Splatter, Maggoty Muppets and Heavenly Creatures: The Early Films of Peter Jackson
With the second installment of THE HOBBIT trilogy debuting in theaters this week, I’d say it’s an opportune time to take a look at the output of its director, New Zealand’s Peter Jackson. I’m tempted to say New Zealand’s late Peter Jackson, as his finest films in my view are his earliest--i.e. those spanning the years 1987-95, before he “went Hollywood.”
I know many of you were shocked by my admission elsewhere on this site that I find Mr. Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS films boring. Sad but true: I’ve always found those films bloated and meandering in the extreme (although I’ve admittedly never been able to get into the original J.R.R. Tolkien novels, so clearly I’m not the intended audience). I do nonetheless feel gratified and even somewhat vindicated by their enormous success.
I did, after all, predict Jackson’s eventual success years ago--back in the early nineties, to be exact, when snooty friends chided me for watching Jackson’s BAD TASTE, which was apparently “putrid shit,” and BRAINDEAD/DEAD ALIVE, which was dismissed as “crap.” My insistence that Peter Jackson was one of the greatest filmmakers on the scene and a future Academy Award recipient was invariably met with derisive laughter. Who’s laughing now? Twenty years on we find that the man has indeed won Academy Awards, and was indeed one of the greatest filmmakers on the scene (emphasis on was).
Jackson’s career started with 1987’s BAD TASTE, a comedic alien invasion splatterfest whose title adequately sums up its content. Shakespeare it isn’t, but the film’s primary charm is that it knows its place and has fun with it--and, unlike so many of today’s gore fests, does so without descending into nonsensical camp. Of course the film hasn’t dated especially well, but the energy and creative exuberance bequeathed by the young Peter Jackson, working with a nonprofessional crew and a painfully scant budget, are still evident.
Dated is something that cannot be said about 1990’s MEET THE FEEBLES. To this day there’s nothing else quite like this perverted Muppet movie, which with its incredibly fluid and intimate camerawork did for puppet cinema what RAGING BULL did for boxing movies. It’s also Jackson’s most defiantly mean-spirited movie, a direct result of a shoot that was by all accounts downright nightmarish.
One of FEEBLES’ puppet protagonists suffers from a terrible disease (could it be the “big one?”) and another is in the midst of a marital squabble, while on the sidelines porno films are shot, drug deals are made and an obnoxious tabloid reporter fly takes it all down. There’s also sex of the oral and nasal(!) variety, projectile vomiting, shit eating, date rape, cannibalism, a Kermit the Frog crucifix (which Jim Henson’s daughter reportedly found “deeply disturbing”) and a mind-scraping climactic shoot-out.
Perhaps because of its nastiness, FEEBLES didn’t have the warm reception of Jackson’s other films. Indeed, Jackson biographer Ian Pryor regards it as “a rare case of Jackson’s magic touch deserting him.” I couldn’t disagree more. MEET THE FEEBLES isn’t for everybody, but there’s a demented genius to it that could only spring from the irrepressible Peter Jackson.
His next film appeared two years later, and proved that in his early years Peter Jackson went from strength to strength. Back in 1992 BRAINDEAD was (and possibly still is) the goriest movie ever made, and also one of the funniest. Released in the U.S. as DEAD ALIVE, it’s a comedic zombie mash that makes no concessions to subtlety, good taste or refinement, and thank God! In this jaw-dropper guts leap out of bodies and fart, zombie babies wield severed arms and the hero vanquishes his undead tormentors with a lawn mower. It’s a film whose invention and ingenuity amaze me each time I see it.
1994’s HEAVENLY CREATURES was alleged to be Jackson’s attempt at respectable award-caliber filmmaking. Based on the true story of two New Zealand based girls who back in the forties forged a dangerous bond that precipitated the murder of one of their mothers, it seems a far cry from BAD TASTE and BRAINDEAD--the attentive viewer, however, will notice a definite kinship between the three films.
HEAVENLY CREATURES led to the unmasking of one of the girls, who’s still alive and living in England as the famed mystery novelist Anne Perry. A debuting Kate Winslet plays Perry in her early years, a lonely English girl who befriends a fellow outcast played by Melanie Lynskey. They enter into a private world involving castles, knights and dragons, and it’s here that Jackson really demonstrates his peculiar genius, providing stunning visualizations of imaginary gardens rising out of drab fields and life-sized claymation figures cavorting in giant sand castles. The result is a lively and energetic but deadly serious psycho-film that takes viewers on a pitiless descent into its characters’ murderous mindsets.
Jackson’s next film, co-directed with Costa Botes, was even more eccentric and unexpected: 1995’s FORGOTTEN SILVER. An amazingly clever and oft-brilliant mock documentary, it concerns a forgotten New Zealand filmmaker named Colin McKenzie who managed to revolutionize filmmaking, inventing sound, color and camera movement years before their officially recorded start. Unfortunately he fell out of favor while filming his masterpiece SALOME, on which he spent an obscene amount of money building a massive set in a New Zealand jungle.
Scenes from McKenzie’s movies are intercut with interviews with the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Sam Neil, along with footage of Jackson and his fellow archivists searching the jungles for McKenzie’s mock-Jerusalem. The appropriately scratchy and faded old movie recreations are extraordinarily convincing (a number of New Zealand movie folk apparently thought they were real), and yet Jackson never loses sight of the film’s inherent absurdity.
Such a winning streak couldn’t possibly last, and indeed it didn’t. Cue THE FRIGHTENERS, released in 1996. Although shot in his native New Zealand, it represented Jackson’s first foray into Hollywood moviemaking, and, quite simply, he fell into every conceivable trap. The plot is a silly mishmash of elements from GHOSTBUSTERS, BEETLEJUICE and the EVIL DEAD flicks, starring a pre-Parkinson’s Michael J. Fox and a shitload of annoying special effects. The result is loud, assaultive and not much fun at all.
The LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy followed, as well as 2005’s KING KONG remake. The latter contained flashes of the exuberance of Jackson’s early films, but suffered (as do the LORD OF THE RINGS films in my view) from an excess of bloat that seemed especially out of place in a simple story about a giant ape. The 1933 original, let’s not forget, was only 100 minutes long, a running time Jackson’s version nearly doubled.
2009’s THE LOVELY BONES, adapted from Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestseller, was likewise extremely overblown. It’s marred by a plethora of bad directorial choices ranging from Jackson’s decision not to show the rape-murder that sets the story in motion (making us wonder what-all happened and why we should be concerned about it) to his over-exposure of the Heaven where the victim of said murder (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself. Jackson was clearly counting on us to be bowled over by the all the elaborate CGI effects on display, yet judging by the film’s thoroughly underwhelming critical and financial reception, not too many viewers were.
It makes sense that after such a misfire Jackson would return to the world of LORD OF THE RINGS, reportedly snatching THE HOBBIT away from its intended helmer Guillermo del Toro (a definite blight on Jackson’s carefully tendered nice guy image). I didn’t get much more out of the first installment of THE HOBBIT than I did from LORD OF THE RINGS, and nor am I expecting much from THE DESOLATION OF SMOUG or the concluding portion set to appear next year. Again, however, I do appreciate their success. Peter Jackson was and is a once-in-a-lifetime filmmaker, even though his best years appear to have long since come and gone.