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Peter Jackson’s Early Films

Peter Jackson’s Early Films

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Feature by: Rumsey Taylor

Posted on: 17 July 2004

The first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy opens December 19. At this point readers will collectively utter “Duh.”

Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s religious epic have waited some forty years for this event. It is arguably the most anticipated film of the year — a title relative only to Harry Potter. In April 2000 the series’ teaser was downloaded a record 1.6 million times in the first twenty-four hours of its launch.

My only qualm in appreciating this film prior to release is that the pairing involves one of the most reveled written series in the past century and a director whose work includes humping puppets, cannibal aliens, and an amphibian with an addiction to an intravenous drug. You may now share this discomforting knowledge.

Expectations for The Fellowship of the Ring are subjective to the imagination of both those who are familiar with the written work and those who idealize the potential of the film medium. In truth the basis is best represented in the imaginations of devoted readers. But a film — a tangible record of the same events readers are familiar with — is still anticipated. The only question that persists is can a film meet hype of this magnitude? Doubtful.

Director Peter Jackson is a New Zealand native, which bodes well for his career as a film director. Filmmaking is both cheap and proficient in New Zealand. It has housed both the Hercules and Xena series. Another trait of Jackson’s films is his frequent use of puppets. This may conjure instant comparisons to Jim Henson (Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal). Despite their reliance upon puppetry, the directors’ similarities are few.

Jackson’s first film was Bad Taste. The title alone is the most deserved description of the film. It involves entrepreneurial aliens and their attempt to harvest humans for fast food. Human survivors, in response to the aliens’ plight, team up and the conflict is displayed in excessively gory and innovative effects.

Bad Taste was financed with a grant from the New Zealand government designated for indigenous film production, and is supposedly the only grant from that country that enabled its producers to turn a profit.

His second effort contained a slightly larger scope. Meet the Feebles (a not-so-subtle homage to muppets) is an introduction, as the title suggests, to a diverse group of animals working together to produce a show entitled the “Meet the Feebles Variety Hour.” With Feebles Jackson builds upon and exceeds his previous film thematically. I’m not certain it is the only adult puppet film in existence, though it is easily the most known.

In the first fifteen minutes a walrus can be seen forcefully humping a Siamese cat (whose lustful yearnings are audible as drawn-out meows). The walrus is cheating on his girlfriend Heidi the Hippo. This is but one minor act of puppet degradation included in the film.

Because of its premise the film holds some sort of timeless curiosity. It is clearly not suitable for children yet older audiences may opt for gross-outs with less of a childish theme. It is my claim that this is a film with no real target audience. Jackson has apparently attempted to chase the boundaries of the medium, and permanent controversy is his reward.

In 1992 Jackson helmed Braindead (US title: Dead Alive). It was his most ambitious effort to date. The film relies on shock similar to both of Jackson’s earlier films, only this time there are more human actors than puppets, but only by a slim margin.

In the opening we see a zoologist of sorts and his helpers seeking the dangerous rat monkey. The rabid beast is found, and expectedly bites the first person to touch it. The zoologist dies. The body is shipped back to a coastal New Zealand town for burial along with the rabid monkey (in an act similar to a scene in Arachnaphobia).

Shift to Lionel, caretaker of his bed-ridden mother and wooer of Maria, a pretty neighbor. Things change when his mother is bitten and zombified, in turn contaminating and unleashing a thirsty legion of zombies. Lionel becomes the reluctant hero.

At this point the plot succumbs to the effects as they are displayed nearly at random in the film’s final third. Of notable acclaim (in terms of gore) is a scene in which Lionel battles a roomful of zombies with an upturned push-mower. Lifeless limbs fly and Lionel stands heroic, ankle-deep in a roomful of blood. It is rumored to be the most blood used in a film.

Jackson’s career took a sharp turn with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures. This is the semi-fictional account of two teenage girls in a Fifties New Zealand town who successfully conspire to murder one of their mothers. The film was well-received by critics, and is Jackson’s only dramatic outing.

American audiences are most familiar with Jackson’s The Frighteners, a 1996 horror film starring Michael J. Fox. Jackson’s catalogue is distinguished because of his frequent use of special effects; this film is his most accomplished showcase.

Fox is Frank Bannister, a psychic detective who becomes involved in an odd trail of death that ultimately pits him against Death itself. The incarnation of the Grim Reaper in The Frighteners is without doubt one the most chilling incarnations of death in film.

Jackson’s career spans from cheap, tasteless profanity-touting puppet films to the effectively paced Heavenly Creatures. His scope as a director is diverse, and in any other critique this would be a virtue. Jackson clearly demonstrated directorial ingenuity, yet his efforts are for the most part experimental. Perhaps he is the perfect director for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I relent to make that claim.

Hype transcends the limitations of the medium and it is a bad thing. No film, simply, with thousands of eager fans and a measurable proportion of its initial sales in advance can live up to these expectations. People want another classic, another Star Wars that inspires Halloween costumes and a self-contained mythology. People want action figures, tie-ins with breakfast cereals. Even the least-critical filmgoer realizes the potential of the film medium, and he (or she) wants it met. People simply want to be exhilarated.

The Lord of the Rings, with an admittedly effective ad campaign, has this potential and it is huge.

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