FIVE FILMS FROM...1996
(Directed by Peter Jackson)
Most film fans appreciate Jackson’s work from the massively-budgeted Middle Earth trilogies (The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit) or his recent extraordinary documentary work. Of course, he is held in high esteem by horror fans for his early Bad Taste trio of films, namely: Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Braindead". In between those early cult genre offerings and before splashing the cash in SFX epics like the 2005 King Kong remake. He had a transitional period where he made this unfairly forgotten little spook fest that deserves to be re-evaluated. Although the synopsis sort of makes it sound like a goofy reverse Ghostbusters, there's a lot more imagination and a LOT more darkness than you might suppose. It was co-written (as most of his productions are) by the team of himself and his wife, Fran Walsh. They apparently come up with the core concept during the production of Heavenly Creatures. Encouraged by producer Robert Zemeckis, the project almost became a Tales from the Crypt film before finding a home at Universal Studios and a substantial budget. It was also one of the first big productions using Jackson's Weta Digital FX company, with a (for then) unprecedented number of effects needing to be accomplished. Michael J. Fox came aboard as the lead after seeing the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures. It became one of his last leading physical film roles before being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.
The story sees Fox playing Frank Bannister, an architect devastated by the loss of his wife in a car accident. As a result of nearly dying in the same accident, he has gained the ability to see and communicate with ghosts and even made friends with some unlikely spectral oddballs (gunslinger, gangster, etc.). With their help, he fabricates hauntings and then "exorcises" the property for a fee, making ends meet financially. However, during these (initially) lightweight shenanigans, he encounters a terrifying phantasmagorical figure that takes on the guise of the Grim Reaper himself! And not only does he frighten people to death, but he can also "kill" ghosts stuck in the purgatorial realm of Earth. This puts Bannister and his glowing chums in "mortal" danger. It sounds like "Frighteners" could be a fun knockabout PG-13-rated comedy/horror from that general concept. And that was the original idea; however, the MPAA took another view, and despite the lack of bloodletting, decided that the overall intensity of the film warranted an R rating. Somewhat infuriated by their attitude, Jackson edited a certain scene to make it much gorier!
This is the main bone of contention that some people have with "Frighteners". Going by the trailers, most people were expecting a Beetlejuice romp (Danny Elfman even does the soundtrack), and yes… there is an element of that running through the film. Frank's ghostly chums run about, bicker hilariously, get stuck in doors, and there are various sight-gags about their eyeballs floating away and suchlike. In stark contrast to this, the whole sub-plot about the "Grim Reaper" is genuinely quite intense. There's a hint of this with the frantic opening scene that sees a terrified Patricia Bradley (genre fave Dee Wallace) being haunted by a ghoulish figure that literally comes out of the walls and carpeting, in some impressive effects by Weta. This is compounded as the plot progresses. The originally goofy antics of Frank's interaction with luminescent gunslingers and disco-obsessed spooks start to give way to a much grimmer tone (despite Elfman's usual "La-La-La" music). At the root of all this is a twisted storyline regarding a character obsessed with (real-life) serial killers and a nasty couple of extra plot twists. However, it is also interwoven with some redemption and some sweet after-life scenes with Frank and company.
This dark & light comedy horror is well above the benchmark of most similar films, with a edge that appeals to many horror fans who discovered it on home media. It didn't do well at the box-office; the R rating and release date (Jackson wanted Halloween, the studio insisted on a summer "blockbuster" release in July) went against it, as well as some confused reviews. However, the visuals are great (the flappy-cloaked Grim Reaper is a particular delight), and the story is ambitious and well-played. There is a good lead performance from Fox and some brilliantly deranged scenery-chewing ones from Wallace, Jake Busey, Jeffrey Combs, and even R. Lee Ermey (basically repeating his character from Full Metal Jacket). As long as you can accept "Beetlejuice"-level whimsy, with details about a mass-shooting and a relentless killer-spook, you'll get a kick out of this. Jackson shows his growing eye for story-telling and excellent cinematography with some great sequences like the aforementioned opening and a hospital scene where flashbacks merge seamlessly with current events. And you even get a character's head blown off with a shotgun, only to be instantly replaced by a spectral version. Very cool. And in that "spirit", why not give it a "shot"?