Wednesday, October 08, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 7 - The Frighteners

#9 (Tie) - 5 Votes

The Frighteners is a kinder, gentler version of the low-budget splatter comedies Peter Jackson began his career with. After his true crime drama Heavenly Creatures (still his best movie), Jackson and his co-writer and wife Fran Walsh were hired to write The Frighteners as a Tales From the Crypt Presents movie for Robert Zemeckis to direct. Eventually, it was decided that Jackson should direct, with Zemeckis producing. A variation of Ghostbusters, starring Michael J. Fox as a paranormal investigator who uses his ability to communicate with ghosts to con people (the ghosts work for him and leave on cue), The Frighteners has seemingly more in common with Zemeckis' films than Jackson's Bad Taste and Braindead (aka Dead Alive). The gleefully puerile gore is replaced with goofy comedy and manic, CGI-heavy setpieces. Zemeckis had already made Death Becomes Her and Forrest Gump at this point, and The Frighteners also signals the direction Jackson's career would take - since then, he's made six Tolkien movies, King Kong, and a "smaller" film, The Lovely Bones, that relies on computer animation almost as much as the others. 

So if The Frighteners was Jackson's deliberate attempt to make a crowd-pleaser, the reasons it failed to connect with audiences are the same reasons it's better than the average summer blockbuster. While Jackson intended to deliver an audience-friendly PG-13 movie, the MPAA inexplicably rated it R, though it's less gory or violent than Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance. In a way, this is a compliment to Jackson. The over-the-top comic gore of his earlier films feel like a live-action adaptation of the bloody notebook scribblings of a kid with an overactive imagination, finding the sick comedy in our mortality and our fragile bodies. While The Frighteners nixes the gore, it's still pretty dark at its core, with the plot involving a Grim Reaper-like "soul collector" and a murderous couple inspired by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Fox's character, Frank Bannister, is emotionally paralyzed by grief after the death of his wife, and The Frighteners, as much as Braindead, is a film that uses comedy as a response to death anxiety. I'm not saying that Jackson is Ernest Becker, but the movie is essentially morbid in a way that Ghostbusters isn't.

The movie's weakest moments are often Jackson's attempts to lighten the tone, particularly some of the cringe-inducing jokes between Bannister and the ghosts who live with him. The worst is Chi McBride, playing an African-American ghost who died in the '70s, who is stuck with a series of non-jokes about his "black ass" (topical humor is not one of Jackson's strengths). It's the rare horror-comedy that works best as a horror movie; Fox is convincing and surprisingly sympathetic in his last leading role to date, and the movie's effects sequences are fun and inventive (the CGI is dated, but all effects date - what matters is the imagination, or lack thereof, behind them). And though this was Jackson's first attempt at big-budget studio filmmaking, the spirit of B-horror is well represented in the casting of Dee Wallace Stone, John Astin and, especially, Jeffrey Combs as neurotic FBI agent Milton Dammers (as much as I like Re-Animator, Dammers is my favorite Combs performance). With his Hobbit trilogy almost over, here's hoping that Jackson might take a cue from Sam Raimi and return to his horror roots between blockbusters for old times' sake. It's probably unlikely, but one can dream.

U.S. Release Date: July 19, 1996 (Also released that day: Fled, Multiplicity, Kazaam, Trainspotting)

What critics said at the time:

"I guess if you're disposed to get involved in the convoluted horror-comedy plot of Peter Jackson's The Frighteners (Zemeckis served as executive producer) you might discover some sort of continuity beneath the barrage of special effects. But the ugly, aggressive, proliferating effects were all I could begin to contend with, and trying to keep interested in them was like trying to remain interested in a loudmouth shouting in my ear." - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

"The Frighteners' plot gets crazily complex as patterns appear to develop in all those deaths and Bannister attempts to put a stop to them. Fortunately director Jackson, at home with all kinds of excess, keeps everything spinning nicely, not even losing a step when the mood turns increasingly disturbing." - Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

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