There’s somewhat of a fascination with Kiwi horror films thanks to Peter Jackson. He gave us two of his home country’s most bizarre, amazing horrors in Braindead and Bad Taste before moving on to helm higher profile features. He still stayed around the genre with Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. But he quickly abandoned it when it came time to make The Lord of the Rings.
However, Peter Jackson is only one filmmaker. Not every great Kiwi horror movie was directed by him. Although, he was actually a producer on the film I’m about to discuss. It’s a little flick called The Ugly. It’s known among the hardcore horror circles, perhaps, but most people I talk to, even the fans, tend not to know a thing about it.
I did not discover The Ugly on its own and did not find it through recommendation. I first encountered it on a DVD compilation called Boogeymen, comprised mostly of clips from famous horror movies because you could sell something like that when the Internet was still in its infancy. Most of the stuff on that DVD was pretty standard. You had Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, Pinhead, Chucky… and then you had Simon Cartwright. I had never heard of this character but, being a curious teen made me want to know about him all the more. What I got was a single clip from The Ugly that only raised more questions.
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But it wasn’t until I was twenty that I actually saw the film. I’d almost forgotten about it by that point. Still, the one thing that struck me from the single scene I’d witnessed proved to be one of the most endearing aspects of the feature. Let me explain: The Ugly is a combination of two genres that on every level simply shouldn’t work together. It’s a psychological serial killer movie in the tradition of Silence of the Lambs, but it’s also a vaguely supernatural ghost story. These two genres are almost always separate. When they’re combined—as in, say, The Frighteners—the production usually has to take on a quirky tone not generally associated with either idea in order to treat them both appropriately.
That’s not the case with The Ugly. It plays everything sincerely and does so in an incredibly endearing way. We have the meticulously thought out and detailed backstory of Simon, explained through flashbacks and one-on-one therapy sessions hoping to get to the truth behind why he does the things he does.
Like most real-life serial killers, Simon’s story changes sometimes. You can never be totally sure when he’s recounting genuine trauma or trying to play his psychologist for sympathy. But you feel for Simon. A horror film is only as good as its villain and Simon is a major part of what makes The Ugly work as well as it does. You genuinely empathize with his character.
Much like Carrie, it’s not the main character who’s the scariest one, despite the awful things he or she does. It’s their mother. Simon’s mother is even more cartoonishly evil than Piper Laurie in Carrie, to the point where she forbids Simon from learning to read solely so that he can’t read a letter sent by his father, saying that he wants the boy to come stay with him. Instead, she’s always told her son that his father abandoned them because he hated him and if he ever tried to look for him, his father would kill them both.
Yes, Simon does grow up to be a serial killer, but he doesn’t claim responsibility for his actions. It’s not that he blames his mother or the bullies for making him the way he is, it’s stranger than that. He blames ghosts, ghosts of victims past and future who command him to do the things he does. And even if we’re never sure if these spirits are actually real, they’re some of the scariest spooks ever put on film. Simply on a visual level, they’re haunting.
One of the best things about The Ugly is that we can never be entirely sure what’s going on. That’s what really makes it such an underrated film deserving of far more attention than it gets. It’s a deep, complex movie, made for very little money, that still manages to be scary as hell. That’s a nearly impossible conceit to pull off, but The Ugly does it. It works on multiple levels. Even the title can take on multiple meanings, once you watch the film. Who is the Ugly? Simon? His ghosts? Are they real, and even if they are, how responsible are they for the evils Simon has committed?
Great, thought-provoking horror films make you question everything and The Ugly is perfect at that. It’s one that so many more people need to see. If you want to experience a side of Kiwi horror, that’s very different from the slapstick splatter of Peter Jackson, you absolutely owe it to yourself to check out The Ugly.