The Frighteners (1996) / Comedy-Horror

MPAA Rated: R for scary images, some gore, violence and language
Running time: 110 min.

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, R. Lee Ermey, Peter Jackson (cameo)
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson

Review published May 16, 2007

Michael J. Fox (The American President, Life with Mikey) stars as widower Frank Bannister, who, since having a traumatic experience involving the death of his beloved wife in a car accident, is left with an ability to see and communicate apparitions of the deceased. Frank has even become friends with a few of these ghosts, which he uses to his advantage as a Psychic Investigator, getting his dead friends to spook a house which he subsequently "exorcises" for a fee. However, what Frank doesn't anticipate is that there would be a real specter out killing innocent people -- perhaps even the Grim Reaper himself.

Though initially dismissed by critics upon its time of release as an unsuccessful mix of Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, and Beetlejuice that somehow garnered an R rating, thereby becoming a commercial failure as well, The Frighteners has gained a loyal following over the subsequent years on video and cable, especially after the success of director Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. It also marks the last starring on-screen role for actor Michael J. Fox in a big screen release, reconnecting with Robert Zemeckis after a successful run with the Back to the Future series, now serving as executive producer. Zemeckis originally considered the project for his "Tales from the Crypt" television series, but he later decided it might work better as a theatrical release.

Though the film suffers from being uneven throughout, Jackson's The Frighteners benefits from a good deal of visual energy and some original twists on contemporary comic horror that permeated films from the late 1980s and early 1990s, namely in the works of Tim Burton (Burton fave, Danny Elfman (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman Returns), provides the score) and Sam Raimi (the comic tone is very reminiscent of his Evil Dead series -- in fact, one of the characters is named Bryce Campbell, a nod to Bruce Campbell, perhaps?), as well as the aforementioned Ghostbusters (allusions abound, ex. ectoplasm). Some of this may have to do with the way the film is shot, with most of the actors performing to emptiness, while the ghosts and other effects shots would be added later though special effects. However, given the difficulties of the special effects process, it comes off as somewhat transparent from a viewer standpoint, perhaps given a certain leeway because of the film's offbeat tone.

It's not always certain just what Jackson's angle is, as he seems to enjoy spoofing horror flicks of the past, paying homage to them at the same time as he makes a certain fun of them.  He strives for laughs and scares with nearly equal proportions, and like most previous efforts that have tried the same path, the two competing elements tend to cancel out one another, as it's hard to laugh during some of the scarier parts, and hard to be scared when so much comedy coexists within each scene.  Even if the film isn't wholly successful in any particular direction, it is mostly a fun and engaging ride along the way, with good special effects, some colorful characters (especially the ghost friends of Frank), and an interesting take on the ghostbusting film that doesn't quite have enough creative juice of its own to not constantly remind you of other films of its ilk.

The Frighteners is primarily recommended for those who enjoy horror comedies, especially stories involving ghosts and serial killers.  It's too unfocused and downright odd to recommend to most anyone not into films that are a little weird, and the R rating is certainly a hindrance to the greatest potential audience that the film has: teenagers with a thirst for the macabre.  Like most Jackson vehicles, the special effects dominate the story, sometimes to the point where it is rendered inconsequential.  Like the modus operandi of Frank Bannister himself, Peter Jackson's attempts to make a few bucks in his first big studio production is to use dead ideas to try to drum up enough scares for us to hand over our money, even though the mayhem never seems remotely dangerous or terrifying -- it's just for show.

-- The Director's Cut adds about 12 minutes of footage.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo