Spending several years abroad in England forever changed Gaylene Preston. It was there the filmmaker got a firsthand education in second-wave feminism before finally returning to her homeland of New Zealand. Now sporting a different outlook, Preston could not help but feel like an outsider in the then-current macho atmosphere of Kiwi cinema. What she learned overseas, however, inspired her creative outlook and became a throughline in her oeuvre.

Preston pulls no punches in her first feature, Mr. Wrong (also known as Dark of the Night). In this 1985 film, co-written by Geoff Murphy and based on a short story by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Preston tells a feminist ghost story about an average woman wrapping her head around perils of both ordinary and uncanny persuasions. The protagonist, Margaret “Meg” Alexander (Heather Bolton), leaves her hometown and moves to the Big Smoke. Wellington, the director’s stomping grounds, becomes the main setting for this obscure haunter, but Meg intends to regularly visit home so long as she has dependable transportation.

From the start Meg is taken advantage of by the opposite sex. A slippery car salesman dupes her into buying a previously owned Jaguar rather than allowing her to buy something she picked out. Regardless of how it came into her possession though, Meg finding the Jag is no mere coincidence; they were brought together for a reason. Had she trusted her instincts, Meg might have avoided the mess ahead of her. That first trip to her parents’ house is later soured by an unexplained and eerie sensation coming from the car. She even dreams of being chased down by the Jag on a lonely road.

new zealand mr wrong

On her way back to Wellington from her parents’ house, Meg stops for a stranded woman (Perry Piercy) caught in the rain with a broken-down car. Also in tow is a man (David Letch) who outs himself as a scumbag in no time. The uncomfortable trip comes to a screeching halt when the silent lady in the backseat disappears like the stuff of old vanishing hitchhiker legends. It does not take long for Meg to then give her male passenger the boot based solely on the fact that she does not trust him. The gnawing apprehension swells from this point onward, and Meg is unable to shake it so long as she possesses this car.

Mr. Wrong accepts its horror leanings more and more as Meg continues to step outside her comfort zone. By chance she uncovers the origin of her car’s bad energy; the Jag belonged to a well-publicized murder victim named Mary Carmichael. The very same person she picked up earlier, in fact. Reality and fantasy have collided; Meg’s general discomfort around men now parallels her burgeoning fear of the unknown. And with Carmichael’s tragic death still unsolved, Meg’s intense uneasiness only festers. Her paranoia about women’s safety has all to do with how close this case hits close to home.

Preston’s mixed feelings toward the horror genre — namely its depictions and treatment of women — might suggest she has no predilection for building suspense or interest in terrorizing another woman, but on the contrary, she communicates Meg’s terror with considerable delicacy and effect. Preston combines equal parts fables and classic ghost stories in Mr. Wrong. The subplot of a slasher targeting women drivers is buried beneath a sincere character study, only to then be topped off with a more substantial and spectral tale. Those expecting a bloodthirsty killer chasing various women down on the open road should prepare themselves for something entirely different. While perceivable dread relating to cars and strangers is demonstrated throughout, Preston aims for an analytical and feminist interpretation of familiar scenarios and tropes.

It is not only the men in Mr. Wrong who underestimate Meg’s abilities and depreciate her value. Upon feasting her eyes on the new wheels, Meg’s mother (Kate Harcourt) asks her daughter, “You sure it’s not too much for you?” While they have only a few shared scenes, there is a quiet but discernible tension among the Alexander women. The matriarch is nosy (albeit apologetically) about Meg’s love life, and when they circle back to the car, she inadvertently projects her own fears of the big city onto her daughter. There is no ill will in Mrs. Alexander’s words, yet they have a profound effect on Meg’s precarious voyage into adulthood.

Although the other women in Meg’s life bear no evil intentions toward her, they can be careless with her feelings. The harm they do is less obvious than that of the men. Edith (Jan Fisher), Meg’s best friend from back home, is at first disapproving of the Jag. “Well, you didn’t go south just to blow your nose, did you?” she says before then taking delight in how bothered Meg’s father and boss are about her having a car fancier than theirs. Or as Edith puts it, “reverse penis envy.” Meg faintly expresses her loneliness to Edith; she even asks her to come visit her in the city. Edith declines without grasping the real reason why Meg asked her in the first place.

Meanwhile, Meg’s flatmates Val and Sam (Suzanne Lee, Margaret Umbers) make no time for her; they fail to help her acclimate. Val is the most concerned of the two, seeing as she picks up on her cousin’s unhappiness and tries to schedule a belated one-on-one chat. Even so, Val is as guilty as Sam when it comes to excluding Meg from their social schedules. The more carefree Sam has her own relationship misfires to contend with; she has two Mr. Wrongs at the moment. Ex Bruce (Gary Stalker) cannot take a hint and invites himself in at all hours. Martin (Don Linke), on the other hand, sets off red flags when he shows open revulsion toward the thought of women’s self-defense training. “You don’t go for that sort of thing, do you?” he asks Meg in response to her choice of mealtime entertainment. There is a chasm between men and women’s behavior in the film. The likes of Bruce and Mary’s murderer wreak physical harm wherever they go, whereas the women are unmindful of Meg’s sensitivity. Much to her own astonishment, the only person looking out for Meg is the one she feared all this time.

mr wrong 1985

Mr. Wrong goes to great lengths to put its audience in Meg’s shoes and make them sympathize with someone who behaves like an exposed nerve. From Bruce drunkenly accosting her in the middle of the night to a lurking prowler she is oblivious to until the last minute, Meg’s jumpiness is warranted. She only blames herself when stress gets the best of her; she turns every interaction into something scary or at the very least awkward. “I don’t mean to be like this,” Meg confesses to Mr. Right, a kind transplant aptly named Wayne Wright (Danny Mulheron). Even though her situation is out of the ordinary, Meg’s constant panic about everything is relatable.

In the end, Mr. Wrong speeds toward its phantasmal conclusion after Meg overcomes what she thought were insurmountable odds. She reclaims sureness in herself just as the real threat in her life — which was never Mary Carmichael’s ghost — makes itself known. Meg’s paranoia has indeed come to fruition, but she is more than ready to confront what holds her back. Be it supernatural danger, or the messiness that comes with adult life, Meg is prepared to face it all with she has learned so far. And based on the final scene and its hopeful message about looking out for others, she is not alone in her journey.

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

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