The Frighteners (1996)

Sex :
Violence :
Director Peter Jackson
Writers Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Starring Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace-Stone
Genre Comedy
Tagline Death is no way to make a living!


“And I'm gonna tell you something, Frank. It ain't nuthin worse than a bunch of pissed off brothers that's already dead.” - Cyrus

After a bunch of Indie gore features that rocked the horror community Down Under and gradually leaked into the consciousness of Northern fans, Jackson moved on to an out and out drama, and in my opinion his best movie to date, Heavenly Creatures. The movie was successful enough to draw major attention leading to Jackson forming Wheta Productions in order to make the ambitious The Frighteners, his first mainstream movie. Unfortunately for Jackson and the embryonic Wheta the movie crashed and burned at the box office, but it give the forward momentum for the Director to tackle something even more ambitious that would rock the cinematic world as a whole.

Okay this is going to be one of those reviews were I bounce all over the place and sort of review the movie.

Frank Bannister is a former leading Architect who has given up on life after the death of his wife in a car crash that he may have caused. On the bright side Frank can now see dead people and uses his ability to earn a living by exploiting people via his trio of homie ghosts. Guess he needs to do something as for sure he's not working on his half finished house. Unfortunately for Frank things head into the macabre with an entity that bares a passing resemblance to the Grim Reaper killing people via a hand to the heart, with Frank and various ghosts being the only ones able to see the Reaper. When Frank's love interest, Dr Lucy, becomes the next potential victim it's time for Frank to shake off the blues and leap into action. Can Frank work out what's going down or will the local township become a ghost town?

One thing that I have never worked out about this movie is the opening sequence, it makes very little sense in the context of the rest of the movie. Sure it gets things under-way pretty darn effectively, Peter Jackson demonstrating he can direct fast action, but by the end of the movie I'm always left wondering why the sequence wasn't cut. With the marvels of modern DVD technology, no not a Blu-ray fan as yet, I could finally find out what Jackson was doing. The Director even admits he couldn't get the scene to work in the context of the movie as he was trying for a “false jeopardy” cheat. Jackson has elsewhere mentioned however that it ties into the concept of the wicked will be punished, no rest for the wicked. Regardless take the opening with a grain of salt as it doesn't make a lot of sense when taken into the context of the movie as a whole. However it doesn't distract overly and does indicate that the special effects are going to be pretty effective.

Jackson rolls out his movie like a good hand of poker, Aces over Kings. Everything interlocks, all elements support each other, and pretty much it's a winner. The script keeps the plot rolling in a nice fashion, Jackson never allows things to go off the boil, and the special effects were top notch for the time. A big plus for The Frighteners is Jackson's mix and match approach to the source material. While the movie might roll out as a horror comedy, Jackson never seems to do straight comedy or horror for that matter, it morphs into a thriller, before finally becoming a hybrid revenant/psycho affair to remember. Through out the Director ensures there's enough humour to keep the dark thoughts at bay, even while hitting the gruesome beat. Jackson is pretty unique in his ability to deliver gore with a funny face.

There's been considerable debate down the years about Michael J Fox's (Frank Bannister) casting in the lead role. For mine the Canadian actor pulls it off with some style, while coming across as world weary and cynical, Fox adds some real desperation to his role as things hit the fan. Peter Jackson has for ever been able to get the best performance out of his cast, the kiwi Director is a stickler for making every shot count at the best of times. I should also mention Jeffrey Combs (Milton Dammers) as the paranoid FBI psychic investigator, as far from the debonair Fox Mulder as you can possibly get, and R. Lee Ermey reprising his drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket (1987). Both Combs and Ermey nail it, adding a sort of Shakespearian comedy to the whole fandango. Oh and before I forget Jake Busey (Johnny Bartlett) makes for one insanely good serial killer, both alive and dead, Busey is frighteningly realistic.

Actually I don't have to say too much more about this movie, Peter Jackson once again delivers a very solid fable to whet our appetites and has a high degree of synchronicity happening between the various elements that go to making a movie work. Is Jackson the best Director New Zealand has ever produced? There's something to debate kids, see we do give out homework here.

The special effects, computer generated CGI, still stand the test today while not being in the epic mode of the Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003) trilogy. Jackson expertly weaves the computer magic into his movie without the seams showing, no wonder Wheta have taken a serious number of awards for their work.

Okay out of space, wrapping. It took me a while to get around to The Frighteners, you have to space out your Jackson goodness due to a limited number of movies, but I grooved to the beat with every frame thrown in my direction. Jackson has this tiger by the tail and knows exactly what the beast is, a superb example of making a horror comedy work. About the only criticism I could make would be over the obvious kiwi shooting locations, Wellington and Christchurch, that makes me wonder if they fooled anyone. I am actually surprised this movie didn't do better than it did back in the day, but the continued new releases would indicate there's a fan base. I'm actually thinking of double dipping on the DVD front, there's a rumoured three disc package floating around. Put the frighteners on, kiwi humour run with it, and dial into Jackson's first move to the mainstream.

Added bonus time, a fan made homage included as I really dig the song!

For additional information on The Frighteners check out NZ video's listing, and if after a second opinion Moria has you covered.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

  A movie that works with in itself and delivers an entertaining couple of hours of mayhem