The Frighteners (1996)

AUGUST 2, 2009


Something in the universe was telling me to watch The Frighteners today. During a midnight screening of Dungeonmaster (AMAZING movie, by the way), I was trying to think of other Richard Moll movies and for some reason thought of The Frighteners, which he does not appear in (I got him confused with R. Lee Ermey I think). Also, I was mildly smitten with Dungeonmaster lead actress Leslie Wing, and began wondering what else she had been in and more importantly, what she looked like now. So I went home and looked her up on the IMDb, and saw that she had a small role in... The Frighteners! And then to cap it off, I logged onto Twitter when I woke up and saw that Joe Lynch’s weekly “Top 3” poll (where he inquires of our top 3 films from a certain director) focused on Peter Jackson himself. Christ, how could I NOT watch the movie now?

Now, I HAVE seen The Frighteners' theatrical version, but only the one time, when it first hit VHS. I didn’t care for it much then, but my taste has changed a lot since then (to compare, the film came out in the summer of 1996, same as ID4, a film I used to really enjoy but now can’t even get through). So I bought the special edition DVD when it came out in late 2005 (and now that I finally opened it, I can apparently see King Kong for free! Score!), intrigued to give it another look. Aiding matters was the fact that it was a director’s cut, which for Peter Jackson is NOT the usual bullshit. While I think the Fellowship (my favorite of the 3 LOTR films) extended edition just slows the movie down more often than not, both TTT and ROTK are better films in their longer form, and I hoped that Frighteners would be no different.

(As for King Kong - I can’t possibly fathom the idea of sitting through an even longer version of that one, since it’s biggest problem was that it was an hour too long as is.)

Well, I can’t really remember what I disliked about it back in 1996, but I’m still not entirely sold on the film. It’s not bad by any means, just sort of... missing something. Maybe the extra 14 minutes made it better, maybe not. I love the concept, and a lot of the character stuff is terrific (the idea of a guy living in a half-finished dream house is outstanding), but there is a sort of disconnect for me; I never really got “into” the movie. And, again, it’s simply too long. If someone were to ask what the film was about, you’d probably say “Michael J. Fox can see ghosts and uses that skill to track a ghost serial killer” or something to that effect - but this story doesn’t really kick in until almost an hour into the narrative.

Plus it’s missing the key ingredient for one of these con man setups: the successful con. If you think about the movies in which people pretend to stop some sort of monster or supernatural entity for profit, and then we discover that they were working together (Brothers Grimm is a good example), they always start off with one that works great, and then they get a new job in which the plot kicks in. Here, we get this prologue, and then a funeral, and then we meet Fox, and then he pisses some guy off, and then we meet the female lead, and then.... you get the idea. It’s like 30 minutes into the movie by the time we realize Fox’s gimmick. And we never get to know why he even bothers doing it; the one we do see (where his ghost friends don’t commit to a full blown haunting, which screws things up for him) only occurs because he ruined the guy’s fence and needs to avoid having to pay for repairs by “trading” for a ghost removal. So does he only do this when he screws someone over? We never know. As a result, the concept never really blossoms.

And then it’s another 20 minutes or so before the serial killer plot kicks in. Again, it’s an interesting concept, but by the time it’s actually a full part of the narrative I was starting to get disinterested. I felt like I was watching a failed TV show pilot that they decided to film more stuff for and release it as a feature (indeed, it WOULD make a good TV show, I think, with the serial killer thing being a season-long arc sprinkled in with stand-alone adventures).

The comedic angle is also a bit scattershot. It starts off with humor, but it’s all but completely phased out of the 2nd half of the film, which is a bit odd. I think the casting has a lot to do with that: you have Michael J. Fox, Robert Zemeckis, and a high concept narrative - expectations are that the comedy and genre stuff can blend seamlessly and continually; the BTTF films always came through on that front. Not that the movie HAS to be funny, but it’s strange that it started off that way and then got forgotten about. Jeffrey Combs adds a bit of levity with (introduced too late) FBI agent character, but even that angle is missing once he is revealed to be a sort of secondary villain.

It is saved, more or less, by the incredible FX and sheer ENERGY of the film though. Summer of 1996 was essentially the first big CGI summer, since Jurassic Park came out in 1993 and it took about three years for everyone else to develop, produce, and release their own CGI spectacles. So you had Twister, ID4, Eraser, Escape From LA, plus CGI “trickery” films like Multiplicity and The Nutty Professor, all coming out at the same time (ironic footnote - Michael Bay’s The Rock was one of the smaller budgeted films of that summer). Frighteners looked better than just about all of them, and still holds up today (if I liked the movie more, it would be a definite Blu-Ray request). And unlike a lot of those films, the effects were used to tell the story (it’s about ghosts, after all) instead of being designed around them like Twister (“OK, we have these awesome destruction scenes! Shit, we need something to bridge them....”). And Jackson was in fine form as a director; it’s got his trademark low angle close-ups and stuff, plus the camera never stops moving (but not in the Bay way, the shots usually last more than a few seconds). He fails miserably at making New Zealand look like a “small American town”, but I was amazed to discover how small the budget was on the film; I would have guessed at LEAST double what it was, especially with visual effects in pretty much every shot of the film’s final hour.

