The Frighteners (1996)

Death is no way to make a living!

Former architect Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) can see and communicate with ghosts, a psychic ability he picked up in a terrible car accident that claimed the life of his wife, Debra (Angela Bloomfield). Hardened by the experience, Frank uses his powers for personal gain, teaming up with a trio of spirits — ’70s street-tough Cyrus (Chi McBride), nerdy Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and decaying Old West gunslinger The Judge (John Astin) — to make families think their houses are haunted so they will hire Frank to exorcise them. A spanner gets thrown in the works when a seemingly supernatural serial killer, who resembles the grim reaper, starts racking up a body count, and suspicion falls on Frank, forcing the con man to try and get to the bottom of this ghostly and grisly business.

‘We got spirit! How about you?’

Coming on the heels of the acclaimed true-crime drama Heavenly Creatures (1994) and the niche mockumentary Forgotten Silver (1995, and do track that one down) but before The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Frighteners is a bit of an anomaly in the career of New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson. Perhaps it’s representative of the path not taken; its horror elements certainly hark back to his earlier, schlockier fare like Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead aka Dead Alive (1992), and it was originally going to be directed not by Jackson but by Robert Zemeckis as part of the abortive Tales from the Crypt movie franchise that includes Demon Knight (1995), Bordello of Blood (1996) and the little-seen Ritual (2002). Zemeckis, seeing both the potential of the script by Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh, and Jackson’s strong authorial voice in the material, took a step back, allowing Jackson both to direct and to mount the production in his own home country, with Wellington standing in for the film’s Midwestern small-town US setting.

Zemeckis’ endorsement saw Universal Pictures stump up a fair whack of cash, too: The Frighteners’ reported production budget was 26 million dollars. By comparison, Bordello of Blood, released the same year, had only $2.5 million to play with. Watching it now, it is clear that Jackson took both the challenge and the opportunity seriously. The Frighteners is absolutely bursting with the desire to entertain, packed with great characters, imaginative set-pieces, exuberant direction, and what were, at the time, next-level special effects (Jackson’s own WETA Digital, then a fledgling company, damn near killed themselves to complete the film’s hundreds of computer effects shots). This is the work of a filmmaker determined to show what he can do with a big (well, big compared to his early indie work) canvas.

‘Look, when your number’s up, it’s up.’

Indeed, the biggest problem with The Frighteners is that it’s a bit too overstuffed. It’s a roller coaster ride but a somewhat exhausting one, almost every shot packed with little gags and bits of business. The film’s in-universe lore is complex and a little muddy, dealing with multiple supernatural rules and different levels of the afterlife. It also spreads a wide cultural net that takes in classic ghost stories, Charles Starkweather-style spree killers — Starkweather also inspired Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), which is quite a cultural footprint for a deranged killer — the Manson family and similar cults, a touch of Stephen King’s Carrie, a dash of The X-Files (1993-2018), while nodding to a whole panoply of haunted house and possession-themed movies, from The Haunting (1963) to The Exorcist (1973), The Amityville Horror (1979) and more. Admirably, Jackson rarely hangs a lampshade on his references, trusting his more knowing audience members to pick up what he’s putting down but building his film, so the enjoyment doesn’t depend on your metatextual knowledge; the exception is the late R. Lee Ermey whose turn as a dead soldier who polices the local graveyard deliberately evokes his role in Full Metal Jacket (1987) and, as a result, stands out likes dog’s balls in an otherwise carefully constructed comedy horror.

Still, overenthusiasm is no capital crime, and it’s better to have too much fun than not enough. The Frighteners is a hugely enjoyable film. For one thing, it’s got a stacked cast, with Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future (1985), doing solid comedic and dramatic work as the cynical but pained Frank. Fox grounds the proceedings, giving us an emotional core for the weirder elements to spin around; while it’s a blast to see John Astin mug for the camera as the dusty old Judge, or the great Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator (1985), leave it all out on the field as Milton Dammers, an FBI agent who shows up to make life difficult for Frank (and gets a death scene for the ages). We also get Trini Alvarado, Little Women (1994), as love interest Lucy Lynskey; Peter Dobson as her fitness freak (and soon deceased) husband Ray; Jake Busey, Starship Troopers (1997), as Johnny Bartlett, the mass murderer based on the aforementioned Starkweather; and Dee Wallace Stone, The Howling (1981), as his one-time teenage paramour, now grown and kept under lock and key by her grim-faced mother (Julianna McCarthy).

Don’t Fear the Reaper

There’s a whole convoluted backstory that maps out how all these people are connected, and while it’s told rather artfully in the film, with Jackson mixing in-the-moment flashbacks and psychic visions with current narrative events in the same location, it’s a lot harder to describe on the page, and besides, there are little moments of revelation here that should really be saved for the experience of watching. Indeed, The Frighteners is filled with enjoyable little asides: McBride’s Cyrus laments that he’s stuck in the garish ’70s threads he died in, while Astin’s Judge is being literally hounded by a ghostly pooch that wants to bury his jawbone.

The Frighteners is a total romp. These days it seems underappreciated, which is a shame. It’s an interstitial work in Jackson’s filmography, bridging his earlier exploitation flicks and his later mega-budget tentpoles, neither one nor the other. It’s well worth checking out again, though, and absolutely worth a spin if you’ve missed it completely. While Jackson deserves his place on the top of the directorial heap, it’d be something to see him take a step down to tackle something like this again and marry his world-class filmmaking talents with the fun genre material he clearly adores.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

The Frighteners is released through Universal Pictures Australia