One of my favourite quotes about Aotearoa New Zealand comes from one of our finest filmmakers, Gaylene Preston. ‘There’s something that comes out of the land here that’s bloody spooky. I don’t feel it anywhere else I’ve been in the Western world. I feel it when I’m here.’ I remember coming home to Tāmaki Makaurau after a year or so away. Sometimes you don’t realise how you’re impacted by something until you’re in its absence. This place is my home, and I love it and am so in thrall to its beauty. But part of that beauty is this strange, underlying menace, this creeping darkness that feels present even on our sunniest days, which I felt rushing back to me within seconds of leaving the airport. It’s hard to put a finger on, and yet our finest films, from The Piano to Snakeskin to Out of the Blue, capture this ineffable essence with great skill. New Zealand can be a frightening place, perhaps because of the long-lingering shadow of colonialism. Perhaps it has always been here. But I’ve always felt that this land has a haunted quality, a feeling of connection to something unknowable and spiritual.
Five years in the making, David Farrier’s personal odyssey into the abyss via the mind of a monstrous sociopath represents a distinct filmic maturation, and a real step forward as a documentarian. It is a bleakly funny, skin-crawling examination of an evil as chilling as it is unsettlingly banal.
This is all to say I felt it again in a place that I had initially felt would be an unlikely source – David Farrier’s excellent new documentary Mister Organ. This unlikeliness isn’t a knock on Farrier, who has been a lively and enjoyable presence on our screen as a journalist and exposer of strange, sometimes sinister internet rabbit-holes for years now. But somehow, watching at the Hollywood Avondale premiere of the film, I started to feel the tendrils of that darkness creeping in. Years in the making and clearly of great personal cost to Farrier himself, Mister Organ is an outstanding document of a nightmarish everyday sociopath, as frightening as he is initially unassuming. The saga begins with Farrier covering a local interest story – the peculiar case of some threatening activity taking place involving clamping at an antiquers in Ponsonby. The clamper in question is one Michael Organ, who assumes several nom de plumes across the course of the film in order to obscure his true identity and, in doing so, fuel an endless series of reinventions. The slipperiest of slippery characters, as Farrier is drawn ever further into Organ’s web, the more he seems to evade true understanding – even as the innumerable victims and horrifying acts of manipulation and cruelty the man has committed start to mount up.
To place oneself at the centre of a documentary is a risky business – generally the risk is of the ‘will-this-person-be-a-likeable-enough-personality’ kind, but with Mister Organ, the risk is different – what of himself will he lose in pursuing this story? Farrier is weaved into the story in a far more effective way than his earlier, more Louis Theroux-esque efforts. Indeed, for the first part of the film you can feel Farrier attempting to continue to hold on to this sort of bemused remove that made Theroux’ work so effective and was a feature of Farrier’s earlier, lesser effort Tickled. As Farrier admits, both in the film itself and in the emotionally intense Q+A that came after the screening, however, Organ is a far tougher opponent, one that is entirely capable of winning a battle of wits. Farrier eventually brings Organ into his film, ‘hanging out’ with the man for extended and semi-regular bouts of verbal sparring. Organ’s ability to wear out those who seek to expose his actions through sheer inanity and lengthiness of conversation is one of the more bleakly amusing elements of Mister Organ – and it is a fitfully funny film as well, blessed with the kind of idiosyncratically Kiwi personalities that bring this kind of work to life – that is, until you see the toll it has taken on innumerable people, an increasingly frustrated and distressed Farrier among them.
As the film continues, Farrier searches for some sort of singular reason for Organ’s existence, including trying to contact the man’s family. As this happens, ever darker does Mister Organ become. Organ himself is a uniquely frightening figure, almost unreal-seeming. Sitting in a hotel room, all cheshire grin and effete posturing, it’s immediately clear that this covert Svengali also hides a vicious, physical side rarely shown. It’s also clear that he’s is never going to give Farrier a thing, and will in the interim do his best to ruin the documentarian’s life. There are many skin-crawlingly effective moments of near-horror in the film – including a sequence in which Organ reveals he somehow has acquired a key to Farrier’s house. At the screening, which was attended by many of Organ’s victims, a man stood up and told the audience that the man is a ‘fucking vampire’, and it’s hard to dispute that in watching.
The film is bookended by a sequence at an abandoned mental hospital which Organ once owned and turned into apartments. As Farrier arrives on the scene, we are greeted with the sight of giant palm trees, silhouetted against an eerily setting sun. I was reminded in equal measure of the long shadows of Halloween and, eventually, the sun-drenched hopelessness of Chinatown in these sequences. Much like that film, Mister Organ arrives at a hopeless nadir, with little in the way of understanding, let alone conclusion, to what the meaning of Organ’s actions actually is. Rather than petering out, however, the film opts to simmer in this feeling, allowing this seeping feeling of menace to creep its way across the audience. What makes Organ so scary, and what makes Mister Organ so much more effective than the endless stream of commercialised true-crime slush that clogs streaming services, is the ruthless banality of it all. Organ hasn’t committed a huge number of crimes that anyone could convict him for, but he has been the architect of a huge amount of suffering nevertheless, in a way that seems casual, almost everyday. It’s that darkness that makes Mister Organ Farrier’s finest work yet, and an excellent portrait of a very New Zealand type of evil that is, at its essence, maddeningly unknowable.
Mister Organ is in cinemas now.
Mister Organ (Farrier, 2022)
Movie title: Mister Organ (Farrier, 2022)
Movie description: Five years in the making, David Farrier’s personal odyssey into the abyss via the mind of a monstrous sociopath represents a distinct filmic maturation, and a real step forward as a documentarian. It is a bleakly funny, skin-crawling examination of an evil as chilling as it is unsettlingly banal.
Date published: November 10, 2022
Country: New Zealand
Author: David Farrier
Director(s): David Farrier