Monday, April 12, 2010

"Bad Taste" - Peter Jackson's Early Glories, Pt. 2

"Welcome, my friends. The job is almost done! We take off for home tomorrow; I'm sure you'll be pleased to be leaving this shitty planet." - Lord Crumb

What does a New Zealand town, fast food, and a tax collector have in common? They're elements of Peter Jackson's first film, "Bad Taste." 1987's action-horror gem lives up to its name nicely (that's a compliment). The clever, precise execution here would be a credit to any director on any budget, much less a freshman on his own small dime.

I hope "Bad Taste" is picked up as a midnight film, since PJ's demented debut would fill any theater with laughter and fright. The sounds of the disgusted-but-delighted crowd would be worth recording...
"Get out of there fast, Derek!" "I can't do that - I'm a Derek. Dereks don't run." - Barry and Derek
Honestly, this is the very definition of a cult film, but it might give you nightmares if you're squeamish. It IS sick, but it's a great ride. I think that the story, music, and pure sense of fun make it an easier ride than it should be; that is quite necessary with the sort of icky, creepy, shocking, goosebump-inducing gross-outs that occur.

Still, "BT" doesn't attain "torture porn" status since (a) it's demented, not mean-spirited, (b) it actually has humor, plots, etc, and (c) it was made by a real filmmaker, not a cheap hack. This movie rivals "Evil Dead 2" in tension, humor, blood, execution, and talent. In fact, it has more action than "ED2," but they're different stories.

It begins with a panicked voice and a prim phone operator. Before he's cut off, the caller mentions lights, loud sounds, and "invaders" killing people. Now, a coastal New Zealand town must be investigated: the lucky blokes are a team of four government employees, good Kiwis in the Astro Investigation and Defence Service.

On arrival, Barry and Derek find a beautiful locale containing strange zombie-esque men - the able boys from AIDS are attacked immediately. With only two others for backup, they feel they must stop a larger alien massacre. What follows is cinematic magic.

Do others share my opinion, or is this just violent junk? It was chosen for the best line of dialogue from a New Zealand film, and got international distribution after playing at Cannes. The Queensland Film Board of Review was disbanded for banning the film in 1990. It has a nifty documentary on its making.

And, in 2008, it was #416 on Empire Magazine's Top 500 movies - a poll that was open to critical, public, and professional opinion. Even if you're skeptical about Empire's voting system, there are so many other movies out there. It's amazing that such a "small" release would get such big attention; or maybe it isn't.
"That's another beer you owe me, Oz." -Frank
Everything this film does, it does well. It creates tension beautifully, impressing its tone and mood on viewers. Fights are fun and vividly-choreographed, some like a Buster Keaton bit. Our heroes are interesting and exciting. The bad guys are crafty, mean - and mysterious. They first speak 34 minutes in, when we learn their plan; it's spooky and hysterical.

I want to reveal very few details because this film is a great big birthday present for anyone smart enough to see it. Some highlights: the tough Richard Simmons-looking Ozzy, the hole in the wall, the run and jump, the intro between Barry and Charles, the baddie's first lines, Ozzy's face when he peeps on Frank. And, of course,"That was my car!"

The soundtrack is dead-on, too - from a Monty-Python-style title cue to the dueling scores. I expected little, but I got a strong 80's flashback. Great guitar riffs abound, lending a nice quick pace to many scenes. There are several, familiar but unidentifiable and seemingly made for an action classic (think "Commando" or "Miami Vice").

They also liven up the dominant music: it's synth-heavy (of course), tame or sedate at times, even a little clownish on occasion. Still, it has steady successes throughout the pic, and I grew to adore the main theme, which plays first as rock, then as synth. The transitions are solid - I love when the music stops as a man escapes into his car!

"We're only authorized to use violence when protecting the Earth." "And the moon!" "Yeah, and the moon..." - Frank and Barry
What here feels badly done? What about it is not rewarding? Well, the hairstyles are slightly mockable. Folks who can't decipher foreign accents will wish for subtitles, occasionally. The image looks old, and slightly paler than it should... In the end, so long as you can enjoy a movie with gore, there's no cause for complaint.

I've seen far worse problems, and this is a 23 year-old Super 8 picture made on weekends by a group of friends. It had a $295,000 budget, and Peter Jackson only got funding from New Zealand's Film Commision toward the end of the production. PJ apparently built his own steadycam for $15! (not adjusted for inflation)
"Now, what are you dirty whores doing on my planet?" - Derek

I'm most impressed by the fact that the audience gets a complete film here. This means that it's got one-up on competition from any genre. What do I mean by "complete film?"

(a) You get a coherent and entertaining story for your 90-odd minutes, something that's not nearly as common as it should be. This movie knows what it is (sick, funny, and gory) and stays within its tone (no tacked-on love story). That's better than many "big" pictures.

(b) Unlike some romances or dramas, "Bad Taste" has relatable, engaging characters, like the impish Derek. Unlike many action pix, the lead villain has a real personality and a great opportunity to perform! The only actor I recognize here is Jackson, but all the players are fine. The funny, naturalistic reactions and asides are a blessing.

(c) You'll find good dialogue and dead-funny laughs throughout this gore-fest, beating out many recent comedies.

(d) The special effects are excellent. They're inspired, and jarring in a great way. Yet they don't take over the picture - which means it does more than most of today's expensive horror, sci-fi, and thriller efforts.

Peter Jackson aced his first release, but he wasn't really a freshman: he made films when he was a kid. Years of effort, ingenuity, and passion shows a great maturity in this immature, tongue-in-cheek work. I'm not sure what's more of a miracle: that "Bad Taste" is so good, or that so many "bigger" films fall so short in comparison.
"I think you'd better kill him, Barry." "Geez, he could be the Ministry of Works or something." "Nah, he's moving too fast." - Derek and Barry


  1. Ah I totally agree on this one. By no means is this the kind of film I usually like, and certainly by the end the thing starts to wear out its welcome, but this movie is suprisingly funny despite the fact that it is disgusting from start to finish. I remember spotting a used copy of it on DVD here in Canada randomly and I'm glad I grabbed it because I've never seen anywhere else ever carry it on DVD. Good post here.

  2. Thanks so much! I appreciate it. Canada apparently beats the US out in bargin-bin dvd selection, too...

    I'm glad that the appeal extends as far as I predicted. Done in any other way, this movie wouldn't be nearly as watchable!


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