Blink and you'll miss it, but in the animal-transport hold of the tramp steamer that takes filmmaker Carl Denham, actress Ann Darrow, and writer Jack Driscoll to Skull Island in Peter Jackson's new King Kong, there is a small cage labeled "Sumatran rat monkey." It's a little in-joke reference to one of Jackson's first films, 1992's Braindead (also called Dead Alive), a gross-out horror comedy that itself contains more than a few nods to the 1933 Kong, which Jackson has claimed as a primal influence on his work.
There are movie lovers who understand in a fundamental way that "fantasy" does not always mean "sweetness and light" — we are those movie lovers who saw, as impressionable children, the '33 Kong, The Wizard of Oz, Fantasia, March of the Wooden Soldiers, or any of the other dark fantasy films that have held a profound sway over the imaginations of entire generations. And yet even we who appreciate intellectually that the Brothers Grimm are a far greater inspiration for modern fantasy than Beatrix Potter may still forget this when we're in the process of being swept away by the reverie of the movies. We may well be stunned when "fantasy" turns sinister. Whether we're seeing these films for the first time as children or adults, if we're expecting only to be delighted by a pretend "fantasy" story, the Wicked Witch's flying monkeys, say, or the naked animal sexuality of '33's Kong may be more startling than even their creators intended them to be.
But Jackson is a filmmaker who is aware of this unforeseen juxtaposition of pleasant fantasy and sudden nightmare, and he has played with the concept in almost all his films. His new Kong is the most sophisticated in this regard, which should not be too surprising given the fact that Jackson's confidence as a filmmaker is growing by leaps and bounds with every film. Its opening moments(a rigorously realistic replica of Depression-era New York City) instantly add new levels of fantasy and escapism. As Jackson reminds 21st-century moviegoers of the larger context of this story in a way that the '33 film did not need to do for its original audience, he emphasizes the aspect of escapism inherent in the '33 film — this was what 1933 movie fans were trying to get away from for a little by going to the cinema. In so doing, he simultaneously underlines the desperate need for an escape from reality for his characters as well. Naomi Watt's Ann and Jack Black's Carl have good reasons for wanting to hightail it out of NYC, and each are lost in their own fantasies as well: Ann that she'll become a big movie star as a result of Carl's project, or at least get to eat on a regular basis, and Carl that he'll find something literally fantastic on Skull Island... an even greater fantasy than that he'll vindicate himself as a filmmaker (though of course the two are intertwined). Of Jackson's leading trio, only Adrien Brody's screenwriter, Jack, is not seeking escape and has to be shanghaied into the film's story and so perhaps Jack is somewhat less willing to give himself over to a belief in something better to come.
Our willingness to surrender to fantasy grants that fantasy the power to overcome and surprise us: Jack is able to remain calmer in the face of the horrific zombielike natives of Jackson's Skull Island — and in confrontation with Kong himself — because he has not already given himself over to more agreeable anticipations. But we, the audience, are more akin to Carl and Ann — we're expecting the pleasantness of getting lost in a film, expecting perhaps even blood and gore and roller-coaster thrills but not genuine horror. Part of the brilliance of Jackson's Kong is that he does indeed find new ways to shock us — as with the Skull Island natives and the eerie quietness of the bug attack — within the confines of a familiar story.
The Lord of the Rings may be the ultimate "familiar story" for genre fans, but Jackson's highlighting of the differences between the expectations of fantasy and less enjoyable solid reality serves to underscore the audience's own preconceived notions and how he thwarts or exceeds them. Of course, there was never anything "nice" about Mordor or Sauron, but Jackson finds new depths of dreadfulness with, for instance, the stomach-turning visual dramatization of being in the shadow world, and the awfulness of the Nazgul. If we thought we couldn't be newly enchanted or enthralled or upset by a story we knew back to front from multiple readings, Jackson proved us wrong. We are like Sam, for whom the elves had been a pleasant, distant fantasy but turn out in his reality to be as dangerous as they are mysterious. When, in the Extended Edition of Fellowship of the Ring, Sam sees the wood elves moving ethereally through the forest, his "I don't know why, but it makes me sad" is almost a foreshadowing of his own disenchantment with the elves he will later meet (he can't seem to leave Rivendell fast enough, for all that he wanted to see it). Frodo, too, comes to sadly realize that what had been his greatest fantasy — to have adventures like Bilbo's — turned out not to be such a wonderful thing after all. He wanted escape — he got much more than he bargained for.
