Peter Jackson is a household name. After all, he’s only the guy who hand-crafted the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, garnering up nearly 5 billion dollars collectively and earning himself a nice handful of those sweet Oscars. He’s up there among the greats. The New Zealand filmmaker began his film career with nothing but a camera and friends, altogether producing low-budget movies. It all began with 1987’s Bad Taste, a self-funded sci-fi dark-comedy satire. Then, 1989’s grimy and sick Meet the Feebles, a musical-comedy with a cast of cynical and nauseating puppet characters. Perhaps more famously, what came next was the bloodshed that was 1992’s Brain Dead. Afterwards came Heavenly Creatures, an acclaimed crime-drama that eventually led into Peter Jackson into A-list fame.
But despite Jackson acknowledging his older works as being gross, offensive, and juvenile, there’s no denying that they all shared something in common: a level of unrivaled creativity, originality, and ambition that have caused them to become hidden gems among film and Peter Jackson fans. Which is exactly why I wish to go through his early career and take a look at his first three feature films. Under his pre-Tolkein work, they showed little to no evidence that the director was going to create some of the biggest, most monumental films of all time. These films hold a place in my heart but also a bloodthirsty rash; a rash that just won’t go away no matter how much I ignore it, always finding myself to go back for more.
Alien Invasion Defense Service (or AIDS) agents Derek, Frank, Barry, and Ozzy travel to the small and unexciting town of Kaihoro in search of aliens that have resided in the town disguised as humans. Peter Jackson’s debut feature film, 1987’s Bad Taste, is deceptively simple. With a quarter of a million dollar budget and some willing friends to tag along with him, Peter Jackson successfully put together an impressive alien invasion flick. Campy while never falling into sheer tomfoolery, Bad Taste is a more-than-impressive debut from a now Oscar-winning filmmaker, though one would probably never know that until they see the crew list themselves, and by the time they get to the scene of characters drinking green alien vomit, they’d be in disbelief over where the director is now.
It began as Roast of the Day, a short film Peter Jackson planned to film once he obtained a 16mm camera. What started as a modest short film quickly grew into a full-length feature, retitled Bad Taste, with Jackson’s friends involved as cast and crew. Filmed on weekends over the course of four years – while also balancing it with his own job that he used to self-fund his film – what began as a hopeless, time-consuming task proved to be worth the effort. Bad Taste was accepted into the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, where it was distributed in 30 countries.
Despite the shoestring budget, Bad Taste definitely offers up some insane special effects. From close-ups of gore, to the alien makeup and costumes, to the rocket-powered house, there is definitely some charm and technical competence on display here from such an amateur director at the time. It’s also worth mentioning that all aforementioned effects were created by Peter Jackson himself. The shot of the tiny RC, rocket-powered house is really quite nothing short of amazing, and seeing it all be done by the man himself makes it even more of a treat.
I truly have nothing but respect for Bad Taste. There was a certain level of ambition and charm that makes it irresistible despite its flaws, mostly in the plot and pacing department. Self-funded and driven almost only by him, Peter Jackson had a vision and saw it through, making the entire schedule ordeal completely worth it in the end. Peter Jackson left an impact with Bad Taste, and weirder, grosser, and more rewarding events were soon to come as he earned himself greater success.
Meet the Feebles
Without a human character in sight, Meet the Feebles is putrid, ugly, cynical, and borderline insane. It reaches highs that you can only get by going over budget and schedule due to the amount of money and time it took to create each puppet. Like a cocaine-ridden telethon of The Muppets, Meet the Feebles is a prestige creative vision. Puppets susceptible to drugs, sex, bodily fluids, disease, and murder. So think of it as the predecessor to 2018’s Happytime Murders, but whereas that film was wrong in all the wrong ways, Meet the Feebles is wrong in all the right ways. Well, mostly right, that is.
Meet the Feebles was originally conceived as a television show, until Japanese investors “propo$ed” it to be made into a feature film. Around this time, Peter Jackson was working on zombie splatterhouse Braindead, but had to put the project on-hold to hastily get a script and film done. While this sudden change could be disheartening and lead to a passionless production in some cases, Jackson did with what he could in a film that is awkwardly plotted, but rigorously entertaining and shocking nonetheless.
Right from the get-go, Meet the Feebles isn’t too bad compared to adult-centric comedies. The puppetry on display here is purposefully ugly, but still competently done. Sure, puppets are swearing and having sex. Compared to other R-rated comedies, Meet the Feebles is pretty basic. But very soon, innocent viewers will witness it all during the movie: ejaculation, STDs, panty-sniffing, fecal matter consumption, puking, murder, drug abuse, amateur basement porn, snuff, body-shaming, urination, suicide, and a musical-theatre number about sodomy playing over a mass shooting. And yes, all this and more is all performed by anthropomorphic animal puppets. Peter Jackson rips up traditional plot structuring for a more unfocused, character-based, skit-like structure. You could say that does throw a hammer into the general pacing and focus of the film, but if the film is as batshit crazy as it is, it’s hard to just not fall in love with it.
