Dir. Peter Jackson
Film #5, for Friday 5th October, of Hallowen 31 for 31
Spare a thought for the poor bastards who don’t work with large, well established groups who deal with extraterrestrial activity like the Men in Black or those who work out of Area 51. The middle America, full of UFO sightings, where either a police force who are not taught to deal with such cases, or a small group of amateur or professional (but unfunded) specialists, have to contact with alien life but get all their credit stolen by FBI agents called Mulder and Sculley when they’ve done all the legwork. Even the most well known version of these tales from Britain, H.G. Welles’s War of the Worlds, inextricably tied to London and the devastation of the nerve centre of South England, has to exist in a British landscape, even then, full of rural countryside populated by farmers and tourists on walking holidays, villages with only one (about to close) post office and little else, and seasides. Martian tripods could easily rise out of the waters of Blackpool beach, or closer to home, Mablethrope seaside, crushing sweet shop stands that sell lollipops in the shape of breasts and penises as well as candy floss and ginger snaps, and disintegrating whole donkey rides and miniature golf players with their heat rays. Who’s going to be there first, before the Army comes in, to deal with the mess?
Spare a thought for Bad Taste’s The Astro Investigation and Defence Service, a New Zealand group who even have to put up with a name so politically incorrect even in 1987 when written as an acronym. Either they have no time to discuss changing it, although one member at a brief point wishes they could, or, dealing with malevolent aliens rampaging around their beautiful but quaint countryside, the sick humour of the name is something to take their minds off said nasties terrifying the sheep and making whole towns of people disappear. Unfortunately, finding the entirety of the population of Kaihoro missing, they have to deal with aliens who want to use human beings as the main food supply for an intergalactic fast food franchise. Never has the terms ‘Heavy Users’ and ‘Super Heavy Users’, from the Morgan Spurlock documentary Super Size Me (2004), been as macabre as when you link them to the activities of the aliens in Bad Taste...
The innocuous nature of Peter Jackson’s first three films – this, Meet The Feebles (1989), and Brain Dead [Dead Alive] (1992) – is a huge factor in why they are as memorable as they are as well as other factors. Even horror-comedy can feel completely disconnected from reality, not a gritty fake world depicted in most realistic dramas, but one full of non-sequiturs, odd tangents and accidental slip-ups that happen in real life. Everyone looks like a model or a plastic composition of what a normal person is, the settings glamorous metropolises (New York, Los Angeles) or cleaned up versions of places, and never would it be conceived that one of the main heroes, with an uzi in hand to take out the mindless hordes, would step in a patch of cow dung and slip like in this film. Bad Taste still has a final chapter that is an extended gun battle, but because of its low budget, its setting, and its jokey and naive tone, such images are pulled up into being inherently silly as well as gripping. That the film is as much a comedy as well as horror, keeping in the boom of ‘splatterstick’ and horror-comedies made in the 1980s, enforces this as it never takes itself seriously. Sight gags, jokes against places within New Zealand, and aliens giving the heroes the middle finger during combat all pile up together in their frivolousness to create something inanely charming. The first three films of Jackson’s, even in the perversity of Meet The Feebles, were able to take such juvenile humour and ideas, and makes them into imaginative, amusingly inane but compelling areas. Brain Dead [Dead Alive] would succeed the most as its 1950s setting and the era’s stereotypical stiltedness already brought a sense of naivety and innocence to the characters and interactions that were invaded by the bloodiest and graphically imaginative gore and zombie attack scenes you could see. That they are New Zealand films, part of the British Commonwealth, does have a lot to say; connections with the British and our use of our own inanity within our most surreal and disgusting jokes is matched by the utter amusement of how Jackson runs with the connections with the British Royalty and our culture within his country, just by the amount of times our current Queen or Prince Charles’ faces appear in such a gory film.
The gore is the most distinctive aspects of Bad Taste, but the virtue of it and Brain Dead is that they are more just decapitations and blood effects continually repeated, but delve into a Carnivalesque mentality where the rules of human anatomy are destroyed, as well as any vindictiveness and cruelty in the violence, and creativity is allowed to sculpt organs, bloods and the body into whatever shape the creators thought would stand out and was possible with the materials they had. Brain Dead stands over some of the best and most regarded horror films for me because it pushes the ghoulishness of gore and anatomy into surrealistic levels – where any body part or organ could move sentiently, or be put together or re-sculpted into any shape – but Bad Taste still shows the same flourishes that would been seen in that film. Case in point would be the predicament that main character Derek (Jackson in one of two roles) has when his skull is broken and he is in constant danger of his brains falling out. The anatomy of the grey matter is slightly suspect even for me and my lack of medical knowledge, but the complete lack of rules is what makes the gorier sequences stand out. And it is not just these scenes to as, despite the low budgeted nature of the film, shades of the camera techniques Jackson would have in his later career and the Lord of the Rings trilogy can be seen in these origins, the elaborate movements at certain moments striking considering how difficult or time consuming some might have been to pull off. They are not up there with where Sam Raimi and his friends went to with The Evil Dead (1981), but the attempts to play with the form of cinema in one’s debut, made over four years, can be seen and are the best virtues of the film. Jackson even has his Derek character and another played by himself who is one of the aliens, fight on top of a cliff, whether out of practicability or to see if he and the rest of the film production team could pull it off, the mirrored doppelganger effect a memorable and applaudable attempt even if it’s obvious how they set the individual shots together to make it work.
My interactions with Jackson’s more acclaimed, later period is cut short. I have not really caught up with them from Heavenly Creatures (1994) onwards, and when I revisited the first of the Lord of the Rings films last year, it was a tedious three hours that put me off the rest of the trilogy. I even fear that Jackson may have lost something that made him distinct in his early splatter period, a potential reason I never caught up with the later films. And yet, aside from the fact that I can still catch up with his work and could end up changing my mind, I can still look at something like Bad Taste with immense satisfaction. Sadly most genre films, regardless of budget, and frankly most films, are lazy and passionless creations, or worse, presume to be creative but end up being pretentious in their mindset. That is a dangerous thing to suggest, especially as judging films is at the end of the day a personal opinion distinct to each viewer, but laziness masquerading as passion is a problem even if its disagreed upon. The sense that the digital camera revolution, while allowing people with creativity to actually have access to making a film, has caused most low budget genre cinema to sink into a hack mentality further than before, as long as nudity and violence is on screen, feels more apparent, even if it’s a distorted bias of mine that hasn’t been fully shown the Video Rental Store of the Damned where films as far back as the 1910s were capable of being half-hearted hackwork. It still cannot hide though those films like Bad Taste which exist and radiate with a clear pride of the filmmakers trying their hardest, something which even outside of filmmaking is worth taking away from. As a person wanting to write and be a writer, whether I can end up writing published novels or am content to post on my blog like this, I want to push myself so the best and most creative work is made. This is why this Halloween project, subconsciously, was started as well as, when I considered it, improving my writing and creative skills outside of hobbies for real world employment. Peter Jackson with Bad Taste clearly wanted to push himself with this film, and like the most well regarded genre films, the large flaws cannot undermine this fact, especially when he went on to make Meet The Feebles and the masterpiece Brain Dead, and successfully raised the bar and made better films. And this is not a hollow mentality that you see in Bad Taste either - the kind that film fans making their own work accidentally channel or celebrate that does not capture a sense of life of what is outside of the cinema - but something that is as much a creation made with life, which factors into its innocuous charm, while still is a genre film for the diehard film fanatics. This sort of filmmaking leads to great reward for the makers and the viewers, and now 26 years old or so, Bad Taste has probably made double the reward for itself.