Despite a number of excursions into family friendly fare, filmmaker David Blyth has often been drawn towards the edge: whether exploring horror, sexuality or the unconscious. In 2007 book New Zealand Filmmakers, British academic Stacey Abbott calls him "a key director in the development of Kiwi Gothic cinema". She argues that despite having made everything from period dramas to documentary, Blyth's films are preoccupied with concepts of normality and abnormality — and that he has consistently returned to horror.
The first film David Blyth remembers seeing is The Red Balloon, but it was Luis Buñuel's surrealist classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie that hooked Blyth into a life in movies. Impressed by Buñuel's gift for incorporating experimentation and social satire into commercial cinema, the young Auckland arts student began training himself in filmmaking by watching "lots and lots of films".
Repeated viewings of "magical" Buñuel/ Dali classic Un Chien Andalou were made to unlock its magic. Blyth collaborated with actor and scriptwriter Richard Von Sturmer to make black and white short Circadian Rhythms (1976) for $750, using outdated film stock. The short attempts to "slip past the conscious mind", as it explores what goes through the mind of a man after a car crash. Circadian Rhythms screened at film festivals in New Zealand and Sydney.
Blyth went onto his first paid film job, as third assistant director on the troubled shoot of 1977 romance Solo. The following year, aged only 22, he made one of New Zealand's more noteworthy feature film debuts: writing and directing Angel Mine, which combined Blyth's interests in dreamlike imagery, social satire and pushing the boundaries. Based around the life —fantastical and otherwise — of a young suburban couple, the film explored Blyth's concerns that people's dreams and fantasy lives were being tainted by a "headlong dive into materialism".
The entire film was completed for $39,000 — just under half of it supplied by the Interim Film Commission, who funded post-production. The Kiwi censor created a new warning to go with the film's R18 certificate: 'contains Punk Cult Material'. Morals campaigner Patricia Bartlett expressed annoyance that the Commission and the Arts Council had "squandered" money on it at all. Arts Council chairman Hamish Keith hit back, arguing that Angel Mine's black comic portrait of suburban NZ was "genuinely original".
In 1980, Blyth left for Europe, partly thanks to a grant from the Film Commission. He spent time with three filmmakers known for pursuing their own visions: Brit enfant terrible Derek Jarman, Rocky Horror Picture Show's Jim Sharman, and cult legend Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo), who would later praise Blyth's vision and sense of atmosphere.
Blyth had been impressed by a script from Brit Elizabeth Gowans: a "not-so-golden story of life for a young woman in early New Zealand". After returning home he turned it into hour-long TV movie A Woman of Good Character, which won a Feltex award for lead actor Sarah Peirse. Extending the film by 20 minutes under new title It's Lizzie to Those Close, in order to up foreign sales, was not Blyth's idea. He was also invited by producer Ross Jennings to direct for longrunning soap Close to Home; Blyth ultimately helmed 12 episodes, including the wedding of key characters Gail and Gavin.
In 1984, Blyth landed back in cinemas with New Zealand's first horror movie, splatter romp Death Warmed Up. This gleeful celebration of mutants, mad scientists, and motorcycle chases won top prize at a fantasy film festival in Paris (Jodorowsky, who was president of the jury, praised the film's personal vision in an interview at the time). Death Warmed Up marked the big-screen debut of Kiwi actor Michael Hurst. It was also the first of many collaborations between Blyth and another talent with an eye for horror: scriptwriter Michael Heath.
Local writer David Lascelles memorably wrote that Death Warmed Up hadn't been released; "it escaped". The escapee sold to 20 plus countries, and got a 40-print French release. It also won Blyth a US agent, and an offer to direct Canadian vampire tale Red Blooded American Girl (and a sequel). Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) featured.
Excited by the idea of pulling vampire mythology into a New Zealand context, Blyth then worked with Michael Heath on adapting Heath's radio play Moonrise into a movie. The central character is a boy who discovers his kind-hearted grandfather is a vampire. The grandfather was played by American veteran Al Lewis, best-known for cult 60s TV show The Munsters. Reviews crossed the gamut, though industry magazine The Hollywood Reporter found it "engagingly silly and kind" and praised the "warm, anti-authority bonding". Retitled Grampire by its Kiwi distributors, and My Grandpa is a Vampire in America, the film was nominated for the top award at 1991's Fantasporto fantasy festival in Portugal, but was beaten by fellow Kiwi entrant Braindead.
