Review: The Frighteners

Likeable but opportunistic Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) runs a con-game where he, as a paranormal exterminator will alleviate an abode of troublesome paranormal spirits…whom Bannister has already arranged to haunt people’s places. So while he really can see ghosts, he’s using his ability purely to make a quick buck in an underhanded manner. Business is good until there appears to be widespread murder and spooky goings on seemingly attributed to the Grim Reaper, but the truth is actually connected to an executed serial killer (Jake Busey) from the 1950s. The only person who can see and put a stop to the menace is Frank, having to do some real work for a change. Question is, will he be up to the task? Trini Alvarado plays a local shrink whose douchebag husband (Peter Dobson) falls victim to the killer. Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe are Bannister’s most trusted ghostly partners, with John Astin playing a spectral Judge. Dee Wallace plays a local crazy old woman, Troy Evans a local lawman, Melanie Lynskey cameos as a deputy, and Jeffrey Combs plays an FBI Special Agent with seemingly every phobia imaginable.

In between the occasionally uproarious but unrefined “Braindead” and venturing to Middle Earth, Kiwi director Peter Jackson (whose less impressive films have included the overrated “Heavenly Creatures” and the bloated and empty “King Kong”) gave us this 1996 ghostly comedy along with his frequent co-writer Fran Walsh. It has been somewhat forgotten over the years and wasn’t especially well-loved at the time, but I think it’s good enough to get a re-appraisal to be honest. Yeah it’s basically a mixture of “Beetlejuice” and “Skin Game”, but this is a fun ride if you ask me. I particularly liked the very funny bit involving some adorable levitating toddlers during one of Bannister’s scams.

Michael J. Fox apparently decided to move to television for the most part after his experiences making this film. Sadly, he’s not even doing much of that these days either, due to forces heart-breakingly beyond his control. Still, he’s well-cast here because his innate likeability helps you sympathise with a character who let’s face it, is a bit of a shonk. A con artist. I miss seeing him act, he’s so easy to take to on screen. We also get an excellent performance by the great John Astin, well-assisted by the appropriately decrepit makeup of Rick Baker (“An American Werewolf in London”, “Gorillas in the Mist”, “Ed Wood”) in one of his finer gigs. I particularly loved the cameo by R. Lee Ermey’s “Full Metal Jacket” character (if not in name) now running the graveyard spirits through their paces. Meanwhile, along with TV’s “Boston Public”, Chi McBride has his best role as a guy who had the good/bad (depending on you sense of style) fortune to die in the 70s. Best of all is the wonderful scene-stealing work by genre favourite Jeffrey Combs as the most neurotic and uptight federal agent in cinematic history. Some will say his character is unnecessary, but if he’s entertaining he’s absolutely necessary as far as I’m concerned.

The one flaw in the entire film is the slightly non-mainstream casting of Trini Alvarado as the leading lady, casting that I don’t think comes off. She isn’t terrible, but she’s not terribly interesting or appealing, either. As for the FX, they’ve dated but it was 1996 for crying out loud, and they haven’t actually dated that much. Good Danny Elfman esque music score by…well, it’s actually by Danny Elfman (“Beetlejuice”, “Batman”, “Mars Attacks!”) himself.

A mostly terrific cast and a wild, crazy ride from a director getting the chance to show Hollywood what he could do. It’s a very Peter Jackson film in tone and subject matter, but a lot tamer than his previous efforts and a lot less critic-friendly than his subsequent films, perhaps. For me though, I think it’s a fun genre pic for the most part, and definitely better than its reputation (and better than any other Jackson film that doesn’t have “Lord” or “Rings” in the title). It might be a bit loud and frenetic for some, but unlike his earlier efforts in New Zealand at least there isn’t a dull moment to be found here.

Rating: B-  


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