Screenplay : Peter Jackson and Frances Walsh
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Michael J. Fox (Frank Bannister), Trini Alvarado (Lucy Lynskey), Peter Dobson (Ray Lynskey), John Astin (Judge), Jeffrey Combs (Special Agent Milton Dammers), Dee Wallace-Stone (Patricia Bradley), Jake Busey (Johnny Bartlett), Chi McBride (Cyrus), Jim Fyfe (Stuart)
There is rarely a peaceful moment in Peter Jackson's new horror-comedy "The Frighteners." I don't know if there is a single scene in the whole film where the camera stays still for more than a second, and I'm quite positive that never more than a minute transpired before some form of special effects filled the screen. The fact is, this manic send-up of the ghost story genre is almost too manic for its own good, but that's just Peter Jackson's style.
Some may remember Jackson from his uproarious "Dead-Alive," a gross-out of a zombie parody that was one of the most hilarious and repulsive films of 1992. Other may remember him as the director of "Heavenly Creatures," an utterly absorbing true tale of New Zealand's most infamous murder case. In both films he showed a fine mastery of cinema, and an impressive ability to infuse his material with a signature visual style, wildly incinerating wit, and almost reckless abandon. Although "Heavenly Creatures" could almost be described as reserved, it still bore Jackson's mark in a series of fantasy sequences. Bottom line: Peter Jackson knows how to make exciting, original movies.
"The Frighteners" is a marrying of Jackson's wild talents and Hollywood's pocketbook. Executive-produced by Robert Zemekis (director of "Forrest Gump" and co-creator of HBO's "Tales From the Crypt"), it adds Hollywood drive to Jackson's irreverence. Unfortunately, this is both a blessing and a curse: a big budget allows Jackson to fully realize his visions, but some of these visions are just too unhinged to form a coherent piece of work.
The movie stars Michael J. Fox as Frank Barrister, a sort of free-lance Ghostbuster. After a car wreck five years ago that resulted in the death of his wife, Frank developed an ability to communicate with the dead. Armed with three friendly ghosts, Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Cyrus (Chi McBride), and the Judge (John Astin), Frank makes a career of "cleansing" haunted houses. Of course, it's a scam because Stuart, Cyrus, and the Judge haunt the house, and then conveniently leave Frank's business card where the shaken residents will find it. Then, for a fee, he will show up at any time day or night and exorcise the demons.
However, the small town of Fairweather, California where he lives has been plagued with a recent bout of mysterious heart attacks. Pretty soon, it becomes apparent that a rather un-friendly ghost that looks like a cross between the Grim Reaper and the liquid metal from "Terminator 2" is on the loose, squeezing the hearts of healthy people and leaving mysterious numbers on their foreheads that only Frank can see. With the help of a local doctor/love interest (Trini Alvarado), Frank sets out to fight this other-worldly killer.
Jackson and co-screenwriter Frances Walsh (who collaborated on all Jackson's previous efforts) lay on the multiple plot lines and characters, making "The Frighteners" as dense as it is loony. There's a sub-plot about a random murder spree twenty years earlier that might be connected to the recent plague of deaths, as well as unusual and mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Frank's wife. Is Frank actually the killer, as a whacked-out, paranoid FBI agent specializing in the paranormal (Jeffrey Combs, who horror buffs will recognize as Herbert West from "Re-Animator") thinks? Or is it Death himself haunting the town?
Despite some of its lapses of logic and coherence, this is a wildly enjoyable movie. Jackson never gets too heavy with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo surrounding life after death, but at the same time, he doesn't let "The Frighteners" become quite as reckless as "Dead-Alive." Combs' manic FBI geek is a bit over the top, as is the final battle that includes nothing less than the Mouth of Hell opening up to swallow the bad guys. The special effects are really spectacular, and they usually end up engulfing the characters. Fox works hard in his role, but he is really not much more than a sidekick to the FX team.
Nevertheless, "The Frighteners" is an original horror film, hopefully marking the return to intelligent, witty frightfests that have almost been forgotten in the dull haze of 80's teen slasher films. Jackson is a great talent who was tailor-made for movies of this sort -- he just needs to learn to turn down the volume about a notch and a half.
©1998 James Kendrick