The Early Nightmares Of Peter Jackson

Point of View

The Early Nightmares Of Peter Jackson

New Zealand's Most Acclaimed Director Might Have Won Oscars — But He Started Strange

In 2004, Peter Jackson stood up on the Academy Awards stage — again, and again, and again. The final film of his era-defining Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Return Of The King, won a veritable shedload of Oscars, sweeping the night with 11 wins against 11 nominations.

It was a victorious, if strange moment. Against the odds, a gonzo director from New Zealand had taken one of the wormiest and potentially alienating fantasy tomes of all time, and turned it into a crossover hit, one adored by critics and audiences alike. And to highlight the strangeness of that moment, Jackson reserved a special shout-out to the bloodied, deeply offensive films that he had started his career making.

While thanking Peter Nelson and Ken Kamins, his fellow Kiwi creative partners, Jackson name-dropped his early splatter hits Bad Taste and Meet The Feebles, joking that they were “wisely overlooked by the Academy.” It was the first, and presumably the last, time that Meet The Feebles — a puppet-infested horror show that ends with an elaborate musical number about sodomy – would be mentioned in such esteemed company. And it was a tiny moment of self-reflection, with Jackson taking the time to throw a glance over his shoulder at the path of destruction that he had sewn as a young man.

Image: 'Bad Taste' via Wingnut Films / New Zealand Film Commission

That path of destruction was unique in its crookedness; in its DIY verve. Bad Taste, Jackson’s first film, was an expansion of a 20-minute serve of pure demented viciousness called Roast of the Day that saw carniverous aliens descend upon the small town of Pukerua Bay, where Jackson had grown up.

Shot over the course of four years, primarily on the one day of the week Jackson’s cast were free from the drudgery of their gruelling jobs — Sunday — Bad Taste was fuelled by a scraped-together budget of $25,000. His parents had loaned him the money for the Bolex camera that the film was shot on, but he suffered under the extortionate prices of shooting and processing 16mm stock. Some weekends, broke, the crew couldn’t shoot at all.

But financial concerns weren’t the only impositions on the rag-tag group of New Zealanders. There were nervous breakdowns, heartbreaks. Cast member Craig Smith, who played one of the consortium of aliens that look to turn Pukerua Bay’s scattered and eclectic population into food, had a religious transformation, finding God and walking off the set. He was convinced that it was immoral to spread such gore across the world – it was only months later, the brief moment of grace over, that he donned the hideous prosthetics that Jackson had cooked in his mother’s oven, and resumed his role in production.

Other actors quit altogether, burnt out by the long shooting days and unable to entirely connect with Jackson’s creative vision, which channeled the inanity of Chuck Jones’ Warner Brothers cartoons with the violence and taboo-breaking horror of the ‘80s wave of low-budget Video Nasty features. Desperate, Jackson cast himself in multiple roles – at least he knew he was in it for the long haul.

Taking short breaks to chow down on beans and sandwiches made by Jackson’s endlessly supportive parents, the filmmakers cobbled together as much footage as they could, before an unexpected surge of cash came in the form of a grant from the New Zealand Film Commission, ensuring that the film could — finally — be completed.

The result: a lopsided freakshow, in which the wit, humour and invention that would define the rest of Jackson’s career strains awkwardly against the material impositions placed on the filmmaker. Bad Taste is not a perfect film. It might not even be a great one, though it contains flashes of greatness. There are moments where it drags; others where the seams show, not just in the production values, but in the narrative.

Jackson had yet to discover how you can perpetuate constant and demented boundary-pushing for the length of a feature without falling into a predictable pattern of destruction. The bizarre can set up its own expectations after all, and even the most taboo-shattering of sequences can fall with a thud if it isn’t distinct enough from what has come before it.

But it didn’t take Jackson long to learn the lessons from Bad Taste. Meet The Feebles, his second feature and his first masterpiece, is exactly as grotesque and inane as his debut – possibly more so, given that one of its running plot threads is the slow, STI-addled decline of Harry The Rabbit, a puppet who learns hard lessons from a lengthy and unprotected threesome, and eventually becomes a mass of wet lesions and exploded boils.