The DVD comes jam-packed with the type of stuff that would make me cream if I loved the movie (and it does have its fans - my friend Matt prefers it to just about every other Jackson film, including the LOTRs). There’s a commentary (haven’t listened yet), the trailer, and a nice storyboard piece that runs 45 minutes. Jackson explains how he hates sitting there skipping through the images with the chapter skip button, so he filmed all of the boards and set them to Danny Elfman’s woefully generic Danny Elfman-y score, providing occasional narration with what is going on or why things changed. It takes patience to get through the whole thing (I nodded off) but it’s the best way of presenting storyboards that I can recall.

The other side of the disc has the real meat: a 3 hr+ documentary about the film’s production. It’s not straightforward like other lengthy docs, I think it was originally broken up into sections (pre-production, casting, etc) on the laserdisc release - but it’s a terrific piece all the same. Having watched the pointlessly overlong Halloween documentary recently, I know these things can flounder, but this one is precisely what I would want from such a lengthy endeavor. Jackson is constantly providing insight and context for what we are seeing, the post production process is covered at length, and, for me anyway, it actually feels shorter than the film itself, despite being an hour longer. My only complaint is that we have to deal with Richard Taylor, a man with such a sleepy and nasally voice that it actually kept me from watching the extras on the TTT and ROTK DVDs, because I couldn’t bear to hear him yammer on anymore after I went through the ENTIRE Fellowship 4 disc set a few years back (including the commentaries, it takes a total of 24 hrs to “complete” the set). But his 1996 hair was delightful, so I guess it’s OK.

Peter Jackson is one of our most gifted filmmakers; few would argue that. But like Sam Raimi, I think he works better with limited funds. I enjoy the LOTR films just fine, but he had blank checks to work with on the 2nd and 3rd films (so it’s not really surprising that I liked the first one the best), and none of them are as interesting to me as Brain Dead or Meet The Feebles. Someone needs to rein him in. I mean, how the fuck did he spend 200 million on Lovely Bones? I read that book, it’s about a ghost watching her family muck about for a few years before her killer slips on the ice and dies. I could have filmed it for 20 million, half of which would be spent on acquiring the rights to Josh Todd’s incredible song of the same name. Hopefully, he will take a cue from Raimi and do his own Drag Me To Hell. In the meantime, The Frighteners will have to do as the last time he was working without the entire world at his fingertips, and it’s a shame that it’s not as good as its potential.

What say you?

P.S. In case you were wondering, Ms. Wing was still quite attractive in 1996, despite being made up to look like a WASP-y matron.

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  1. THE FRIGHTENERS is better than all 3 LOTRs.

    Better than KING KONG.

    Probably better than DEAD ALIVE, too.

    I have spoken.

  2. I like The Frighteners. It's pretty inventive, nice to look at, often fun, etc. Really like Michael J Fox. I just didn't get into it as much as I wanted to. Something left me cold. I agree, it's too long. Yeah, all 3 LOTR movies are long but I feel like they're as long as they need to be. This, like King Kong, probably should have been trimmed.

  3. I loved this movie in the theaters and again when it was on TBS or some other station years later. But why am I the only one in the world who thinks King Kong was a perfect length. Not only is it more bang for your buck, but since it's a remake, the drawn out begining is one of the few things that they could do to set up some anticipation before getting to the island. But I know I'm in the minority on that one.

    Awesome site by the way, my new favorite.

  4. "I mean, how the fuck did he spend 200 million on Lovely Bones? I read that book, it’s about a ghost watching her family muck about for a few years before her killer slips on the ice and dies." HAHAHA perfect description.

    also I just watched the second HM,DP last night. Nice working on of "I Know my Real Name is Stephen"

  5. I'm with you on the "it's missing something."

    I return to The Frighteners every few years--usually with a "ohhhh YEAH. I'm going to re-watch The Frighteners! That was good, right?!"
    And then it's just sorta... "not bad."

    I haven't picked up the Director's Cut yet. I heard about the making-of and really want to watch that. I love a good "making-of" even for movies I'm not thrilled with.

  6. I remember when it came out, it was being hyped as Peter Jacksons first major studio movie, and I always thought it was like bands who sign major lablel deals. They try way too hard to prove they deserve the shot, and spend more money, and whatever. I agree that it was missing something, but maybe there was nothing you could put in. I really like Michael J Fox, but his energy in the was very subdued and it took over the whole movie. Beautiful Creatures always gets left off the Peter Jackson list, but I was so hyped to see it, and the payoff was not there either. Dead Alive, or nothing.

  7. Just saw this for the first time. It was kinda fun but overall it was inconsistent. I agree with your criticisms. Some of the CGI was flawless. But I'd say the stuff that didn't need to be perfect was where it looked good (The translucent ghosts, for example). The Freddy Krueger face through the wall effect looked terrible! There was a shot of someone falling into the forest which was completely botched. I'm not angry or anything, but I wouldn't say these effects were especially well done. They were just as much a product of their time like the other films you mentioned.

    Gary Busey's kid was born to be a creep.


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