– Summary –
Director : Peter Jackson
Year Of Release : 1996
Principal Cast : Michael J Fox, Trini Alvarado, John Astin, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Jake Busey, Dee Wallace, R Lee Ermey, Peter Dobson, Jeffrey Combs, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy.
Approx Running Time : 123 Minutes (Directors Cut)
Synopsis: Frank Bannister can see ghosts, and using this power scams the unwitting out of money when they believe their houses are haunted. Trouble is, death stalks the small town of Fairwater, and when Frank stumbles upon the plan of a long-dead mass-killer, he must use his special gifts to save the day.
What we think : Peter Jackson’s dark vision of comedy mixed with special effects is a triumph – albeit a kooky, off-center triumph of both garish violence and dry wit, mixed with the New Zealand director’s trademark visual style. Some of the thematic material will feel a little hard to stomach for many – it involves a serial killer – but the film succeeds in its execution and as an entertainment.
When Hollywood looks back at the career of Michael J Fox, I doubt the first film that’ll come to mind will be The Frighteners. And that would be a shame. The Frighteners was one of the last two live-action films Fox made prior to retiring from the screen due to the onset of Parkinsons disease, the other being Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks. It was also the last film Jackson made prior to hitting the pop-culture big-time with his Lord Of the Rings trilogy, and marks a definite departure in storytelling style from previous outings behind the camera. The Frighteners wasn’t exactly a major success for Universal, back in 1996. It opened up against Independence Day in the US, while here in Australia the Port Arthur Massacre had recently occurred and releasing a film about two spree killers rankled with the public at the time; it pretty much flopped here. In the years since, the film has garnered something of a cult following, and success on the home cinema market – first with a ballsy, spare-no-expense LaserDisc edition, followed up by a similar DVD edition and most recently the HD format release – has allowed an appreciation of this underrated classic to grow over time. The Frighteners is a difficult film to find joy with, considering its inherent narrative aspects, but as a film it does stand up under scrutiny for quality of production and result.
Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) is a conman working his way through the population of Fairwater, USA. With an ability to see ghosts, he teams up with a trio of undead spirits (Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe) to scare people and scam their money. After one of his recent cons (Peter Dobson) winds up having a heart attack and dying, Frank learns that an entity resembling the Grim Reaper is going around the town killing people and carving numbers into their foreheads – numbers that only Frank can see. Together with the widow of his former con, Lucy (Trini Alvarado), Frank sets about uncovering the reasons for the Reapers focus on Fairwater, and the links it has to a historical spree killing perpetrated by Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey) and Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace) back in the 60’s. His investigation is continually hampered by a creepy FBI Agent, Dammers (Jeffrey Combs), who has a strange vendetta against Frank that undermines Franks efforts to save the town.
Peter Jackson’s delightful visual style, honed on projects such as Braindead (aka Dead/Alive in the States), Meet The Feebles and Heavenly Creatures, is at full towering strength with this, his sixth feature film, and the first to feature then-state of the art digital visual effects. Produced by Robert Zemeckis, himself a vanguard of the digital technology which had leapt to the fore in the shadows of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 only a few years previous, Jackson found a kindred spirit in telling a story utilizing technology to achieve the seemingly impossible. The film revolved around a significant number of deceased apparitions, and while attempts to achieve “ghostly” effects had met with little success in the past, now with the addition of computer effects, Jackson’s visual acumen would be able to accomplish a realistic ghost on the screen in a way we’d not seen before. The Frighteners is a technical success in every way, with the production based in New Zealand (filmed in and around the town of Lyttleton, as well as some in Wellington) and using the relatively new WETA digital company, while as a story it’s definitely one you will either love or hate. Filming death, or dealing with death on film, in either a comedic or serious way, if often fraught with danger. Jackson skirted the possibility that the concept, where a guy runs around conning folks with the help of two dead people while the Grim Reaper stalks them all, could have been played as a direct comedy, and not seriously at all; alternatively, the premise could be made as a straight-up horror/actioner, allowing the adult themes to come to the fore and take the viewer into some truly dark places. What the film ended up being was a little of both, and while not without its flaws, the execution is as good as you can get.
