Will the Real Marcus Nispel Please Stand Up?
by Eric J Baker
My career as a child actor reached its pinnacle in 1979 when I was cast as the lead in a now-lost alien invasion film. The role of “random kid with bad 70’s hair” did not have dialog, but I was totally in character as a dazed preteen with no bleeding idea what was happening around him (I put a lot of method-style research into it). The fact that my dad was the director had nothing to do with me landing the part.
I could write a book about the weirdness of my father, but no one can deny his creativity. During the course of the week-long shoot, he ran around with his 8mm camera, tripod, and a single flood light filming cloudbursts and street lamps and telling me to run down this hallway and crawl through that passageway. One night we were in an unused conference room at the local YMCA. I recall him placing a toy spaceship atop a black candleholder, using the beam from a slide projector to illuminate the ship, setting the camera about 25 feet away, and turning off the overhead lights. As that noisy little 8mm whirred in the dark, I wondered what the hell Dad was doing.
Weeks later, after the film was cut together and we were watching it on his portable screen, I saw that little ship magically swooping out of the stars and landing as my character looked on in terror. I managed to escape from the alien that emerged (played by this kid named Henry, who got the part because of his Space 1999 laser gun toy was needed for a prop), but this was the nihilistic 1970s. In the end, the Earth is overrun by an armada of starships (the aforementioned streetlamps) amidst a swirl of strange smoky formations in the sky á la Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the cloudburst my dad, it turns out, had shot at 1 frame-per-second).
Though my father only made films as a hobby, he had something not every professional director possesses: An eye for the shot. The movie business is full of technically competent people who get work not because they are brilliant filmmakers but because they deliver safely unimaginative material on time and within budget. Hypothetically, these people have names like Brett Ratner. On the other hand, you can usually pick out the visionaries because they are reputed to be difficult (as my Dad was said to be in his real career as Reverend Bob). Also, a lot of them get their start in science fiction and horror films.
Some readers may be aware of the 1981 movie, Galaxy of Terror, a low-budget rip-off of Alien produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. The film is perhaps best known by casual viewers for the graphic scene in which the whiney Erin Moran of Happy Days fame has her head crushed (and not a moment too soon). However, long-time horror fans recall it fondly for being atmospheric, stylish, and far more visually impressive than its $1,000,000 budget suggests. And whose name pops up in the credits as Production Designer? James Cameron. Yup, that James Cameron.
Of course, everyone knows that Cameron went on fame and fortune as the director of Piranha II: The Spawning, plus couple of other films (I can’t recall the names) that fall somewhere on the list of the two biggest hits of all time. Another guy who got his start in the horror genre is Peter Jackson with the micro-budgeted splatter epic Bad Taste (1987), essentially a home movie so ambitious it must be seen to be believed. Best anecdote: Jackson had to redesign the aliens’ heads to be smaller when he found out his mother’s oven, in which the foam masks were to be baked, was not big enough.
And let’s not forget Sam Raimi, who made billions for Columbia Pictures with his three Spider-man films. His cinematic debut was the 16mm gore classic Evil Dead (1981), filmed partly the producer’s basement! The acrobatic camera shots that leap through windows and doors and circle over star Bruce Campbell’s head seem, in retrospect, like practice runs for Spidey’s web-slinging adventures through the steel and glass canyons of New York City.
Then there guys like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. Carpenter hit the jackpot early with Halloween and has spent the 33 years since its release milking every last stinking penny, occasionally turning out lazy junk like Ghosts of Mars to keep his IMDB profile active. I mean, how would it look if his list of directorial credits included nothing but the word “Halloween” followed by the word, “reissue” over and over again?
Hooper, whose Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is 80 minutes of unrelenting and brilliantly composed horror – has never come close to recapturing the magic. He may or may not have directed Poltergeist, a decent ghost story, and his other big-budget flick, Lifeforce (1985), was notable more for the copious nudity of its female lead, Mathilda May, than for being coherent. I met Tobe Hooper in 1995 when he was promoting the execrable flick, The Mangler, and obnoxiously asked him, “Why do you think it is that you can’t recapture the vision you once showed as a director?”
He must get question that a lot, because he just smiled enthusiastically and said, “Wait until you see The Mangler!” Seriously? The friggin’ Mangler? Can a filmmaker be so resigned to hackery that he is willing to grin his way through a dickhead inquiry like mine and then legitimize said inquiry by pretending his latest film was even watchable? Apparently so.
Perhaps a lot of talented directors debut with horror films because it is a genre that lets them demonstrate ingenuity and affords more opportunity for creative shot composition and lighting than, say, comedy. As a horror-movie fan, I’ve had the opportunity to identify several filmmakers whose vision transcends the material. Some, like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi, get to realize their full talent. Others, not so much.
The 2003 reboot of Texas Chainsaw Massacre showed that director Marcus Nispel, making his feature debut, was a filmmaker with great promise. The oppressively low angles, the characters seemingly swallowed by the tall wheatgrass, and the claustrophobic shots through doorframes and narrow halls inside the killers’ house conspired to brew up an atmosphere of inevitable doom. In the end, the remake lacks the relevance of the original, but it works on a visceral level.
His 2009 reboot of Friday the 13th was a faster-paced film that, despite fanboy bitching, was far more masterfully shot than any of the series’ predecessors. The script was unimaginative, puerile garbage, making its visually captivating qualities all the more remarkable. Few people are willing to assess movies of this nature based on relative merits, but an objective look should tell you that Nispel has a natural eye for the shot. Like a good songwriter who simply knows what chord should come next, a natural-born director chooses the right shot on instinct. These few frames from Nispel’s Friday are singularly more impressive than anything in the prior 11 films, as we see masked killer Jason turning upward and to the left as the camera pans downward and to the right – which follows a previous shot of another character moving upward and to the right. This is the stuff that animates a film and creates the sense that two things in motion are somehow destined to meet. It’s a technique James Cameron often uses to great success.
Flash forward to the present day: Perhaps Nispel is sitting on his porch, sucking down cases of Heineken, wondering what the hell happened to his Conan the Barbarian remake, currently running neck and neck with Cowboys and Aliens as the biggest money loser of the summer.
Marcus, if you care about the opinion of one industry outsider: Conan was not going to be a hit no matter who directed it. If Steven Spielberg, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, and Alfred Hitchcock collaborated on it, it was not going to be good. The subject matter, by nature, is more suitable for Frank Frazetta calendars than the motion-picture medium. Conan imagery is static, the character has no personality, and, anyway, you’re not suited for homoeroticism (leave that to Zack Snyder). You are much better at making a star of Jessica Biel’s ass than of Jason Momoa’s sweaty muscles. Thanks for that, by the way.
So your first big-money movie experience didn’t go so well. Worry not. You are a natural filmmaker, not a technician, and a natural doesn’t need 90 million bucks to make a good movie. I say, dust off that art-house project you’ve been dreaming about – the one you didn’t want to interrupt your commercial momentum for – and get cracking on it. Become invested. Show ‘em what you’ve got.
Editorial note: Gheys and women who think I’m respectable are advised to skip this last bit.
Marcus, in case you are concerned you might have to curtail your taste for certain shots… I’ve seen art-house flicks, and they have tons of naked chicks. Those critics who said Friday the 13th was misogynistic and exploitative because you included a couple of topless scenes never have a problem with nudity once you replace the serial killer with a dysfunctional relationship or two. Suddenly, the actress who is being “objectified” for showing her boobs in a commercial film becomes “brave” in an indie film for going full frontal.
You should totally do an art flick. You’ll get away with murder.