Sunday, February 16, 2020

Short Take: The Frighteners

(1996) Directed by Peter Jackson; Written by: Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson; Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey, Jeffrey Combs, Chi McBride, Jim Ffye, John Astin and Troy Evans; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“There haven’t been that many ghost movies, not comparatively…It’s quite good because you have a lot of freedom; flexibility to make up your own rules. It’s not like a vampire film with all the garlic and the stakes in the heart, a werewolf film with silver bullets and things. Ghost films, a lot of ghost films, treat ghosts in different ways, so there are no real rules…” – Peter Jackson

Before Peter Jackson was a household name, he left his mark in cult circles with titles such as Bad Taste (1987) and Meet the Feebles (1989). He gained a larger audience with Dead Alive (aka: Braindead) (1992) and widespread critical acclaim with Heavenly Creatures (1994). Bridging the gap between these lower-budget efforts and his later, mega-budgeted productions was The Frighteners (1996), which seems to have become lost in the shuffle over the years. Jackson and crew shot The Frighteners in New Zealand (standing in for a small American town) over the course of six months, on location in the coastal community of Lyttelton* and Weta Studios in Wellington.

* Fun Fact #1: If you look carefully to the left of Trini Alvarado (who appears as Lucy Lynskey) in a funeral scene you might spot a fire in the hillside. According to Jackson, the film crew burned down Bannister’s house, which was the most efficient means of disposal during the final day of shooting in Lyttelton.

Michael J. Fox stars as self-proclaimed psychic investigator Frank Bannister, who’s earned a reputation as a scam artist. Bannister is a broken man, living in an uncompleted house (a metaphor for a life in shambles). When he’s not drumming up business at funerals, promising to reunite the bereaved with their deceased loved ones, he helps people rid their homes of supernatural pests.* As we soon discover, he’s a scam artist with a twist, endowed with the ability to see spirits and communicate with them. He uses this gift for his own ends, staging poltergeist infestations, with a little help from ghostly accomplices Cyrus and Stuart (Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe).

* Fun Fact #2: Jackson’s infant son Billy (in a red jumpsuit) appears in one scene, in which three babies float in midair (assisted by Frank’s spectral buddies).

The Frighteners boasts some fun, quirky performances,* but none quite compare to Jeffrey Combs’ idiosyncratic portrayal of Agent Milton Dammers. Dammers exists in his own little world, with oddly specific facial expressions and odd mannerisms (for example, he can’t tolerate being shouted at by women), or when he warns the local sheriff (Troy Evans), “You are violating my territorial bubble.” Dee Wallace is also good as the mentally disturbed Patricia Braley, who keeps us guessing until the end. Jake Busey is suitably maniacal as her mass-murderer boyfriend Johnny Bartlett, returning as a malevolent spirit. John Astin also makes an amusing appearance as The Judge, an Old West gunslinger (with makeup designed by Rick Baker) who’s falling apart, piece by piece.

* Fun Fact #3: Jackson planned to find a New Zealand-based actor to play Hiles, the drill sergeant ghost, but when auditions didn’t pan out, he offered the role to R. Lee Ermey for a reprisal of sorts of his infamous character from Full Metal Jacket.

The ghost effects hold up, combining blue screen techniques with traditional makeup to create a diaphanous appearance. Unfortunately, many of the early computer-generated effects haven’t aged nearly as well. These technical issues would be easy enough to overlook, if not for concerns with the story and pacing. The action is frenetic, rather than focused, with some humorous bits that fall short. One of the key characters, Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobson), who appears mainly for comic relief, seems more extraneous than essential to the plot. It’s an unsatisfying balancing act between horror and comedy, which was handled much more effectively in Jackson’s earlier film, Dead Alive. In his DVD commentary, Jackson admitted to constant re-writes during production, stating that he and long-time writing partner Fran Walsh probably needed more time to work on the script. On a tangential note, it’s unlikely anyone would give the script a green light today, with a mass shooting as one of the key scenes/plot points. If the finished film is a hit and miss affair, the scales are tipped slightly in its favor, thanks to some eccentric performances. Although The Frighteners may not be one of Jackson’s best efforts, it merits a look, perhaps if only for what could have been.


  1. Thank you for this, Barry!
    I recall finding The Frighteners kind of entertaining but not great.
    Your review confirmed my feelings.

    1. Thanks, John! And the longer director's cut isn't really an improvement. It's a shame, because it has all the right elements, but they never quite gel.