F13 Hall of Fame: James Isaac


With all the technical challenges of a slasher film it is surprising that more are not directed by special effects artists. John Carl Buechler had been the first to helm a Friday the 13th movie, with 1988′s The New Blood which, whilst suffering from an uneven script and bland characters, boasted perhaps the most action-packed finale of the franchise. A decade later, another veteran of the effects industry would take the reins in an attempt to breathe new life into the series. Prior to entering the world of filmmaking, James Isaac had worked as a theatre producer and director in California and, in an effort to fund his latest production, found work at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic through the uncle of his business partner. The company at that time were working on the special effects for Return of the Jedi, the second sequel to Lucas’ blockbuster Star Wars, and Isaac was brought onboard to assist in the creature workshop.

The production, which would feature several future directors amongst the crew, including Joe (The Wolfman) Johnston and David (Fight Club) Fincher, was only intended as a stopgap for Isaac as he attempted to complete work on his play but he soon became obsessed with the mechanics of special effects. Having supervised the creature shop on the picture, Chris Walas had formed his own company and brought Isaac onboard. Their first task came with creating the lovable-yet-mischievous creatures in Joe Dante’s 1984 hit Gremlins and soon Isaac became one of the key artists of Walas’ CWI, which would lead to his first collaboration with his close friend and mentor, David Cronenberg. The Fly, a reworking of a Vincent Price b-movie from 1958, would earn Walas an Academy Award for his work and would raise the bar for prosthetic effects. Through his various collaborations, Isaac had developed an interest in directing his own picture and would often question Cronenberg on the art of filmmaking.

Soon after completing work on The Fly, Walas was hired to provide the creature effects on the horror comedy House II: The Second Story, which would lead Isaac to forming a friendship with the film’s producer, Sean S. Cunningham. House, released the previous year, had been an attempt by Cunningham to launch a new franchise after the success of Friday the 13th. Whilst working together once again on the low budget production DeepStar Six, Cunningham approached Isaac with the opportunity to make his directorial debut on a slasher-type picture called The Horror Show. Having replaced the original director, David Blyth (who instead would work on the long-forgotten vampire flick Red Blooded American Girl), Isaac was brought onto the production one week into filmmaking and, working closely with the writer, would attempt to move the tone of the story closer to the earlier drafts. Despite feeling disappointed with the script, Isaac begrudgingly finished the picture and the movie was released as House III in 1989.

Following its mediocre performance, Isaac continued to focus on his work with Walas and soon further success began to follow, including the family comedy Look Who’s Talking Too and Cronenberg’s disturbing noir drama Naked Lunch (based on the controversial novel by William S. Burroughs). Following several low key productions, including the Denzel Washington thriller Virtuosity and the straight-to-video horror Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (in which he would direct the second unit for Ethan Wiley, who had also been responsible for House II: The Second Story), Isaac and Cronenberg teamed up once again for eXistenZ, which would update many of the concepts that the filmmaker had previously explored in his surreal 1982 classic Videodrome. Filming took place in Toronto, where Isaac had been based throughout the 1990s, but once production came to an end he returned to California with a proposition for his old friend, Cunningham.

With Isaac desperate to try his hand at directing once again and Cunningham having obtained the right to the Friday the 13th franchise several years earlier, talks of a new sequel began, although Isaac, with his background in effects, was determined to avoid the low budget feel of the earlier films. This would be achieved with the help of Stephen Dupuis and Kelly Lepkowski, both of whom he had worked with several times before through Walas’ company and had also been on the crew of eXistenZ. Filming for Jason X saw Isaac once again return to Toronto, this time with an allocated budget of approximately $14m. Eager to provide support for his friend, Cronenberg agreed to make an appearance in the movie, having previously co-starred as a demented serial killer in Clive Barker’s 1990 monster movie Nightbreed. But when the studio decided to withhold the release of Jason X for two years, both fans and critics feared the worst and the film failed to make back its budget at the US box office.

Not wanting to wait another decade before directing his next feature, Isaac soon commenced work on a werewolf picture called Skinwalkers. At the time, Isaac was working at Gold Circle Films and had struggled to get the production off the ground and, when it seemed like the project was doomed, he turned to one of his friends for assistance. Dennis Berardi was the owner of Mr. X, a Canadian special effects company who had previously worked on Species III and the remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, and was brought onboard as Isaac’s producer. Another important addition to the crew was Stan Winston, arguably the most successful special effects artist in the industry, having gained considerable acclaim with such blockbusters as The Terminator, Predator and Jurassic Park. Forming his own company, Stan Winston Productions, in 1997, Winston had worked closely with Summit Entertainment to produce the creature feature Wrong Turn in 2003, which had become a modest success due to its graphic violence.

With a budget of $18m, Isaac returned to shoot his third feature in Toronto, with a talented crew that would include artists from both Berardi and Winston’s studios. Despite being scheduled for a December 2006 release, Skinwalkers would be delayed by almost a year, suffering a similar fate to Jason X. Following three disappointing experiences as a director, Isaac turned to a screenplay he had received prior to shooting Skinwalkers. A combination of monster movie and Russ Meyer-like sexploitation, Pig Hunt was written by Zack Anderson and Robert Mailer Anderson, the latter having written the novel Boonville, which had served as inspiration for their script. Opting for a reduced budget in order to retain creative control over the project, Pig Hunt was filmed on location in Boonville and San Francisco, California, from April to June 2007.

The cast would feature an eclectic selection of performers, such as Travis Aaron Wade (War of the Worlds), Tina Huang (General Hospital) and Primus frontman Les Claypool, whilst the crew would include Academy Award-winning costume designer Aggie Guerard (Children of Men) and special effects workshop Kerner Optical. Pig Hunt made its debut on January 24th 2009 at the Anderson Valley Film Festival and was screened at several other events throughout the year. In their review of the movie the following October, the San Francisco Chronicle stated; “Director James Isaac has visual flair and imagination, and he seems either to be working with a decent budget or to be making a little go a long way. The movie looks good.”

Jason X (DVD)

Director: Jim Isaac
Starring: Kane Hodder, Lexa Doig, Lisa Ryder, Chuck Campbell, Jonathan Potts
Rating: R (Restricted)

New From: $4.50 In Stock
Used from: $1.29 In Stock
Release date June 7, 2005.
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