‘The Frighteners’ review

20 10 2010

[written by author, Orrin Grey]

Most folks know of Peter Jackson for one of two reasons; either the recent Lord of the Rings films or his early splatstick zombie opuses Bad Taste and Dead Alive. But the first movie that made me aware of Jackson as a filmmaker was The Frighteners.

Back when I worked in a video store, I used to make endcaps highlighting different directors. One of the ones that received the most curious glances was the one I did for Peter Jackson, which gave me the opportunity to slap the famously freaky cover of Dead Alive right next to The Fellowship of the Ring. At first glance the move from splattery zombie comedy to award-winning fantasy epic may not seem terribly logical, but I think there are some important—and oft-overlooked—missing links in the transition, with The Frighteners being chief among them.

Not only was The Frighteners the first time that Jackson had worked with a Hollywood-level budget, it was also the birthplace of Jackson’s special effects company Weta as a digital effects house. And while the CG in The Frighteners is occasionally dated, it holds up better than you’d imagine for a movie from 1996, showing that Weta was at the top of the digital game right from the beginning.

Even the technique used to bring the ghosts themselves to life is similar to the one later used for the army of the dead in Return of the King.

But that’s enough about the pedigree, what about the movie itself? Well, it’s got a bit of everything, for the supernatural afficionado. Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is a sort of psychic detective who can see ghosts, and also an amateur ghost buster (albeit a phony one). The plot deals with a mass murderer, a spooky old insane asylum, lots of ghosts, a Grim Reaper-like creature, some heaven/hell imagery, and a bunch of other weirdness.

Jackson populates the film with a plethora of great horror character actors, including John Astin, R. Lee Ermey, Dee Wallace-Stone, and Jeffrey Combs. Combs shines in particular as Special Agent Milton Dammers, an unhinged FBI agent who specializes in the occult and who steals every scene that he’s in.

There’s an early Tim Burton-ish charm to the film (helped along by a score from Danny Elfman, back when he still did consistently interesting work) but also a lot of distinctly Peter Jackson-ish touches (and sometimes excesses), leading to a sometimes rambling film that doesn’t feel like it could have been made at any other time, under any other circumstances. It’s sort of the exact middle ground between Jackson’s trademark splatstick comedy and what would become his trademark special effects epic, a movie that’s a little big gory, a little bit silly, and very much its own creature.

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One response

21 10 2010
Mark

Nice review, of a cracking little film. The sequences with the reaper leaping around after the cars was really quite scary, I thought. There was also some effect make-up work from Rick Baker on John Astin.

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