For the rest of the 90s Blyth concentrated on television work, including episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, shot while he was living in LA, and writing and directing credits on NZ-shot adventure White Fang. He also helped Don Selwyn train emerging Māori writers and directors. In 1994 Blyth directed Kahu & Maia for Selwyn, which won awards at an indigenous festival in Canada. The 50-minute drama stars Cliff Curtis and Vanessa Rare (Ruby and Rata) as a carver and a mother who may be destined to meet. Blyth followed it with Sunday Theatre piece The Call Up, which follows three Kiwi soldiers before they leave to serve in Bosnia. The drama's powerhouse cast included Joel Tobeck, Rena Owen, Marton Csokas and Danielle Cormack.
By the time Blyth had completed American-funded TV thriller Exposure in 2000, he felt in need of reinvention. Worried he'd "lost touch with my own personal view of the world", Blyth turned to documentary as a way to reconnect with projects that mattered.
Blyth does reinvention like few others. In 2002 he explored his interests in desire and the unconscious with a documentary on dominatrices, Bound for Pleasure. It played on TV3 and was sold in a number of different versions, to accommodate various markets. Blyth followed it with TV3 documentary Age of Aquariums, a documentary about people who keep fish as pets, and spin-off project Fish Tank Telly, which sets ambient music by collaborator Jed Town to images of aquarium fish. Meanwhile 2007's Transfigured Nights explores the world of webcam mask performers. In 2011, while in Brazil for a festival retrospective of his films, he took some film workshops and ended up doing an all nighter, directing an extended music video for local band Damn Laser Vampires.
One of the first documentaries to emerge in this period signalled a new area of interest: stories told by Kiwi soldiers. 2002's Our Oldest Soldier was the first of three docos to utilise interviews with his late grandfather Lawrence 'Curly' Blyth, who fought in World War I. The second was French Connection, which saw Blyth following Curly's footsteps to Le Quesnoy, a French fortress town liberated by Kiwi soldiers. In 2014 Blyth began extended archival project Memories of Service in conjunction with the RSA, recording dozens of extended interviews with Kiwi war veterans. The interviews fuelled a number of one-off documentaries; in 2019, Blyth was set to have five different war-related docos screening on Anzac Day across New Zealand's TV networks.
Meanwhile Wound (2010) marked Blyth's first feature in over a decade: he described it as "arthouse, with a sprinkling of splatter". Shot in less than a fortnight, he found it one of the most enjoyable filmmaking experiences of his career. The tale of a vengeful daughter (Kate O'Rourke) haunted by her past, Wound was invited to play in the 2010 round of NZ Film Festivals, and two dozen genre festivals overseas. Famed British director Ken Russell later described it as a "romantically charged Gothic psycho-sexual horror tale" — and a masterpiece.
In 2013 Blyth wrote and directed supernatural tale Ghost Bride, which he described to website Flicks as "a cross-cultural story around marriage practice". The film sees a young Chinese immigrant to NZ caught up in an arranged marriage of the very worst kind.
In August 2015, Ngā Taonga programmed a retrospective of Blyth's darker works. Blyth continues interviewing war veterans, and has co-written two new feature scripts — one with award-winning playwright Thomas Sainsbury (A Simple Procedure), and another with US scribe Mark Daniels.
Profile written Ian Pryor
Originally published on 15 April 2009; updated on 10 April 2019
David Blyth website. Accessed 10 April 2019
Stacey Abbott, ‘The Nightmare within the Everyday - The Horrific Visions of David Blyth’ in New Zealand Filmmakers. Editors Ian Conrich and Stuart Murray (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007)
Wound website. Accessed 10 April 2019
James D, 'Wound interview - David Blyth and Campbell Cooley' (Interview). Wicked Channel.com website. Loaded 4 March 2011. Accessed 3 August 2015
Nick Grant, 'Blyth Spirit' (Interview) - Onfilm, May 2008
Roger Horrocks, 'New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery: David Blyth' (Catalogue) 1985
Helen Martin and Sam Edwards, New Zealand Film 1912 - 1996 (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997)
David Lascelles, Review of Death Warmed Up - Rough Cut, February 1985
Steve Newall, 'Interview: 'Ghost Bride' Director David Blyth'. Flicks website. Loaded 30 October 2013. Accessed 3 August 2015
Diana Ward, 'David Blyth's new film Angel Mine' - Art New Zealand no 11, Spring 1978, page 31
'Moonrise Opens London Festival' - NZfilm, no 47, October 1992, page 10