Image: 'Meet the Feebles' via Fairfax NZ

Yet with Meet The Feebles, as opposed to Bad Taste, Jackson found a narrative rhythm. The film never stays still; never lets the previous scene dictate the tone or energy of the next. Rather than the plodding, crude sledgehammer of Bad Taste, Meet The Feebles is a rusted scalpel, almost elegant in its power to disgust.

Basically one extended joke — what if The Muppets fucked, did drugs, and hated themselves? — Meet The Feebles is a collection of sequences with the power to be forever branded on the back of viewers’ eyelids. It’s not just that the film is shocking, and depraved, and all the words that it was labelled by horrified critics upon its release. It’s that it is genuinely, subversively painful. An extended Vietnam flashback, inspired by The Deer Hunter and ravaged by the ugly contours of PTSD, isn’t just shocking; it really hurts, guided by a strange and affecting sense of empathy for its doomed protagonists.

And yet even though Meet The Feebles was a step forward creatively, it was a significant step backwards commercially. Shot on a higher budget than Bad Taste, it was a colossal flop upon initial release, grossing a measly $80,000 during its limited theatrical run. Not that Jackson let such a failure scare him off his deranged artistic sensibilities. Indeed, his next feature, Braindead, has earned a reputation as one of the goriest films ever made, a slow amping up of guts and blood that eventually erupts in a horrifying and extended moment of utter depravity.

Image: 'Braindead' via Wingnut Films / New Zealand Film Commission

The hook of Braindead is simple. Rather than a zombie movie in which the brain-starved abominations need to be kept out of the home, Jackson’s third feature flips the script, and features one zombie that needs to be kept in. When the mother of the limp and perpetually nervous Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme, all twisted lips and stammers) gets bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey and slowly becomes hungry for brain matter, Lionel must trap her down in the cellar, and keep her transformation a secret. Of course, as Sigmund Freud tells us, the repressed can never stay repressed, and Lionel’s mother eventually begins to affect and destroy the tiny town. 

But the most shocking element of Braindead isn’t its gory effects, or its climactic showdown, which required 300 litres of fake blood. It is that Jackson somehow manages to juggle all of that mayhem with a genuinely moving romantic sub-plot, in which Lionel falls for the similarly delicate Paquita María Sánchez (Diana Peñalver). It was the first time that Jackson had added such a directly sincere and textured mode of storytelling to his creative toolbox, and a sign of the path he would embark upon that would eventually lead to the Oscars stage.

Indeed, his next film, the astonishing Heavenly Creatures, is a perfect pivot point between these two halves of his career. The doomed romance is just as upsetting as Meet The Feebles, just as prosthetics heavy as Bad Taste, but more sensitive — more finely-tuned — than anything he had made before. Following two young schoolgirls, Juliet and Pauline (Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, respectively) whose obsession with one another eventually culminates in murder, Heavenly Creatures moves back and forth between the real and the dream world, combining the vibrant imagination of Jackson’s first three features with a new kind of grounding.

Image: 'Heavenly Creatures' via Wingnut Films / Miramax

The gambit of mixing such disparate worldviews paid off. Not only is Heavenly Creatures one of the most extraordinary achievements of Jackson’s long and diverse career — it’s his creative Rosetta Stone. Everything that makes The Lord of The Rings the gilt-covered masterpiece that it is lives in Heavenly Creatures, from the sense of the fantastical to the overtures of gothic, magisterial romance. 

That is the beauty of Jackson’s early creative universe. It might be grungier, uglier, than the cinematic world that would make him famous. But he’s still visible underneath all of that vomit and pus; his strange determination to point his camera at outsiders and misfits still a guiding force. Indeed, if there’s a moment sums up Jackson, it comes at the end of Braindead. Lionel and Paquita have just vanquished the hideous, gigantic assembly of drool and hunger that was once Lionel’s mother. Doing so has soaked them in blood; has forced them to push themselves to the very boundaries of polite society. And then, still wet with gore, the two turn and kiss one another, a moment of scratched and vicious beauty, in the midst of all that horror. That’s The Lord Of The Rings as much as it is Bad Taste. That’s Peter Jackson.