Pictured: The wonder that Meet the Feeble can offer
The hideous puppetry and special effects were done by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger of Weta Workshop. After the success of Meet the Feebles, they continued working with Peter Jackson in all of his subsequent projects, including the epic and ambitious Tolkein saga. Weta Workshop has found great success all across Hollywood, doing work for genre-defining blockbusters such as Avatar, Mad Max: Fury Road, Alita: Battle Angel, and Blade Runner 2049, so know they came a long way since first working on a scene where a bunny with STDs pukes all over a stage.
The original three Jackson films share similar qualities of just being as insane as possible, but Meet the Feebles is downright the most cynical and heartless one of the bunch. There’s no real method to the madness, just cartoonish characters tortured and killed without rhyme or reason. Even the elaborate Deer Hunter reference, as a character recounts their nightmarish experiences in Vietnam, complete with frogs and Russian roulette, is something that needs to be seen to be believed.
Productions such as Avenue Q and South Park have a consistent theme of having a cutesy, approachable style that could theoretically be targeted for children, but with adult themes slapped across like a paint-roller. It’s a cliche, to be certain. But Meet the Feebles was arguably ahead of its time, a pseudo-Muppets parody that does everything in its’ power to shock and offend, even containing topical themes such as mass shootings and corrupt, sex-driven producers. This is a film that takes three combined stomachs to get through, but it is something to behold.
Three hundred liters of fake blood later, Braindead (or Dead Alive in USA) is famously said to be the bloodiest film ever made. While there’s not much that is on the verge of unwatchable, it’s still an unrelenting gore fest.
The film begins with two archeologists in Skull Island (a full ten years before Peter Jackson went back to the island for 2005’s King Kong). There, they smuggle a rat-monkey hybrid that resulted from… the rape of monkeys sick from plague-ridden rats. Okay. After an escape from the natives, one of the explorers is bitten by the rat-monkey and gets his arm violently chopped off by his partner in fear of the effects from the bite. The creature is then shipped to Wellington Zoo in New Zealand, where it soon escapes and begins a zombie outbreak. Bloodbaths and gut showers ensue.
If Bad Taste was a tasteless farce and Meet the Feebles was a putrid nightmare, then Braindead feels like Peter Jackson’s most refined, fleshed-out, and (dare I say) professional work of the three. While the gore on display is absurd, it actually serves a purpose as opposed to the former films’ shock value for the sake of having shock value. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still insane and borderline insane, but instantaneously cathartic. It’s gory, ridiculous, and a lot of goddamn fun. Bloody fluids splash onto unbeknownst guests’ food as they bite into it, throats split in half, arms leaping out of people’s mouth from behind their head, and zombies ripped limb from limb from a lawnmower blade in an iconic climax.
That all being said, despite the more professional filmmaking at-hand here, Braindead still contains the zany, acid-black Peter Jackson comedy of yore. The scene of mama’s boy protagonist Lionel Cosgrove bringing a zombie baby to the park is a riot. The dark humor resonates most in this scene, as the zombie baby gets into multiple instances of hysterical slapstick of his carriage toppling over, the baby hitting metal bars, and Lionel punching the baby, all in front of the shocked park-goer witnesses. What makes this scene even funnier is the idea that this scene was not planned at all. Peter Jackson, realizing he’s ahead of budget and schedule, decided to use the rest of the budget on a random scene of zombie baby shenanigans. Classic Jackson at his best.
Given the cult status of these three movies, it’s a wonder why these films are so hard to come by. Peter Jackson has announced plans to release the three aforementioned films and his fourth film, Heavenly Creatures, on crisper, sharper 4K Blu-Ray, though the exact estimation and time is unknown. Peter Jackson, Oscar-winning drama filmmaker, acknowledging the love for his “splatter saga”, is simply enticing. After the physically/mentally exhausting task of crafting his Tolkein saga, I have no doubt that Jackson wishes to return to his old days; the days of getting his friends together with a 16mm camera, producing homemade special effects, and filming something with a miniscule budget. Peter Jackson maintained bravery and creativity for those early years. He took risks and never gave in. While I cannot blame him for moving on to something bigger and more mature, there’s no doubt that those old films had charm that carried on a legacy; a legacy of Peter Jackson’s endless passion and dedication.
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[…] last took a look at Meet the Feebles back in October when I discussed Peter Jackson’s early “Splatter Trilogy” . Mix smut and a healthy dose of nihilism, and you get Jackson’s take on the world of Jim […]