7. Bad Taste
Peter Jackson’s debut feature was never likely to win any Oscars, it’s a B-movie in, well, you guessed it, bad taste really, but at its core – beneath the hammy acting and over the top action – is something altogether different, a piece of social commentary. Pier Paolo Passolini launched something of a scathing attack on the fast food industry with his last film, Salò (though few probably spotted it), and here, Jackson continues to carry that socially conscious torch.
You see, in Bad Taste we follow an elite special forces unit (well, sort of) as they attempt to bring to a halt to an alien invasion of Earth. As it turns out, however, these visitors are here for one thing and one thing only, a new form of fast food to sell to the folks back home. And like Soylent Green before it, this food is people.
The first half of the film trundles along at a relatively sedate pace until the real mission of the aliens comes to the fore and the action gets turned up a gear or two, resulting in an extensive shoot-out and a sublime birthing sequence involving a chainsaw. Ultimately, Bad Taste is a brilliantly original, raucous and witty debut from a director who was clearly having as much fun as the film’s viewers.
6. Meet the Feebles
To exercise his abilities as a filmmaker, Jackson’s sophomore effort was a rather unexpected departure from Bad Taste, not so much in terms of its gleeful lowbrow ways, but rather the style with which it was achieved.
Here the director turns his attention to the art of puppetry, crafting a Jim Henson-like experience, except that the whimsical nature of The Muppets has instead been replaced with the somewhat darker aspects of the human psyche. As with most of the director’s early material, Meet the Feebles has garnered a strong cult following over the years following its initial commercial failure to cement a strong place within his body of work.
The narrative follows a group of animal puppets (from cats to walruses and beyond) who comprise a theatre troupe rehearsing in the hopes of finding fame on a television show (probably more relevant nowadays), their relationships are complex and include the seemingly obligatory movie love triangle, but this is then combined with drug taking, rape, attempted suicide and murder.
There’s even a Deer Hunter parody slipped into a Vietnam flashback, hard to believe that the Academy overlooked it (Jackson himself jokingly pointed this out during an Oscar acceptance speech), but with a fan base that will only continue to grow as more film lovers discover his low budget beginnings, Meet the Feebles will never be truly forgotten, and rightfully so.
5. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
With The Return of the King, Peter Jackson successfully brought his trilogy of films to a satisfactory and accomplished conclusion, cementing his place among the pantheon of modern cinematic heroes. There may well be an overall lack of depth to the film, but there can be no denying that it almost makes up of it in terms of sheer spectacle, it’s this that puts more bums on seats in cinemas, and perhaps after all, it’s really this that Jackson targeted from the outset.
It must be said that it’s actually rather impressive how well Jackson ties together all of the plot points brought up in the previous two releases, guiding the action towards the massive confrontation at the gigantic fort of Minas Tirith.
Unlike the second film, there’s also a better balance between the screen time devoted to our halfling heroes and the rest of the troupe of characters, and the effects are quite frankly astounding. Naturally, there’s an abundance of CGI on show here, expertly blended with real world location shots, and a sense of awe-inspiring scale grounded once again with an air of humanity from the performance of Andy Serkis.
Then there’s the sense of foreboding and loss that remains so prevalent throughout the mighty fort before that final victory eventually comes, hanging over the people there like a shroud. Great things stem from sacrifice, and the people of Middle Earth have lost much. So, despite its shortcomings, The Return of the King remains an impressive piece of fantasy filmmaking and a fitting conclusion to a much-loved trilogy.
4. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
It’s easy to entirely dismiss the Lord of the Rings films simply as movies about walking, and if they had remained true to the source material that’s pretty much what they would have been.
Much like the journalist at the heart of The War of the Worlds as he makes his way past the frightened faces of the people he meets, Tolkien’s book sees a group of weary travellers go from place to place, encountering friend and foe alike as they make their way through forest, valley and town. There’s no doubt that of the three films, Fellowship still remains closest to Tolkien’s vision, sure, there’s no Tom Bambadil (though some might argue this as a positive) but tonally it’s much more representative of his work.
However, to attract the vast swathes of viewers that Jackson needs, the quirkiness of the original book has been traded somewhat for bombastic CGI effects and action sequences, though thankfully not to the same extent as in its two sequels.
And, whilst it is the men who seem to be the real stars of the show as opposed to those brave little hobbits, there’s still plenty of quaint charm to be discovered, and halflings to be admired for their bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, and it is this that Tolkien’s work most truly prized above all else.