Those who’ve seen the film will appreciate how delicate a balance the ghostly comedy mixes with the more horrific sections of the story. The abhorrent behavior of Jake Busey’s character, a spree killer named Bartlett, seems to rub against the grain of the more will-o-the-wisp nature of the rest of the film, which more often strays into outright comedy. Jackson’s canny enough to strive to balance the dark and light, and although his success in doing to is subjective to your appreciation for the mix of both worlds, I think it’s fair to suggest he gets it pretty much right most of the time here. Casting helps a lot, I think – Fox, as the lead, is terrific, offering that perpetually confused and amazed screen persona with an added tinge of underlying sadness; Frank Bannister has lost his wife, and hasn’t dealt with that grief in the best possible way (he hasn’t dealt with it at all) so he uses that sadness to connect with the spirit world and get some of his own back on a society which has taken so much from him. Trini Alvarado, as the central romantic interest Lucy, is convincing if not entirely natural with her performance, although she does have a certain spark with Fox on screen that, when they’re paired together, is reminiscent of the great comedic duo’s of cinema. Bold statement, I know, but I think it’s true. Fox and Alvarado are propped up by a solid supporting cast, especially John Astin as the gun totin’ ghostly Judge, Jeffrey Combs as the eerie and downright creepy Dammers, and Chi McBride as one half of the ghostly conning duo Frank teams up with. Jake Busey delivers a chilling performance as the wild-eyed spree killer, Bartlett, while Dee Wallace is given the thankless role of Bartlett’s moll, Particia.
The film’s darker edges are indeed quite oppressive at times, with the nature of the material at hand it’s a wonder Jackson found anything funny in this at all, but he delivers a few outright chuckles mixed with the cornball visual antics his earlier works are known for. Jackson’s warped sense of humor is in full flight here, and those of you expecting more Lord Of The Rings than Braindead (dammit, I wish they’d release Braindead uncut on BluRay!) will be left lamenting your choice to pick this up off the shelf. The Frighteners is unlike any modern horror film you’ve ever seen, and yet it could quite easily fall into that category – the film deals with death on a grand scale, with a vast swathe of Fairwater’s population put to the scythe by the Grim Reaper, and if you stop and think about it is quite a nasty plot development, even if it’s handled in a casual manner by Jackson’s deft script (he co-wrote with his wife, Fran Walsh) and is given short thrift in the end. The script throws a number of nice twists and turns up as it moves along, a briskly paced affair that jumps right into the story and allows characters to develop and unveil themselves as it goes.
The Frighteners is a clever film in many ways, in that it manages to unsettle the viewer while at the same time taking them on a thrill-ride they’ll enjoy while it’s happening. The visual effects may have aged somewhat in the years since (hell, this film is going to be 20 in a few years!) but still remain remarkably prescient to what would come in the years after. Jackson knows how to use effects to tell his story, rather than letting the effects be the story, and to see his testing of that technology with this film is both remarkable and exciting. In servicing the story, the effects really heighten the power of the performances and the story – the numbers carved into victim’s foreheads is especially unnerving – and to that end, Jackson and the WETA team are to be commended. Coupled with Danny Elfman’s evocative score, which pulsates, tingles the spine and elicits echoes of The Addam’s Family in equal amounts, The Frighteners is, if nothing else, a technical achievement that deserves your time.
I really love this film. I really do. I don’t think it’s garnered the praise of the masses in the way it deserves, unfortunately, but I think thanks to Jackson’s post-Frighteners success this is a problem largely rectified in many ways. While not especially fun in the sense of a popcorn flick, it’s a fun film for those looking to imbibe in cinema which challenges the notion of entertainment (and some would say not in a good way); The Frighteners delivers everything you’d expect from an early Peter Jackson film on the cusp of digital technology – it’s visually commanding, strong storytelling and characters (mostly) and generally well acted. The effects are superb for their time (some of them still hold up today, I might add!) and from a technical perspective there’s little to fault here. If you’re looking for a negative it’s always going to fall at the feet of the story: whether you’re going to accept the films’ central plot premise of ghosts and spree killers on the rampage or not is going to have a huge bearing on your enjoyment of this movie. Overlooking the obvious modern attachment to spree killers we have (in light of school/cinema/mall/college shootings and whatnot occurring seemingly every other week) and the emotional baggage that will bring, The Frighteners is a delicious, delightfully wicked way to spend a couple of hours with the great Michael J Fox and the even greater Peter Jackson.