If Woody Allen’s first movies are the “early, funny ones” that only hint at what’s to come, think of Peter Jackson’s first movies as the early, gross ones. Fourteen years before he directed the $300 million Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson made his first feature, the aptly titled, low-budget Bad Taste, which is filled with vomit-drinking, brain-eating, blood-spurting aliens who want to bring the “exotic new taste sensation” of human flesh to the intergalactic market. He followed Bad Taste with Meet the Feebles, a Muppets parody starring vile anthropomorphic animal puppets who miscegenate, urinate, litigate, and adulterate. Then came the horror-comedy Dead Alive (called Braindead outside the United States), which alternates between gut-turning and gut-busting and climaxes when the blood-spattered protagonist mows down—literally, with a lawn mower—a house full of zombies. Jackson’s early films are often dismissed by fans of his later work, but there, lurking beneath the delirious filth, lie Frodo and the gang (or at least Jackson’s vision of them), struggling to peek out.
To one degree or another, Jackson’s pictures—the early and the late ones—explore the juxtaposition of normalcy and depravity. There’s an innocence behind the malevolence: Much of the humor in Dead Alive comes from the protagonist’s futile efforts to care for his decaying, undead mother. There’s also a sweetness to Jackson’s naive heroes, who struggle to remain calm in a world that has collapsed around them. At its heart, the Lord of the Rings is this same story on an epic scale. With its stark themes, good-vs.-evil imagery, and clear notions of the good guys and the bad guys, it’s a zombie movie without the zombies—and it’s painted with the same black-and-white palette. And in a way, Jackson’s 1994 art-house hit Heavenly Creatures is simply an inversion of this story—it’s about teenage girls who cannot stand the normal world around them, so they escape into a world of first fantastic, then actual, violence.
Like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, Jackson is inspired as much by film schlock as by the classics of cinema, and he makes no distinction between high art and low. Also like Rodriguez and Tarantino, the 41-year-old Jackson possesses a biography that’s the Hollywood version of building a billion-dollar computer company in a Silicon Valley garage. (Unlike Tarantino and Rodriguez, there’s a dash of New Zealand socialism in his story.)
As a young man, Jackson—who’s from a coastal New Zealand town—aspired to become a special-effects artist, but he was turned away from a job in his country’s tiny film industry. So, over a four-year period, from the age of 22 to 25, he filmed Bad Taste on weekends, concocting the scriptless story as he went along and casting himself and his friends to fill multiple roles. Impressed by the film’s low-budget ingenuity, the New Zealand Film Commission gave Jackson some money to complete it. He quit his job and finished the movie, and the film commission took it to Cannes, where it sold to distributors in several countries. Thus, the New Zealand government began funding Jackson’s splatter pictures.
Jackson can be looked at as a grown-up (and non-murderous) version of the two girls at the heart of Heavenly Creatures. The girls, played by Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, create a fanciful, imaginative universe to escape from the dreariness of their ordinary lives. Jackson identifies with that, as well as with the girls’ violent fantasies—he’s said that he views making movies as a way “to get away with murder.” As a writer in Film Comment put it, Jackson’s early movies are “films the girls of Heavenly Creatures, in another time and perhaps gender, might’ve made themselves.” The primary role of movies, as Jackson sees them, is escape—escape from the everyday, from the ordinary. And not just for the audience, but for the director, too: “I do what I do because I have these visions, and I have to bring them to life,” Jackson told the Dallas Observer in 1994.
Because of his need to realize those visions in his head, Jackson sees himself as much a screenwriter as a director. But there’s a disconnect between what his head conjures and what he’s able to translate to the screen. In a telling admission, Jackson told the Los Angeles Times in 1996, “The whole thing turns rather sour once you start making the movie … I enjoy directing, but if someone said to me I had to choose I would certainly choose writing.”
But in the same way that Clint Eastwood the actor has damaged some of the work of Clint Eastwood the director, Peter Jackson the writer can’t always supply material that’s worthy of his directorial talents. Particularly in his early works, but also in the disappointing major-studio release The Frighteners, Jackson’s films sometimes come unhinged from a spectacular excess of imagination. They’re intelligent and relentlessly paced, but they’re ultimately unfocused and just, well, too much. Sometimes you wish Jackson would, like one of his zombie characters, stuff some of his brain back into his skull.
Jackson has become known as the “George Lucas of New Zealand” because of his special-effects wizardry, but he is actually Lucas’ opposite (overlooking the fact that both men are fat and bearded). Lucas’ best film, The Empire Strikes Back, is a Lucas-inspired story, translated to the screen by another director. Jackson’s most acclaimed films, by contrast, are screen translations of someone else’s story. Hence the brilliance of the online petition for Jackson to direct the final prequel in the Star Wars saga. Only when Jackson’s imagination has been grounded in someoneelse’s fantasy world—whether it’s the diaries written by the one of the real-life murderesses of Heavenly Creatures or the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien—has he been able to garner the attention of more than a cult audience.