The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Frighteners
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be examining THE FRIGHTENERS from writer/director Peter Jackson.
After a tragic car accident that killed his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people but when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.
Writer/Director Peter Jackson (DEAD ALIVE, LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY) directs Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Chi McBride, Peter Dobson, and Jake Busey from a script by Jackson and wife/frequent collaborator Fran Walsh.
Originally envisioned as a Tales From The Crypt feature film (much like DEMON KNIGHT and BORDELLO OF BLOOD), producer Robert Zemeckis liked the idea so much that he pushed to have it stand separate from the series. Zemeckis hired Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh to write the film after they’d conceived of the idea during the script-writing phase of HEAVENLY CREATURES. Zemeckis intended to direct initially, but felt that Jackson was better suited when the script was complete.
Michael J. Fox was the original choice to play paranormal “investigator” Frank Bannister and he was sold on the "macabre" nature of the script. The film required more digital effect shots than any other film up to that point, a burden that went to Jackson’s Weta digital, which would later do the effects work for Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY and THE HOBBIT TRILOGY. THE FRIGHTENERS was shot, unsurprisingly, in New Zealand, but made to look like the Midwest United States. Filming took place from May to November 1995, one of the longest productions that Universal had ever approved at the time. It was an overwhelming process for the young effects company and eventually Zemeckis brought in help from ILM to assist in getting the massive amount of effects work completed.
When a rough cut was shown to executives, they were so impressed that they decided to shift the film from its original October 31, 1996 to July 19, 1996, smack dab in the middle of the summer tentpole season. It proved to be the film’s undoing, as it failed to ignite the box office and although received generally solid reviews, was mostly forgotten about. Since that time, Jackson has become a household name, particularly with his work on THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, which has left his American debut largely in the dark.
However, as the years pass, more and more people are discovering this gem from the prolific director’s repertoire and giving it the due it deserves.
"The thing with 'The Frighteners' that ended up being the biggest disappointment for us, is that it was originally conceived as a Halloween movie, that 'The Frighteners' was gonna be released in that Halloween week, which is traditional in the states that, you know, that's when the sort of ghost movies come out. And then the Stallone movie 'Daylight' got delayed, that they had a July slot for 'Daylight' planned and then that, they were falling behind schedule and they weren't gonna make their date. And so 'Daylight' was delayed for six months and so they decided to bring 'The Frighteners' up from Halloween and to plonk it into the middle of summer. So, that was, ultimately, our biggest frustration because it never was and should never have been a summer movie." – Peter Jackson
WHY IT’S GREAT:
THE FRIGHTENERS is the best Tim Burton movie he never made (Danny Elfman score and all), which sounds a little nuts since it was directed by Peter Jackson, just before his name blew up with THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. It’s not as excessively odd or artistically extreme as Burton’s work, but it feels very much like a film he would make. It has a restraint to it that keeps it from becoming a “signature” film, allowing it to simply be an innovative (for the time period, anyway) supernatural horror flick without pretense.
The film centers on Michael J. Fox, in his second to last feature film role (MARS ATTACKS! being the last), as Frank Bannister, a paranormal “investigator” who is able to see and communicate with spirits of the dead, whom he uses to conduct fraudulent hauntings for money. Essentially, he’s a faux Ghostbuster, but one with a troubled past. After a car accident that took his wife’s life, Bannister was suddenly “gifted” this supernatural ability, which he’s assimilated to with a cynical ease.
"There isn't a long list of actors that can play comedy and drama," he says. "This character is grappling with his demons, and I didn't want to lose the audience's sympathy when he does the dramatic stuff. I wanted someone who was likable, and Michael was one of those actors who had an inherent likability." - Peter Jackson
His spirit employees, played by Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, and John Astin (as “the Judge” an Old West ghost with an affinity for corpses) are still Earthbound due to “turning away from the light” when their number came up, as are most spirits that Bannister sees, including an enraged drill instructor played by R. Lee Ermey, who is essentially the ghost of his character in FULL METAL JACKET. It’s an odd life, but it’s a living for the quirky, emotionally damaged Bannister.
