The Frighteners (1996)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Heavenly Creatures

Chinese Ghost Story

Ring (1998)

The Frighteners

Lava LampLava Lamp

Our rating: two LAVA® motion lamps.

Let's just boil this down to one sentence: If you liked Beetlejuice, then you really ought to rent The Frighteners.

Those who know of Peter Jackson at all probably remember him from either Dead Alive or Heavenly Creatures. If you're a fan of Meet the Feebles, we suggest you seek professional help. Jackson is a talented director from New Zealand with a taste for the... uh... unusual. For this man, a movie titled The Frighteners is actually a step towards mainstream.

The star of The Frighteners is Michael J. Fox, which might be a cause for fright in and of itself, except that Fox does himself proud as Frank Bannister, a former architect turned psychic. To pin his character down, think Whoopi Goldberg from Ghost -- he can see and interact with earthbound spirits. There's only a touch of Fox's character Marty from Back to the Future here; mostly it surfaces when he's running around in a panic. (Where's Christopher Lloyd when ya need him?)

Bannister now runs a psychic investigation service in the little town of Fairwater, which involves coaxing his otherworldly buddies into haunting a house and then conveniently showing up to save the day -- for a small fee. Unfortunately, a rash of mysterious deaths puts people like Frank under extra suspicion, and business isn't going so well. What disturbs Frank is that he sees a number on the foreheads of people who are about to die at the hands of the killer ghost dubbed the Reaper, and he has a feeling that the Reaper may have something to do with him, but he doesn't know what that connection might be.

The real shame of this movie is that the effects are brilliant, but the story just doesn't do them justice. Considering Jackson's previous work on Heavenly Creatures, where the effects were used to subtly underscore a script so good it was nominated for an Oscar, we had pretty high expectations. Here, none of the plot developments hold together. The prologue sequence makes no sense considering the revelations later in the movie, and the climax is unsatisfying.

Michael J. Fox & Trini Alvarado
in The Frighteners.
Many of the supporting performances should be given special attention. Jeffrey Combs (The Re-Animator, Necronomicon) appears as twitchy paranormal investigator/FBI Agent Milton Dammers. Combs chews the scenery mercilessly, but his character is a nice contrast to the blase attitude of Fox Mulder on the X-Files, so prevalent now in our pop culture. John Astin (TV's Gomez Addams) plays a ghost named Judge who appears to be literally falling apart, his body's been in the ground so long. Another one of Frank's ghost friends is R. Lee Ermey, reprising his role as the (now dead) drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket. The name is different, but the character is the same.

When he finally shows up, it's Jake Busey as deceased serial killer Johnny Bartlett who gives this film its real entertainment value. Busey (yup, son of Gary) has been making a real name for himself playing scary people lately (see his religious maniac in Contact), and Bartlett is a pretty frightening guy. Combine Busey's over-the-top antics with the moonlit special effects, and this movie's similarity to Beetlejuice begins to emerge. Too bad this similarity lasts for so short a time.

Own it!

Review date: 10/30/1997

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