When you hit it big in Hollywood, those early roles you took for the money can come back to haunt you. Yes, we are looking at you, Jennifer Aniston. For directors, early movies can show their creative geniuses beginning to take shape. It is rather uncommon to find an A-list director to peak early. Everyone has to pay their dues. This week, we examine the early films of A-list directors that demonstrated the first sparks of blockbuster success. Some are great, some average, and some should never be brought up in conversation ever again.
DUEL, Dir. Steven Spielberg
Car-horror is a sub-genre that was introduced to the genre thanks to Duel. Two similar films followed, Christine and The Car, but none would compare to the nail-biting intensity of E.T. director Steven Spielberg’s made-for-TV debut feature. The story can be summarized so easily: A car, for no reason, begins to stalk and kill hopeless travellers. It’s a plot straight out of B-movie heaven, but Spielberg, through his ever-mobile camerawork and straightforward approach to story/characters he would be admired for later in works like Raiders of the Lost Ark, creates a grade-A horror film that still manages to make the skin crawl. The truck, it should be noted, looks to be what inspired the menacing villain car in Jeepers Creepers. Side roads in desert states will no longer be so innocent.
BAD TASTE, Dir. Peter Jackson
Before Peter Jackson created the world of hobbits and mystical rings, he populated our world with aliens, throat-ripping zombies, and an undead Michael J. Fox. These early films, Bad Taste, Dead Alive, and The Frighteners, do not display the same rich cinemtography and epic circumstances that Lord of the Rings does, though it does show Jackson’s knack for telling a good story…and keeping us entertained the entire time.
Bad Taste is actually done–in well meaning taste. Jackson makes his own cultish, B-movie, reminiscent of the alien invasion films of the 50s although Jackson inserts his own signature twist on those tropes (Hint: lots of gory violence). It’s laugh out loud hilarious and stupefyingly horrendous at times, but the guy now has an Oscar so it’s kind not to deny it’s a bit of a masterpiece.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Dir. George Lucas
While many early directors made their mark banking on the low-budget horror boom of the 70s and 80s, George Lucas, future Star Wars birth father, would introduce the world to the talents of such stars like Harrison Ford, Ronny Howard, and Richard Dreyfuss with a #ThrowbackThursday film called American Graffiti. The film, following one night in the life of teenagers in the 1950s, would actually introduce the “nostalgia boom” of the 1970s (when America longed for the innocent days of the 1950s). Out of the success of AG, “Happy Days” became a television show, Grease became a film and drive-ins became successful again. It’s a film that, like Bad Taste, can’t be compared to the director’s present works, but shows their unique way of story-telling.
BOTTLE ROCKET, Dir. Wes Anderson
It’s awkward. It’s colorful. It’s photographed in a way that makes every frame look like a portrait. You don’t really want to like its characters but for some reason, you do.
These can apply to any, if not all of Wes Anderson’s films. Regardless of whether you like him or not (audiences of his are polarized to each extreme), he is a completely original voice in modern cinema today. Bottle Rocket marked the beginnings of his quirky style, following three friends who decide to pull of a huge crime spree–for no real apparent reason. It has all of the makings of a Wes Anderson movie, though its narrative is not as contrived as other plots. It is an early masterpiece of one of the most original directors working today. Check out Criterion Collection’s DVD!
PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, Dir. James Cameron
Horror sequels are subject to the Hollywood curse: not as fun as it wants to be, bloated dialogue, flat characters. Ironically, those ingredients were what made the first Piranha such a cult-box-office-hit. Its sequel had those same ingredients but sadly, got the short end of the stick (maybe Piranha used up all of the good kills?). James Cameron, though, displays a youthful love and affection for action and gore, something he perfects in Terminator. The story of this sequel is not at all good, but Cameron makes thing sfun along the way.
NEAR DARK, Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
While James Cameron got stuck with killer fish, his once-wife, Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow, explored the dark territories of vampires among humans. It’s a fiercely funny and rather terrifying twist on the creature genre, complete with jet-black humor and top-notch acting. Bigelow’s way of slowly increasing the tension through meticulous direction is on full display here, something that would earn her an Oscar decades later for The Hurt Locker. Take that, Bella Swan.