Written by: Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado and Peter Dobson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďGive it up, Frank! Death ain't no way to make a living!"
Few people had more fun with the horror genre than Peter Jackson did early in his career. With a rambunctious spirit, he emerged from New Zealand as a gorehound scamp, gleefully flinging blood and guts all over the place and laughing about it in movies like Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Big time Hollywood filmmaking was inevitable, and Jacksonís last stop on the way to Middle-earth was The Frighteners, a film that stands as an intersection in his career. One can easily feel him looking backwards to the spirited, thumb-nosing approach that brought him there in the first place, but itís just as easy to witness Jackson taking a step forward into the big budget, heavy effects productions that would leave behind his quaint, charming days as a homespun horror maestro. The result is still pure Jackson; slick yet messy, overstuffed but full of a plucky energy that makes The Frighteners irresistibly good-natured.
Michael J. Fox is Frank Bannister, a scoundrel of a con-man who uses his connection with the spirit world to drum up harmless hauntings. With the assistance of a trio of ghosts, he stages these events before acting as an exorcist with a hefty price-tag. His latest ďclientsĒ (read: targets) are Ray and Lucy Lynskey (Peter Dobson and Trini Alvarado), a local couple he encounters after accidentally wrecking their home in more conventional fashion when his car careens into their fence. After Ray becomes the next victim in a rash of mysterious deaths, Frank and Lucy work to unravel the townís mysterious, supernatural plague that may be connected to a madmanís (Jake Busey) killing spree thirty years earlier.
After Jackson and Fran Walsh conceived The Frighteners, Robert Zemeckis envisioned it becoming the basis for a Tales of the Crypt feature film, and, even though that obviously wasnít its fate, it might as well have been. Tonally and spiritually, The Frighteners joins Demon Knight as one the 90s' best representatives for zany horror comedies; this one veers a little more towards the comedic, as, like Sam Raimi before him, Jackson set aside his blood and guts but kept the slapstick. Some might say that itís sanitized Jackson since it feels an awfully like what came before, only this movie doesnít feature a guy plowing through zombies with a lawnmower. Instead, The Frighteners is a little more tame (though there is a rad exploding head), preferring instead to rely more on effects-driven rollercoaster-style sequences and silly gags; ultimately, itís a movie that feels more good-humored than overtly, riotously humorous as it bombs from one setpiece to the next (one of them involves Fox engaged in a machine gun fight with the spirit of R. Lee Ermey).
One of the chief criticisms of Jacksonís most recent films attack his tendency towards bloat, and thatís on display a little bit here. The Frighteners is full of ideas and setups, and, at times, the various threads seem like they each deserve their own film. It takes nearly forty minutes for the plot to really settle in as Frank and Lucy start to uncover the connection behind all of the deaths (which ties into Frankís own tragic backstory involving the death of his wife); before then, it feels like Frankís ghost-busting adventures with his spirit pals could be its own film. Rayís death and subsequent resurrection that allows him to witness his wife teaming up with another man even feels like the setup to a zany rom-com. Instead, the real meat of the story lies in the prologue sequence featuring a frazzled-looking Dee Wallace Stone and her elderly mother, both of whom are terrorized by a spirit (until the latter grey-haired bird blasts it with a shotgun). The film eventually makes it back to this once everything is revealed, at which point the film turns into a wild mash-up of Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, and Bonnie & Clyde. Jackson certainly has never lacked for imagination, and The Frighteners is stuffed with it, so much so that itís an almost exhausting film that could use a few nips and tucks.
Despite this, The Frighteners is still quite enjoyable and downright fun at times due to the colorful cast of characters (both living and undead). This was Michael J. Foxís last leading role in a feature film (heíd go on to star in TVís Spin City afterwards), and itís a sobering reminder that this guy would have been headlining movies forever if not for his Parkinsonís diagnosis. Initially, the role seems like an ill fit for him since Frank is devious and has a shady history, but it ends up working out since Foxís natural charm and trustworthiness is essential in anchoring the character. For whatever reason, Alvarado never went on to have a huge big screen career, but sheís pretty good here in the requisite sweet but tough love interest. Jeffrey Combs upstages just about everyone in one of the best performances of his career as an eccentric (even for this film!) FBI agent that specializes in paranormal activity (think Fox Mulder meets a dapper, dandy cop from a 30s gangster flick). Combsís career has been defined by oddball roles, but this one might be the most broadly played and outrageous, and, again, itís a case where it feels like this character could easily carry a film on his own.
Frankís ghost buddies are also a lot of fun. Chi McBride is Cyrus, who feels like he walked in from a 70s blaxploitation flick, while Jim Fyfe is a stereotypical 50s nerd. John Astin is the most visually striking as Judge, a throwback from the old west thatís brought to life by Rick Bakerís makeup effects. Jacksonís films often present fully inhabited, lived-in worlds that are just plain fun to drink in. The Frighteners is often no different, and Jackson feels like a kid whoís been given the keys to the family car and has decided to go joyriding with Universalís budget. Featuring a nice blend of CGI and practical effects, the film presents a lively array of macabre imagery to compliment its rollicking spirit; sure, itís sort of an exercise in style over substance that foreshadows Jacksonís self-indulgence and reliance on technology, but heís one of the few guys that make his sandbox exploits undeniably fun.
Even in his Hollywood debut, itís obvious that Jacksonís one of those rare talents who can balance his sheer enthusiasm with fine craftsmanship. The Frighteners is rough around the edges on paper, filled with digressions and subplots that never quite get their due, but it moves with a purpose once Jackson finds his footing. Itís perhaps reductive and a little too easy to look back on this and lament that we havenít seen this Peter Jackson in so long, but everything that made his early horror efforts work can still be found in his successful later output (that includes King Kong). Even though the film wasnít successful upon release, it still stands as proof that Jackson could retain his auteurist stamp while working within the confines of Hollywood; it might even be among the worst of his output, but itís still the work of a guy who was meant to fill the big screen with panache and exuberance.
Jackson himself seems to still be pretty proud of it, as heís produced tons of special features for it and even went back to complete a Directorís Cut that adds 13 (mostly unnecessary) minutes to the runtime. Universal released this version on DVD back when Kong was released, and it features the feature-length documentary detailing the filmís production among other extras (including Jacksonís first ever commentary track). The Frighteners is arguably Jacksonís slightest work--it lacks the ingenuity and grand guignol genius of his Kiwi horrors, and it certainly lacks the gravitas and sheer spectacle of Lord of the Rings. You might even say itís Jackson with the flavor boiled out a bit; however, itís still quite a sumptuous mouthful. Buy it!
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