[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 1 – The Frighteners (1996)

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Dee Wallace Stone, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
110 mins. Rated R for terror/violence.

Happy October! We’re back with the 31 Days of Horror, and while we may not actually take Manhattan, it’s been 8 years of this event that I look forward to for 11 months, and this year especially, I have a number of treats in store and so much more expanding to the site and what I’m hoping to add to the YouTube channel as well, so check that out. Let’s start with an absolute classic (at least, to me it is) with The Frighteners!

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future, See You Tomorrow) has quite the career. He makes his money staging hauntings at local homes and then going in to exorcise the ghostly presence and make some quick cash. Sure, the ghosts are real, and Frank can really see them, and a good portion of locals see Bannister as a con man, but when he discovers a presence that appears to be the Grim Reaper on the killing spree in town, Frank will have to work alongside his ghostly friends and a newly-widowed resident to discover who is responsible, and hopefully put a stop to them. He’s also trying to evade an unhinged FBI agent, Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator, Unbelievable!!!!!) who seems to have a vendetta against Frank.

I discovered The Frighteners when I first came across the magnificent VHS cover as a youth perusing my old video store. It had a 3D effect of a creepy ghost fact protruding from the box, and I knew I had to see this movie, and I was not disappointed. This movie is full of that enjoyment factor, something that director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, They Shall Not Grow Old) has cultivated throughout his entire career. Beyond anything else, his films are engaging and exciting. He also has a notable ability for world-building, and there’s plenty of that at play in this film. Sure, it isn’t a Middle Earth-worth of world-building, but he and co-screenwriter Fran Walsh have built a town on the water with a multitude of interesting and odd characters and an inversion of the classic ghostbuster-type story. The inclusion of this Grim Reaper killer and a wealth of foreshadow and mystery elements make for an exciting and worthwhile whodunnit, and sure, in hindsight perhaps it feels a bit on-the-nose of a mystery, but when I was younger, I didn’t put it all together until the very end. In that way, the film is a lot like Malignant, with so many exciting reveals that you may catch a few, but not all of them, and the pace moves along so well that figuring out some of it doesn’t take away from the enjoyment factor.

This was Michael J. Fox’s last leading role in a feature film, as he became too disillusioned with being away from his family for so long. From here on, he moved onto television with Spin City. It’s too bad because the role of Frank Bannister works so well because of Fox’s inherent ability to translate very unusual characters and settings in a realistic way. He took that on with Marty McFly, and he took that on with Frank Bannister. The two have that classic Fox charisma, but there is a lot of heavy lifting to both, and I don’t think either film would work as well with another actor in the role. Bannister isn’t always likable, but Fox makes him consistently interesting and engaging.

The rest of the cast is filled out nicely with well-layered character performances. No one but John Astin (What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole, TV’s The Addams Family) could possibly play The Judge, a long-dead gunslinger with a Yosemite Sam approach to gunplay. Jake Busey (Starship Troopers, DIVOS!) is an inspired choice as the demented Johnny Bartlett, a serial killer searching for a high score (side note: I met Busey at a convention a few years back, and I can conclude that his acting abilities are quite strong, as he is known for his villainous personas, but is generally one of the nicest people I’ve met in the business). There’s a cemetery-bound Drill Sergeant in the film that wouldn’t have worked well with anyone outside of R. Lee Ermey (the role was written to satirize his character in Full Metal Jacket). It also seems like Jeffrey Combs was just told to do whatever he wanted with Milton Dammers, as his secondary antagonist is one of the most disturbing and unusual I’ve ever seen put to film.

From a technical perspective, The Frighteners represents an end of Early 90s horror films, whereas Scream, which came out a few months later, would mark a turning point for the decade. Jackson’s film is nicely shot, but it has a sleepy town visual aesthetic more in line with the works of Stephen King’s Derry and Castle Rock, and it just looks more classically eerie. The pacing is quick and consistently evolving the narrative. Just like From Dusk Till Dawn’s genre switch, The Frighteners makes a hard turn into horror from the more darkly fantastical comedy that the movie starts as. This couldn’t have been done with the steadily built narrative that takes its time getting the viewer adjusted to the world (I would recommend the Director’s Cut, but both versions do this well), and the editing that holds the framework together. In fact, the tone makes sense for a film that was almost a Tales from the Crypt movie. The score is memorable and fitting, and it evolves with the narrative.

The Frighteners holds a distinctive place as being one of the most CG effects-laden films at that point, and when the amount of effects work became apparent to Peter Jackson as he prepped for the film, he just said, Buy More Computers! Weta Digital, his effects workshop, went from 1 computer to 35 in the span of making this film. In fact, because of this wide-scale purchase, Jackson had to find a use for these computers once post-production was complete, and it was there that he settled on the idea to make a fantasy epic as a follow-up, so we wouldn’t even have The Lord of the Rings without The Frighteners.

That’s really the only place I could fault the film. In the years since The Frighteners has been released, CGI has moved at a rampant pace, and not all of the effects work as well. They have an endearing quality to them still, and some have held up quite well, but there are moments where the age of the movie is noticeable all the same, and we have to look at it through the lens of time to see if it still holds up today. Thankfully, the more bombastic tone of the narrative doesn’t get bungled up by the aged effects, but they are there still, and it could turn some viewers away.

Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners is an excellent little horror movie that showcases that further transition from Splatstick horror like Dead Alive and Bad Taste to the more mature and thoughtful execution of The Lord of the Rings and King Kong that Jackson would go on to. I absolutely adore this film and it’s a staple in my home to this day. I would recommend checking out the Director’s Cut, if you can, as it offers a bit more world-building and expansion on the story, but both cuts are well-worth your time, and outside of some aged effects, the movie holds up.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe


For my review of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, click here.
For my review of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, click here.
For my review of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, click here.
For my review of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, click here.
For my review of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, click here.
For my review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, click here.
For my review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, click here.
For my review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, click here.

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