The Frighteners (1996)
Although I realized while watching Dead Alive the first time what a great, creative director Peter Jackson was, I never expected him to enter the mainstream. He was a bit too out there, making what some consider the bloodiest film of all time as well as co-directing the nastiest puppet movie ever, Meet the Feebles. This was a guy that seemed determined to make a career out of trying to be a hybrid of Sam Raimi and John Waters.
Then came Heavenly Creatures. Prior to this his effects had all been practical, some more successful than others (the zombie baby in Dead Alive is just perfect in its awfulness), but suddenly he was dabbling in digital effects with barely the budget of the major studios that were using them. Some low-budget films came out in the 1990s and tried to use digital effects to cut corners, but they always looked horrendous. While maybe a bit primitive today the scenes that represented the fantasy world of the two girls at the center of Heavenly Creatures were remarkable at the time. Based on a true story of two girls who committed murder so they could be together, it played well on the arthouse scene while drumming up critical acclaim and controversy.
Despite its more refined leanings Heavenly Creatures still had many of the quirks Jackson's previous movies had and, when I heard he was returning to horror and this time had been given a halfway decent budget due to being produced by Robert Zemeckis, I was quite excited. The Frighteners was to be Jackson's break into Hollywood and, if this had been released around Halloween of 1996 as intended, probably more people would have known exactly why this little-known director from New Zealand was handed something as major as The Lord of the Rings.
Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is a con man with his own twist: he can see spirits and, when he needs money, sends them off to haunt people so he can do a fake cleansing. The ghosts, an '80s nerd named Stuart (Jim Fyfe), an African-American from the 1970s named Cyrus (Chi McBride) and an Old West judge simply called the Judge (John Astin) are his only friends and help him with his schemes. Unfortunately a real spiritual problem hits his adopted town of Fairwater: he starts seeing numbers on people's heads right before they die, and it appears that a creature that looks like the Grim Reaper is squeezing the life out of living people and making it look like heart attacks.
The first person he notices die in such a way is Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobson), a man he has a run-in with early on. When Ray dies Frank starts helping out his widow Lucy (Trini Alvarado). Lucy herself is concerned about a woman named Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace) who seemingly is held captive by her mother, but was suspected in assisting in a killing spree in the 1960s with her then boyfriend Johnny Bartlett (Jake Bussey). When the police think Frank may be involved in the killings they bring in an FBI paranormal expert named Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) who thinks Frank can kill with his mind. Unfortunately, Frank soon sees a number on Lucy's head, and he and his ghost friends must do what he can to save her, with Dammers and the dark spirit both in hot pursuit.
When I saw this in 1996 I thought the effects were great. Unfortunately it is the one place where the movie is a let-down now. While the actual spirits look fine the "Soul Collector" sometimes looks like a badly rendered game character, albeit from around 2000 or so, but at this point it looks flat. At times the computer renderings just looks like blobs of mud, while at others the effects look like video game cut-scenes from the time.
It is fortunate that the story and performances still hold up. This was Michael J. Fox's last feature film, and it is his best movie performance outside of the Back to the Future movies. Trini Alvarado is a good heroine. However, it is Jeffrey Combs that steals the show, with a Hitler-style haircut, a fear of women who yell, a complete obliviousness to the subject matter he is supposed to be an expert in and, to top it off, an over-the-top performance that eclipses his previous role as Herbert West in The Re-Animator.
Peter Jackson is also up to his usual tricks, even if he restrained himself. He was trying to make a PG-13 movie - and I could have sworn this movie was PG-13 - but no matter what he did he got an R. So, we have one over-the-top gore scene, and it's a doozy, but a lot of the killings are light on the blood and heavy on the atmosphere and tension. There are the usual uncomfortable closeups, often of Dammers, as well as hints of his trademark dark humor. Too bad the critics just didn't get it in 1996, and too bad the studio bosses thought that this was somehow going to compete against Independence Day.
Despite dropping the ball on releasing it at the appropriate time the years have been kinder to the movie than they have been to its CGI. That should come as no surprise as all of Jackson's pre-Tolkien films are quality pieces of independent cinema. What is still surprising is that he came as far as he did; while being a strange, slightly perverse director from a country that sometimes doesn't appear on maps (he had to make Universal Studios add New Zealand to its big globe) to helming one of the biggest franchises in history is a dream for most and, in large part, we have The Frighteners to thank for him showing the world what he could do, even if it took a while for everyone to catch up.
The Frighteners (1996)
Time: 110 minutes
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Bussey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, John Astin
Director: Peter Jackson