The Frighteners Review (1996)

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

The Frighteners Review (1996)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on August 18th, 2018 | Movie Review | Comedy, Supernatural, Gore, B-Horror

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It’s about a paranormal con artist who must use his powers for good when his town is besieged by a murderous spirit.

The Frighteners was directed by Peter Jackson (who also directed King Kong and Dead Alive) and stars Michael J. Fox, Jeffrey Combs (from Dark House) and Jake Busey  (from Death Row).

No Rest for the Wicked.

The Frighteners Review Layers of Curiosities...

The Frighteners is such a unique movie that talking about all its quirks almost crowds out the story. Its very existence is a defiance of all movie-making logic.

Picture if you will bringing the following names together: Writer/director Peter Jackson, in a transitional phase having left behind his Bad Taste days but with his Lord of the Rings trilogy yet ahead of him. Michael J. Fox in his final turn in the lead role of a feature-length film due to his as-yet-un-public Parkinson’s diagnosis, playing not just in a horror movie but blatantly against type. Horror veteran Jeffrey Combs playing a scramble-brained weirdo more suited to Crispin Glover. John Astin (you know him as the classic Gomez Addams) as a zombie old-West judge with a pervert streak. R. Lee Ermey playing the same drill sergeant he did in Full Metal Jacket - but the ghost version in command of a graveyard barracks. Danny Elfman actually composing a soundtrack for somebody besides Tim Burton. Even the location is quirky, because while New Zealand is an unsurprising filming location now that it’s had hobbits tromping all over it, in 1996 it wasn’t exactly Hollywood central.

This volatile mixture alone should have sent the movie flying apart like an explosion at the cuckoo clock factory, and yet somehow it feels confidently made, like this is the only sensible way to make a movie. But perhaps too confident for its own good; The Frighteners flopped at the domestic box office and just squeaked back into the black ink overseas. After the obligatory run on cable, this misunderstood bizarro middle child of a movie has been all but forgotten.

Just the sort of movie we love bringing up around here!

And Now the Story...

Pick up your jaw off the floor so you can get ready to drop it again as we explore the plot. And don’t worry about spoilers, because this whole thing we’re about to do is just the premise:

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), psychic investigator, lives and does business in the seaside hamlet of Fairwater, where a number of puzzling deaths have happened. Frank has been through a traumatic car accident that took his wife’s life, but gifted him the ability to see ghosts. He now works in partnership with them: They go haunt somebody’s house, he comes to the house and “exorcises” them, and they all leave pocketing a hefty fee. However, his psychic abilities also give him the power to see numbers on the foreheads of some living town residents, who later turn up dead. He’s also caught glimpses of a Grim Reaper figure stalking the marked ones. Not only that, but the Grim Reaper spirit is so much more powerful than your average ghost that he can even kill other ghosts, by making them, uh, even deader.

Frank, trying to warn people that they’re marked, is later fingered by the hot-blooded people of Fairwater as the prime suspect since people keep dying when he says they will, even though they don’t have a shred of evidence otherwise. Most prominently, the personal Joe McCarthy on Frank’s tail is FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs), flat determined to pin the rap on Frank but so hindered by his neurotic complex of obsessions that it’s a wonder he gets to work in the morning. Frank suffers from a Kafka-esque situation because literally everything he tries to do to fix things just makes them immediately worse. You get the feeling Frank would be the town’s whipping boy even if there were no murders.

Deep breath here. So the outraged and outrageous citizens of Fairwater (there is not one normal person in this movie), the nutty FBI agent, and the Grim Reaper are all out to get Frank, while Frank tries to solve the mystery, bag a ghost for real this time, and clear his name. He does have a handful of allies on his side, including Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) who sees the good in everybody, Sheriff Walt Perry (Troy Evans), who’s just as sick of this nutcake yarn as Frank is, and of course Frank’s ragtag team of ghosts. Come to think of it, even most of the ghosts aren’t exactly president of Frank’s popularity club.

Throughout all this, the special effects are transcendent. The Frighteners was lucky to come along when CGI was advanced enough to be interesting, but not cheesy and tired yet. The supernatural attacks sometimes happen through surfaces like wallpaper and carpet, so that a victim’s house itself appears possessed and on the offensive. The Grim Reaper effects make this spirit the scariest of all, a wrathful bird of prey that hops about house tops and flies down out of the sky scythe-swinging. At first, the movie is content to splurge its effects on cartoon sight gags, but when things heat up, those same special effects become some of the creepiest and dreadful things ever filmed.

Don’t Smoke the Reefer

The major flaw with The Frighteners is its bipolar pacing. The first half is a light-hearted chaser to Ghostbusters, while the second half is true horror. Allegedly, the MPAA stunned the producers by giving it an “R” rating, which goaded Peter Jackson into taking it back to the editing room with the battle-cry “let’s show ‘em what an ‘R’ rating is really about!” Originally intended as a fun family film, it becomes a movie where anybody can die, even ghosts, heck you can even die and be brought back only to die again and then your ghost dies. Then in addition to uneven tone, it also has the trademark Peter Jackson flaw: He’s so proud of his story-telling that he never knows when to stop. By the last third of this movie when it’s done being clever and has resorted to whacking your head around like a tetherball, he just wants you to admit that his movie’s impossible to predict.

It’s also flabbergasting to review. It’s way sillier than an Evil Dead movie, but also darker than Blood Diner, amazingly enough. And while the cast and crew are at least 50% people who had no business being in this kind of movie, they all play together at the top of their respective forms. Michael J. Fox, especially, is the heart and soul of The Frighteners. If he has a certain steely resolve in confronting so much on-screen death, perhaps he was in a morbid frame of mind after his Parkinson’s diagnosis but before he’d come to terms with it.

Whatever the case, we would wish that we had more movies like this one, if only we weren’t intimidated by the arcane sorceries that brought it to life in the first place. It is its own breed of oddball, whose pitch-black humor contains a nugget of terrifying implications; your loved ones could be in torment without you knowing, not because of Hell, but because the afterlife just sucks. By the same token, the suspenseful peril, breathless action, and labyrinthine plot twists are undercut by the loony comedy. It leaves one trying to describe the chaos with demented comparisons like “It’s the Coen Brothers trying to adapt H. P. Lovecraft.”

On a final note: The Frighteners is the only movie that has the legitimate claim to use Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” as a credit song. Every other movie that does this is a phony.

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