Let's Scare the Bejeebus Out of Them
Peter Jackson has a name now as a visionary director, but that wasn't always the case. There was a time when he was best known for his weird horror flicks and strange comedies -- he was the director of Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles, after all. In 1996 he made the Frighteners and it is, in its own way, a perfect encapsulation of Jackson's various styles: weird and humorous, with enough horror mixed in on top to keep it interesting. Plus it has Michael J. Fox playing a bit against type, still the hero but a very "down on his luck" type hero. You'd think it would have been a success.
It wasn't. Peter Jackson wasn't a name back then so no one had a clue what kind of movie to expect from him. The film does have great, for their time, visuals and a pretty smart and amusing script. But it's also a weird mix of horror and comedy that people probably didn't understand. Is it horror? Is it comedy? And who is this guy that directed it? Even Michael J. Fox seems wrong here. Why should I watch this? And so no one did, which is sad because this film really does have a lot of great stuff going for it.
In the film we have Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), a con-man who preys on the small town he lives in, doing fake ghost busting and charging a lot of money for it. Thing is, while his shtick is a con -- ghosts torment a house (invisibly, of course), then she shows up and "cleanses" the place -- he actually isn't a charlatan. Dude to a horrible incident five years earlier, Frank can actually see ghosts. He just works with three of them -- John Astin as The Judge, Chi McBride as Cyrus, and Jim Fyfe as Stuart -- to run his con and make some scratch off the town.
It does, however, make him the only person in town that can fight a real ghost threat when it shows up. A ghostly killer in a dark cloak, dressed up like Death, is terrorizing the town, stalking victims and crushing their hearts, one by one. The only clue to who will be next is a ghosting number that floats on their forehead, a number that only Frank can see. Unfortunately, since he keeps showing up at the scene of the crime with someone keels over, the local sheriff begins to suspect that Frank might somehow be involved. Plus, a wild-eyed FBI agent, Milton Dammers (Jeffery Combs), absolutely thinks Frank is guilty as sin, a psychic killer slaughtering his way through a quiet hamlet. It'll be up to Frank, and new friend (and doctor) Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) to figure out what ghost is killing the townspeople and try to find a way to stop them.
The film, to its credit and detriment, does have a lot going on in it. The setup for the film is absolutely a comedy, a kind of buddy team-up of Fox, McBride, and Fyfe just bumbling their way through town, cracking jokes and riffing on the material. The early act is fun, but it's very different from the film to come (as an early opening scene that's much more horror than comedy should indicate). At a certain point the murders are revealed, there's a cloaked villain that shows up, and the film transitions quickly into much more of a horror film (to the point that the few humorous things that linger, like Combs's weird FBI agent, just doesn't blend well anymore).
I have a feeling that this tonal shift, away from comedy and into horror, is part of the reason this film was a hard sell, but for audiences and from the the studio. How do you market a film that takes a hard turn half way in? As a viewer, will you like a film that transitions from a promise comedy into a sudden thriller? I mean, I did, but then I like horror-comedies and will watch anything with cool visuals and a decent script. For most people, though, that does seem like a hard sell.
Part of what makes the film work so well, though, is that it invests fully in its concept. There's a mystery to the film -- who is the ghostly killer and why is he killing in numbered order? -- that, the first time through, really jells together really well. It's got a solid pay off, with a good villain, and plenty of cool twists along the way that, if you can get invested in the film, really rewards you for making it to the end. This is a story that really builds well and gives you pay off for paying attention and putting the pieces together yourself.
Plus it has a fantastic villainous turn by Jake Busey. Busey, of course, plays crazy really well; like his father, Jake Busey, he's a character actor that's fantastic as being wild-eyed and weird. Here he goes all in on a scenery-chewing performance that really sells just how evil this guy is. The movie never gives us a reason why he wants to kill (he just does because he can), but it does at least give us a character actor that makes us never question why he'd do what he does. It's fantastic.
And, of course, Michael J. Fox is great in the film. Frank is kind of a grubbier Marty McFly, still getting sucked into fantastical situations he just has to roll with, but also less liked than even his high school slacker character. Shining through, those, of Fox's natural charm which helps to sell Frank not as a slimy predator but just as a guy trying to get by and make ends meet, even if it's on the back of a bit of a scummy con-scam. He's somehow not a good guy and yet totally a good person all at the same time.
The one part of the movie that hasn't aged as well are the visual effects. Although cutting-edge for the time, they've degraded pretty strongly in the intervening years. Now they look like PS2-era video game graphics when, at the time, it sold you on the scary ghosts and weird creatures going bump in the night. By the end o the film, when we're focused much more on human characters and the end-film twists, with far less of the visual effects worked in, that's when the film really starts to look great.
Still, on the whole the film really does still work. It's funny, it's scary, and its inventive. While it might not be perfect anymore, it's still a great little adventure with a likable cast and a worthy villain. It is a pity it didn't do well in theaters because I would have liked to see further adventures with Frank and his ghostly abilities.