From his earliest films, Jackson has been toying with this theme. His first and third films — 1987's Bad Taste and the aforementioned Braindead — are the most simplistic renderings of the startling shock value of fantasy: they are low-budget splatter flicks, indulgences in inventively disgusting dismemberment and disembowelment. Both films demonstrate a great deal of verve and visual wit, and there's a surprising Freudian subtext at play in Braindead, but they are not especially noteworthy beyond the glee they take in being as gross as possible.
The movie Jackson made in between those two, however, is 1989's Meet the Feebles, and part of what make this so outrageous is the conjoining of the two remotest edges of fantasy: children's puppetry and pornography. These diametrically opposite realms of the pretend collide in such a way here that you can barely reconcile them — the antics of the dark-side Muppets known as the Feebles is endlessly shocking and amusing because it is so baldly wrong given all we "know" about how puppets are "supposed" to behave. The more you cherish your memories of Sesame Street and especially The Muppet Show, the more amused (or offended) you'll be by the clash of cinematic "realities," which culminates in a finale so absurdly, aggressively rude that it's hard to imagine it being topped.
What's not shocking is that as Jackson toned down his overt reminders that fantasy can have an unexpectedly grim side, his audience grew and his films achieved more significant popularity. His The Frighteners, from 1996, is a downbeat spin on Ghostbusters, in which his "hero," a paranormal exterminator played by Michael J. Fox, is a con artist — oh, ghosts are real enough, all right, but a couple of them have teamed up with him to "spook" houses that he then "exorcises." Heavenly Creatures, from 1994, deals more explicitly with exploring the borderland between what we expect of fantasy and how reality intrudes, and with the jarring recognition that comes with realizing that fantasy isn't always what we want it to be. In the brilliant script — for which Jackson and his cowriter Fran Walsh were nominated for an Oscar — two teenaged girls get so lost in their own invented medieval fantasy world of aggrieved royals and court intrigue that it leads them to a vicious criminal act. The obvious theme, that fantasy can be dangerous if one loses track of reality, is almost so facile as to be dismissible: yet, it isn't the film's point. Instead, it may be that fantasy is always dangerous and upsetting — Jackson's depiction of the girls' imaginary world as a realm of clay-people is uniquely disturbing — and should be upsetting... it's only when we fail to appreciate that that is fantasy's purpose that we get ourselves into trouble.
And that may be the meta-lesson, too, of Jackson's most intriguing pre-LOTR film: 1995's Forgotten Silver. A mock documentary made for New Zealand television, it purports to tell the true story of legendary pioneering filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who drove himself almost to death in his obsessive quest to make his art. It's all fake, of course, but a peek at the extras on the film's DVD reveals that many New Zealand TV viewers were infuriated when they realized they'd been had. Instead of accepting the collision of pleasant fantasy (the film attributes so many filmmaking firsts to this "forgotten" early-20th-century filmmaker from Down Under that it almost becomes a parody of a balm for Kiwi national insecurity) and unexpected reality (Kiwi insecurity remains un-balmed), viewers lashed out. They failed to see the mirror Jackson was holding up to them... or perhaps they did see it, and didn't like it very much.
From his earliest budget-minded cinematic experiments to his latest movie monster, reportedly one of the most expensive films ever made, Jackson's work has an undeniable power, one that has nothing to do with gallons of cheap fake blood or costly computer-generated special effects. His command of the fantastical springs from an understanding rare among even the most accomplished filmmakers: he knows not only what rivets us to our seats, he also knows why we're riveted.