Across town lives a woman, Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace), who is cared for by her stern mother (Julianna McCarthy), as she took part in a mass murder at a hospital during her teenage years with an ambitious would-be serial killer named Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), who was given the death penalty for his involvement in the killing spree. Bradley suddenly finds herself haunted by a cloaked, very Wraith-looking “grim reaper” who comes out of the walls and stairs to seemingly frighten her, but the truth of its existence in her life is much more sinister.
Things start to get strange(er) when Bannister begins seeing numbers on people’s foreheads, which only he can see. Suddenly, those same people start to die mysteriously, including the husband (Peter Dobson) of a local doctor named Lucy (Trini Alvarado). Bannister befriends Lucy, but not before more and more mysterious deaths begin to stack up. In a chance encounter, Bannister witnesses one such death, seeing the “grim reaper” in full taking out a “number marked” man. This puts Bannister in a tailspin to stop the “reaper” before he can claim another life, including Lucy’s, who suddenly appears to be marked as well. Bannister must unravel the mystery of the reaper, while being trailed by Milton Dammers (played brilliantly by Jeffrey Combs), a psychotic F.B.I. agent assigned to the murders, who suspects Bannister is the killer.
"Yes, I am. I'm an asshole... with an Uzi!" - Jeffrey Combs (F.B.I. Agent Milton Dammers)
What follows is a clever, humorous, and dark affair that is ripe with quirky characters, an intricate plot (but not overly so), and a fun mix of horror and supernatural that never goes to extremes in either way. There’s no gore porn or excessive violence, but more than enough thrills and creepiness to make this a satisfying “ghost story” yarn. Fox is an engaging and energetic presence as Bannister and it makes me sad that it was his final role in features, as he never seemed to lose his edge, just his health, which is an unfortunate plight for such a gifted actor. He carries the lead with ease, however, and is every bit as strong as Marty McFly on his best day.
The visual effects are a mixed bag, but this is due mostly to the revolutionary work we’ve become accustomed to today. Ironically, this is a movie that helped pave the way for current advancements, with Weta now being one of the leaders in the market of VFX. THE FRIGHTENERS served as a kind of proving ground for them, and although you would hardly notice watching the movie today, they were amazing at the time. Still, they hold up perfectly, just without the wow factor to our spoiled modern cinematic eye.
The strength of the film is purely in the attitude and atmosphere, which floats on the vibe of an offbeat supernatural thriller. It’s got twists, turns, mystery, laughs, and some genuine thrills in its ingenuity (Fox “killing” himself to confront the reaper is a clever and fun device). The story unravels not so much as an ultimate whodunit, but as a pleasing reveal. It’s not brilliant, nor is it trying to be, but it captures the story in a way that is fitting within the world it creates.
Seeing Fox shooting two “supernatural” M60 machine guns at the grim reaper is a pretty badass sight and not one you’d ever think you’d see. The fate of F.B.I. agent Dammers, who “loses his mind” in a very creative way is even more fun, but I won’t spoil that reveal here. There are some nods to Jackson’s style, including the “expressway” to Hell at the end, but ultimately this comes off as a really enjoyable genre flick that populates with characters and situations that are just odd enough to be original, but not so far gone that they’re unbelievable. This is a great movie to add to your Halloween viewing list and a shoe-in for when you need a flick that delivers a solid, satisfying punch without crumbling under its weight of otherworldly ideas.
"Save your pea brain prattle for the classroom,boy. That was the soul collector and he's been taking people out since time began. He's been going about some dark business here in Fairwater and we ain't nothing but worm bait. When your number's up, that's it." - John Astin (The Judge)
There are a couple of cool highlights throughout THE FRIGHTENERS, notably the finale where everything comes together and all secrets are revealed. However, for the sake of not spoiling those moments for those who have yet to catch it, the sequence where Bannister first witnesses the "grim reaper" take a life is a great peek into the style and tone of the film.
THE FRIGHTENTERS is available on Blu-Ray and DVD (with a director's cut on DVD only) and is currently on Netflix streaming. Get it here!
"I have such rich, glorious memories of that, I really do. It was such a completely marvelous experience...it's like a pipe organ, just up and down the scale in harmony, man, it was just so great; personally, creatively, collaboratively, spiritually, travelling, seeing New Zealand, working with the great Peter Jackson; I just cherish it. It was so great" - Jeffrey Combs (F.B.I. Agent Milton Dammers)
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