There is a beautiful world to be discovered here, complete with magnificent vistas and spectacular forests, but the effects, for all of their worth (at a cost of some $300 million for the entire project) are matched toe to toe by some terrific performances from a sublime, all-star cast. The Fellowship of the Ring may deviate a little too much for the ardent Tolkien fans, but there can be no arguing that as a modern fantasy epic there is surely no matching it.
3. Heavenly Creatures
As Jackson began his path to Hollywood superstardom, he surprised the world with a truly fascinating film that earned him an Oscar nomination and introduced to the world a young Kate Winslet who turns in one of the best, if not the finest performance of her career.
Based loosely on the shocking true story of two teenage girls who brutally murdered one of their mothers, Heavenly Creatures presents to us two teenagers who meet at a girl’s school in Christchuch and become fast friends, fascinated by each other’s quirks, the two complement each other so supremely well.
The relationship between the two advances too quickly for the locals who suspect that it is not as healthy as they would like, but that is not really for them to say, or for us, the viewer, to comment on either. There may be sexual undercurrents but this is of little importance in terms of the narrative or motivations of the characters, but the backlash against them is.
As the two are set to be torn apart from one another they carry out a heinous murder, because crime can be something that emerges out of necessity or circumstance, even when it is so deplorable.
But there is real beauty here too, the manner in which the director draws us into the private, fantastical world that the two girls create is magnificent, the performances from both Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey are stellar and, as the on-screen events spiral wildly out of control, the film might just make a marvellous insight into the very nature of mob behaviour, even when that group is comprised of only two people.
2. The Frighteners
Arriving two years after Heavenly Creatures, Jackson turned his hand to more comedic affairs again with another superb horror comedy that boasted some outstanding visual effects, a cavalcade of eclectic characters and the final starring performance of Edmonton’s own Michael J. Fox.
In it, he plays a professional ghost hunter (no proton packs though), a man perhaps rightfully regarded as a fraud given the nature of his work, but nevertheless, like The Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment, Fox can see the dead – he even lives with them. Set in a small town that was home to a mass murder some years previous, a new wave of carnage sweeps across the area again and only Frank Bannister (Fox) can see what’s really going on.
Surprisingly creepy and funny in equal measure, The Frighteners is an absurdly fun movie and undoubtedly one of the finest films of its type with star turns from its leading man, Trini Alvarado as the recently widowed love interest, Jake Busey as the psychotic Johnny Bartlett and the legendary Jeffrey Coombs as the idiosyncratic FBI agent, Milton Dammers.
Equal parts horrifying and amusing, The Frighteners feels like something of a masterclass in film making, it may not say very much and it pretty much plays it straight, but whilst it re-treads common ground, it does it with a fair amount of panache and struts with confidence, making it an utterly entertaining experience from start to finish.
Known in some parts of the world as Dead Alive, Braindead is a gruesome, campy, B-movie masterpiece drenched in bucket loads of blood. Stylistically, Braindead feels like a logical successor to Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, except that everything has been ramped up to eleven.
Like its predecessor, Jackson perfectly encapsulates everything that the movie is about within the opening five to ten minutes as we witness an expedition to some far-flung island to take back an example of a rare species of monkey – which is native to the area – back to a New Zealand zoo. What transpires is almost a parody of the Indiana Jones films as a warrior tribe gives chase and swarms them with a hail of arrows and spears, ultimately seeing the leader of the party, Stewart McAlden bitten by his simian prize.
Jump forward some time and we are introduced to the protagonist of the picture, Lionel, an almost Norman Bates-like character bearing the brunt of his over protective mother’s domineering behaviour as she spies on her him and goes out of her way to prevent him ever leaving her, at the expense of his ability to find happiness.
Ultimately, following one such attempt to sabotage his chances of finding love with the shopkeeper’s daughter, Paquita, Lionel’s mother is bitten by the same monkey witnessed in the opening sequence, and subsequently all hell breaks loose.
A genuine tour de force in terms of its physical effects, Braindead is simply gorgeous, with its blood-soaked finale a real feast for the eyes as Lionel makes unusual use of a lawn mower and his gigantic zombified mother stomps around as though something out of The Wall as she tries to send her one and only son back from whence he came.
Throw into the mix a kung-fu master priest who “kicks arse for the lord” and the finest scene involving custard ever committed to celluloid and you have a genuine classic. It may have flopped at the box office and it may not have garnered nearly as much attention as it should have, but if there is one Peter Jackson film that everybody should see, this is undoubtedly the one.