Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners confuses me. How does a director go from directing two low budget horror comedy/monster films, a weird, disturbing, adulterated version of the muppets, a crime drama, and a somewhat higher budget horror comedy and then the Lord of the Rings trilogy? I believe the answer lies in Jackson’s ability to use his resources conservatively, but that does not change the fact that the style and tone from Jackson’s early work is surprisingly different from everything he’s made since 1996.
In 1996 Jackson directed The Frighteners, a movie starring Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a man who can communicate with dead spirits and uses this to con people into giving him money to perform home exorcisms as a psychic investigator. Things take a turn when the embodiment of death comes to his town and starts taking lives at an alarming rate. Since Frank is the only one who can see the real cause of these mysterious deaths, its up to him to put a stop to this deadly spirit. Along the way he encounters a few roadblocks, like the mystery of his wife’s death, a secret service man who spent too much time under cover, and his psyche.
This film has everything you could want in a film. It has Michael J. Fox in his prime, ghosts, horror, gore, comedy, neo-nazi secret agent cultists, Danny Elfman, R. Lee Ermey, a Peter Jackson cameo, mystery, Jake Busey, and 90’s CGI effects. All of this might seem a bit overwhelming, but Jackson proves he is a master of story telling by the way he expertly includes all of these individual elements to bring it together in a cohesive story that is not only scary, but also fun.
The story starts by introducing Patricia Ann Bradley (played by Dee Wallace), who is haunted by a mysterious hooded ghost. Together Patricia and her mother appear to defeat the ghost. This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. It includes some dated CGI effects, violence, and the entire scene is taken so seriously that it almost crosses the line into humor. This establishes the campy tone that the rest of the film will follow.
Next, the film introduces Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), and the rest of the cast. Frank is seen handing out his business cards at a funeral and driving away in his ancient yellow bug like a maniac. Before we even hear Frank speak, we know he’s a sleazy individual and he drives recklessly. By the time Frank plows into Ray and Lucy Lynskey’s (Trino Alvarado and Peter Dobson) fence moments later, we don’t know if its his recklessness or his sleaziness to blame. We later discover that by breaking down the fence, Frank has marked the house for haunting by some of his ghost “business partners.” The haunting scene in the Lynskey’s home is meant to remind us of another horror movie Poltergeist, with the way the bed levitates and objects fly around the home. Although, the scene here is more laughable with the way some of the objects move around, like dancing Elvis. By the time Frank arrives to “exorcise” the house, all of the haunting activity has stopped and Frank does some elaborate theatrics to make it seem like he’s getting rid of the spirits.
At this point in the film the main characters are established and Jackson follows a textbook outline of a three act plot for the rest of the film. In the first act our characters are introduced along with the mystery of who or what is killing people, in the second act Frank and Lucy grow closer as Frank discovers the answer to what is killing people and finds himself wanted by the police, and in the third and final act Frank and Lucy discover the answer to who is killing everyone and why as they resolve the mystery and bring everything to a close. Arguably, this is Jackson’s best film since it is also his last original film before the Lord of the Rings franchise, The Lovely Bones adaptation, and the King Kong remake. It showcases all of Jacksons strengths as a filmmaker.
The plot of the film balances the fine line between horror and campy comedy. There are moments that are genuinely frightening (see what I did there?), like Jake Busey’s entire performance. Every second Busey is on the screen is another second you’re forced to shift around uncomfortably in your chair as you wait and watch to see what he will do next. Even Dee Wallace is terrifying, although her actions fall more onto the campiness side of the line than Busey’s. The film makes you wonder whether Wallace’s character, Patricia Bradly, is truly insane or not through the mixed use of her mother’s testimony, and her actions toward Lucy Lynskey. Michael J. Fox and his ghost buddies help contribute to the films humorous tone. Fox plays his usual sarcastic, but lovable character he’s known for in many of his film and TV show roles. Even the ghosts get some time in the comedic spotlight. Most of the ghosts who are still around are ones who refuse to die and continue to make demands they could only enjoy if they were still alive. All of the ghost effects for the film only add to the campy nature of the film.
In terms of effects, I think Peter Jackson knew that the embodiment of death wasn’t scary as a CGI creature and therefore used that to his advantage. The scenes with Death carry a feeling of dread even though the effects are obviously dated. Jackson adds to the stakes of those scenes by adding some sort of extra danger that could happen while Frank is fighting with him. In the museum this danger is the cops with guns ready to fire at Frank, and in another scene the extra danger is from Frank’s reckless driving. Other than those few times when Death is visible, Death travels along the walls and floors, which looks terrible by today’s standards, but it helps masks the obvious issues with CGI in the 1990’s. Since The Frighteners walks the line between horror and humor, the effects never needed to be top of the line. The entire film was meant to have the appearance of an old campy b-rated horror film, which it achieved thanks to Jackson’s prior work.
The Frighteners is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this was done at a time before that was the cool thing to do. This combined with a well crafted story makes for what should be an instant Halloween classic, or a classic Michael J. Fox film. Its a film that couldn’t exist without Jackson’s prior experience, and only proves what a filmmaker can do with limited resources.