Meet Peter Jackson
It looks like New Zealand is my (somewhat unintentional) theme for the week, which inevitably leads me 'round to my favorite thing about New Zealand -- director Peter Jackson. Most folks know the affable, formerly rotund Jackson for his monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy -- the amazing locations of which have driven New Zealand tourism of late as much as anything -- and for his recent, remarkable King Kong remake. But I discovered Jackson's work back in early high school, wandering through a local video store with a friend. He picked up what looked like an average low-brow horror flick called Dead-Alive, and showed me the box. It stood out for one reason only: on the back, a critic credited it as being "perhaps the bloodiest movie in cinematic history." Needless to say, watched it post-haste.
What we saw -- or rather, what our eyeballs were assaulted with -- was a genre that Jackson more or less invented himself: "splatstick." The plot was simple: a zombie movie with a twist; instead of keeping the zombies outside of his safe-haven, Lionel, the film's hapless hero, tries his best to keep them hidden in his basement. The result: a screwball comedy which might've ranked with the best of Preston Sturgess or the early Coen Brothers, except it featured the most over-the-top gore I had ever seen. Not just over-the-top -- it was so inventive, and so silly, only a twisted genius could've created it. A Village Voice said it contained "some of the most excessive evisceration I've seen outside of snuff films. That it's hysterically funny shows how comedy is really tragedy with its limbs ripped off."
Pictured above: two shots from the film's infamous penultimate scene, in which Lionel mows down a roomful of zombies -- quite literally -- with a lawnmower. There are more fluids, more blood, more flying limbs, in those three minutes that in the entire running length of most other zombie flicks, and though I wish I could embed that scene here, it's so extreme that I think you'll have to settle for a link instead. Here's a clever trailer for the film, though:
Years before Jackson ever had the backing to make something like Braindead, he was working at a local newspaper in Wellington and dreaming of becoming a movie director. In New Zealand, he had a lot of factors working against him: there was really no film industry to speak of, save the nationalized industrial/tourism companies, which he had failed to get a job with; and there wasn't a lot of equipment or film infrastructure around. Undeterred, he went about things in an up-from-the-bootstraps way, and built his own camera dolly, jib arm and pseudo-steadicam -- no easy feat -- then started shooting a short film with friends on the weekends. But what was supposed to be a modest 10-minute short just kept getting longer and longer, and after a few years Jackson had an ingenious, if rough-around-the-edges and darn gory feature film on his hands. He dubbed it Bad Taste, a fitting title for a film about aliens who come to Earth intent on farming humans for food.
Here's a trailer for Bad Taste -- vaguely NSFW, by the way -- which makes the film look a bit what it was: semi-amateurish, made on weekends and written on the fly. That is except for the jib shots, stunts and, considering their budget, the impressive alien costumes, which give a hint at the FX/costume work yet to come in Jackson's career. Also, easter egg alert! The guy chasing after the other guy with a machete about 15 seconds in? That's Peter!
Even Hobbits Started Small
So after storming Cannes with Bad Taste, getting a deal and having his budgetary horizons open up like never before, what kind of movie did Peter Jackson decide to make? Why, a twisted musical comedy with puppets, of course. If his freshman effort was in bad taste, it was nothing compared to Meet the Feebles -- a black-comedy version of a Jim Henson-esque romp about a troupe of musical performers (the titular "Feebles"), which IMDB summarizes this way:
"Heidi, the star of the "Meet The Feebles Variety Hour" discovers her lover Bletch, The Walrus, is cheating on her, and with all the world waiting for the show the assorted co-stars must contend with their own problems. These include drug addiction, extortion, robbery, AIDS, and even murder. While this is happening the love between two of the stars is threatened by the devious Trevor the Rat, who wishes to exploit the young starlet for use in his porno movie business."
Sound distasteful? It is -- but cult film fans continue to worship it, and Jackson even name-dropped it in his 2004 Best Director Academy Award acceptance speech (noting the the academy had "wisely overlooked it" back in 1989). Despite its nasty bits, however, Jackson makes the film downright playful, peppering it with puns and inside jokes. (For instance, the "porno" in question, being made in the basement by the rat and the cow, is called They Bone People, a sly reference to New Zealand author Keri Hulme's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Bone People. And I have to inset this little anecdote: I found Jackson on a web forum one day back in high school, and asked him about the reference; he told me that I was "the first person ever to recognize it." Definitely the proudest moment of my young life!)
Now, I simply cannot discuss Feebles without showing you a clip, but please be forewarned: though it stars puppets, it is not for the faint of heart, and it is most definitely NOT safe for work! It's the climax of the film, in which one of the troupe finally comes out of the closet by singing a delicate little number called "Sodomy," while backstage Heidi the hippo finally loses it, going postal on the rest of the cast with a Rambo-sized machine gun. So don't say I didn't warn you!