A film that I have always loved since I first saw it, The Frighteners also now stands as quite possibly the most important movie in the filmography of Peter Jackson. It was, for him, a move into lighter fare, despite the fact that it’s still using a lot of horror elements with the comedy, it continued to pair his name up with some big names and get him more exposure (Heavenly Creatures having started things off, gaining plenty of critical acclaim while featuring attention-grabbing performances from a pre-stardom Kate Winslet alongside Melanie Lynskey), and it basically led to the expansion of WETA Digital Ltd into a form that would start to help Jackson realise Middle Earth for The Lord Of The Rings movies. There’s even one main character here that looks uncannily like a relative of the dreaded Ringwraiths.
The plot is both light and silly, and yet surprisingly complex. Michael J. Fox is a psychic named Frank Bannister, although he was once an architect before the tragic death of his fiance in an accident that led to his “gift”, and he specialises in clearing out ghostly presences. The clearings are fake, in a way, but Bannister’s gift is real. He actually has three ghosts who work with him, sending them to any address he thinks will lead to a decent paycheque and making sure that those being scared will find his contact details. Unfortunately for Frank, and everyone else in town, there’s a ghost killing people. And when the people turn into ghosts . . . . . . the ghost can also “kill” other ghosts.
The one big mark against this film is the runtime. This seems to be the start of Jackson not being able to cut material and leave it behind. Even the original release was just under the two hour mark, IMDb lists it as 110 minutes, while the full content available now adds up to just over two hours, 123 minutes. Having said that, it doesn’t really bother me because I love so many individual moments here, and it’s an intriguing world populated by interesting characters.
Bannister is a nice guy making a living from not so nice activities, and finding out about his past becomes an important plot element, and this allows Michael J. Fox to give one of his last pitch-perfect live performances (before his acting would become permanently affected by his degenerative disease). The ghosts are all brought to life brilliantly by the actors and WETA, with the main three portrayed by Chi McBride, John Astin, and Jim Fyfe, and extra ectoplasm being given the forms of Peter Dobson and, in an inspired cameo, R. Lee Ermey. Trini Alvarado is a nice female co-lead, circumstances pushing her character into the events in a way that feels real and natural, and Dee Wallace has fun playing a woman who may or may not have been an accomplice to a crazed killer (Johnny Bartlett, played by Jake Busey) many years ago. The law is represented by two very different figures, with one being a reasonable Sheriff (Troy Evans) and the other being a mentally-scarred and paranoid FBI agent (Milton Dammers, played by Jeffrey Combs). While Dammers is the character that feels the most like one cracked egg too many in the recipe ingredients, the delightfully delirious performance from Combs makes his presence a welcome one.
Jackson directs with his usual mastery of the form. Working from a script that he co-wrote with Fran Walsh, he ensures that viewers are never lost in between the numerous locations, plot points, and characters. Minor details build up a big picture, set-pieces help to stop the whole thing feeling bloated (although the third act pushes things to the very limit), and the action is all accompanied by a wonderful Danny Elfman score.
While not always hilarious, and while not always that scary, The Frighteners IS always fun, and that seems to be exactly what Peter Jackson set out to deliver. From the thrilling opening sequence onwards, there are twists and turns aplenty, and everything comes together to make a hugely entertaining, and hugely rewatchable, supernatural adventure.
DIRECTOR: PETER JACKSON
WRITER: FRAN WALSH, PETER JACKSON
STARS: MICHAEL J. FOX, TRINI ALVARADO, TROY EVANS, PETER DOBSON, JOHN ASTIN, JEFFREY COMBS, DEE WALLACE, JAKE BUSEY, CHI MCBRIDE, JIM FYFE
RUNTIME: 123 MINS APPROX (DIRECTOR’S CUT)
COUNTRY: NEW ZEALAND/USA
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