Horror Icon Mini-Marathon: JIM ISAAC
Jim Isaac began his career in film the same way that many horror filmmakers do, by working in the world of effects. Like Robert Kurtzman and Chris Walas (with whom Isaac would later work on “The Fly”), other effects gurus who made the move up to director, Jim Isaac began as a creature technician in films such as “Return of the Jedi” and “Gremlins”.
The friendships and connections he would make early on with “House” writer Ethan Wiley and “The Fly” director David Cronenberg would steer a lot of his later work, working as a supervisor for Cronberg’s “Naked Lunch” and “eXistenZ”, and as second unit director for Wiley on “Children of the Corn 5: Fields of Terror”.
His directorial debut came in 1989, when he was the replacement director on the film “The Horror Show”, a pseudo-slasher produced by Sean Cunningham. Confusingly released as “House 3” in foreign territories, even though it doesn’t have any connection to the previous two films (or the later sequel, “House 4”), the film was a disappointment on release, and it was twelve years before he would direct another feature film.
His special effects work, however, continued to be in demand; aside from the collaborations with Wiley and Cronenberg, Isaac also worked on films as varied as “Look Who’s Talking Too”, “DeepStar Six”, and “Virtuosity”. Though his life and career were cut tragically short when he lost a battle with cancer in 2012, he left a short but eclectic filmography with at least one film worthy of being remembered as a fun reimagining of a classic franchise.
The film that only existed because Sean Cunningham wanted to keep interest in Jason Voorhees alive while “Freddy vs. Jason” was traveling the painfully slow road to existence, “Jason X” is a film that somehow triumphs over its blatant status as a placeholder film to become one of the more refreshing and surprising reinventions of a slasher franchise. Calling in favors from his filmmaker friends David Cronenberg (who has a great cameo as a scientist in the opening act) and Ethan Wiley (who wrote two songs for the movie), and featuring a cast of mostly television actors from Canada, Isaac was able to make a film with humor, action, and surprisingly effective visuals on a modest budget. And more importantly: he was able to make Jason fans temporarily forget about “Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan”.
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A year after audiences were disappointed by Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven reteaming to make the werewolf flop “Cursed”, but two years before werewolves returned to vogue with HBO’s “True Blood”, Isaac directed 2006’s “Skinwalkers”, a werewolf film that is equal parts siege movie a la “Straw Dogs” and a knowing reference to the werewolf community of “The Howling”. With a cast of horror and thriller mainstays like Elias Koteas and Rhona Mitra, the film is no great success, but it unfortunately landed in the public’s lap just when werewolf fatigue had set in.
An interesting film that is both a manic hodge-podge of backwoods classics like “Deliverance” and “Razorback” and also a signpost of the possible direction of Jim Isaac’s career (his focus on gritty violence, masculinity, and isolation could have sent him into some interesting Peckinpah-inspired work later in his filmography), “Pig Hunt” is notable more for its potential than its execution. The last film Isaac made before his death in 2012, the movie is fun and wild, a modern grindhouse film in the same tradition that he had started with “Skinwalkers”, and which might have led him to success in the post Tarantino-Rodriguez “Grindhouse” renaissance for low-budget horror filmmakers.
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