“Ha ha, very funny. You’re a funny guy, Frank. You know, all you think about is yourself. I could complain, too, you know. I would like some new clothes. You get to dress nice. Here I am still looking like Linc from The Mod Squad,” says Cyrus. Frank Bannister responds, “You died in the ’70s. It’s a bummer.”
Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners started life as a spin-off Tales From the Crypt film written by Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh that was to be directed by Robert Zemeckis (who was an executive producer of the TV series). Zemeckis read the script and loved it, but felt Jackson should have the honor of directing it (Zemeckis stayed on as producer, helped the film get financed, and even suggested that Michael J. Fox play the male lead). I first became aware of the film through TV spots for it when it was coming to theaters in the summer of 1996. I didn’t get to see the film until I bought it on VHS (in the years since I’ve upgraded to DVD and then Blu-ray). I didn’t get to see it on the big screen until recently (it was the director’s cut, which added 12 minutes that fleshes out the story even better) and it was a thrilling experience.
1996’s The Frighteners follows a ghost-busting con man (in league with the very ghosts he supposedly gets rid of) who discovers there’s an apparition who really is haunting his town and piling up a large number of kills. He teams up with a doctor (the only person in town who believes in his abilities) to stop the deadly spectre. Jackson brought together a terrific ensemble that includes Michael J. Fox (as Frank Bannister), Trini Alvarado (as Dr. Lucy Lynskey), Jeffrey Combs (as Agent Milton Dammers), Chi McBride (as Cyrus), Jim Fyfe (as Stuart), John Astin (as the Judge), Dee Wallace (as Patricia Bradley), Jake Busey (as Johnny Bartlett), Julianna McCarthy (as Mrs. Bradley), Troy Evans (as Sheriff Walt Perry), Peter Dobson (as Ray Lynskey), R. Lee Ermey (as Sergeant Hiles), Elizabeth Hawthorne (as Magda Rees-Jones), Angela Bloomfield (as Debra Bannister), and Melanie Lynskey (as a Deputy).
Fox gives a phenomenal performance as a former architect who cons people out of money by “exorcising” the very ghosts who work for him while still trying to get over the death of his wife from five years earlier. He brings courage and determination as he tries to clear his name of the murders and find redemption. Alvarado gives a strong performance as the doctor who tries to help Bannister, Combs balances creepiness and absurdity as an FBI agent who spent too many years undercover with bizarre cases, and Wallace is sympathetic and unsuspecting as the former accomplice to a serial killer. McBride and Fyfe are hilarious as Bannister’s go-to ghosts, Astin is an emotional anchor for Bannister, trying to get him to go back to his life, and Ermey is a scene-stealer as he spoofs his character from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
Jackson’s strong direction draws top-notch performances as well as utilizes zany angles and moving shots (anyone who’s seen any of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films he later made should be a little familiar with his style). The screenplay by Jackson and Walsh is a wonderful mix of horror and comedy with a budding love story and a large dose of tragedy. The cinematography by John Blick and Alun Bollinger reflects dark tone of the film, and Grant Major’s production design is phenomenal (Mrs. Bradley’s house and the old hospital were among my favorite set pieces). The special effects by Weta Digital were spectacular (from the CGI to the miniature work), and the makeup design by Richard Taylor and Rick Baker was top-notch (Baker’s work on the Judge was just eerie).
Barbara Darragh’s costume designs reflect the dreary atmosphere of the film. Jamie Selkirk’s editing moves the film at a good pace, and Danny Elfman delivers a wicked score that emphasizes both the horror and comedic elements. Jackson’s The Frighteners is a gem of a cult classic that is a much more important film than anyone realizes (it was the expansion of the computers used by Weta for the special effects in this film that led Jackson to pursue a project that could further utilize those computers: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and this film would also mark Fox’s last leading role in a live action feature film).