote, the “clever and weird” part isn’t too much of a surprise; it is, however, quite a positive surprise how well the Weirdness of Howard’s story and Preston’s naturalistic eye on the New Zealand of the 80s complement each other.
As frequent readers of my ramblings will know by now, I am an admirer of low budget films that make use of the cheapest of all special effects – local colour – to set the mood of their stories, and am even more of an admirer of films that are letting the very real of a specific place and time collide with the Weird and the peculiar, so I am predisposed to liking Mr Wrong, as it is a film whose whole modus operandi is very much based on these techniques. Even better, Preston really knows what she’s doing in this regard, showing herself to be equally at home with taking a – slightly sarcastic – look at her central character’s live and times (I wouldn’t be too surprised if there were a certain autobiographical element at work here, either) and with slowly showing the seams and cracks of Meg’s existence where the disquiet and the strange can enter through, cracks, the film seems to say, even the most unspectacular of lives has. Are, after all, Meg’s life and that of her unhappy predecessor in car ownership all that different from each other? Preston doesn’t overstretch the parallels between the woman and the haunt. In fact, if you don’t want to see this aspect of the movie – that is most probably there to demonstrate something about the way a woman still has to fight for her independence (in the sense of self-ownership) – you will probably never notice it at all. It’s always excellent when a director is subtle with the treatment of her film’s metaphorical level.
From time to time, Mr Wrong is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s the kind of roughness that comes with the territory of making movies for little money in a place where making a movie can’t have been all that easy to begin with, and is offset by a direction that can be creative and imaginative without feeling the need to show off. After all, it’s clear to see for everyone that the director really knows how to use the idiom of the ghost story and the thriller without any need for her to point it out to her audience like a bad Hollywood actor trying once in his life for actual acting. Instead, Preston’s film impresses through an unassuming intelligence.