It was July 19, 1996, and there were four new movies in theaters: the action movie with Laurence Fishburne, the genie movie with Shaquille O’Neal, the clone movie with Michael Keaton, and the ghost movie with Michael J. Fox. That last one did the best of the batch, but more people went to see previous releases INDEPENDENCE DAY, PHENOMENON, COURAGE UNDER FIRE and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR.
Not that surprising. Normal people didn’t know what the hell THE FRIGHTENERS was, or have any reason to give it much thought. Universal couldn’t make that big a deal about BACK TO THE FUTURE’s Marty McFly reuniting with Robert Zemeckis (as a producer) because it’s not that kind of movie. Whiz bang special effects movie, yeah, but rated-R, with some grossness and disturbing flashbacks to a realistic spree killing. Like the one we looked at last week, WOLF, there was no McDonalds tie-in (although the skeletal face imprint on the movie poster would’ve looked cool coming out of the side of those glass mugs!).
To some of us this was an event, though: a favorite cult director getting his chance to play Carnegie Hall. For me it was the home-made-on-the-weekends gore comedy BAD TASTE that made Peter Jackson legendary. I dubbed the VHS and watched it repeatedly. I wasn’t so into his puppet movie MEET THE FEEBLES, but DEAD ALIVE/BRAINDEAD was good, and then all the sudden he had a best original screenplay Oscar nomination for his classy true crime relationship drama, HEAVENLY CREATURES. His reward (and ours) was his first chance to do a horror movie with a real budget and his envelope-pushing FX house, Weta, on the 1s and 0s.
Fox plays Frank Bannister, con man ghostbuster who passes his business card out at funerals (inappropriate in my opinion) and stages phony hauntings that he’s then paid to fake-exorcise. The twist is that ghosts are real, and he really can see them, and two of them (Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe) are his accomplices who go in and do all the poltergeisting for him. Get him that money.
Then Frank starts seeing glowing numbers carved into the foreheads of people who subsequently have their hearts crushed by a grim reaper type figure. Frank gets mixed up in it, both as a ghost-seer eyewitness and a suspect who seems from the outside to be somehow responsible for the deaths.
Most of the ghost rules seem pretty clear. If dead people don’t go to the light they stick around as ghosts, mostly at the cemetery or near their ashes. They’re invisible to the living unless they move things or (as in the case of the Reaper) wrap themselves in a rug or something, but Frank started to see them after a near death experience.
The unusual part is that ghosts can be killed. The Reaper can scythe them, and they can even shoot each other. R. Lee Ermey reprises his FULL METAL JACKET/real life drill sergeant shtick as an ornery ghost who yells at and in one case fires a machine gun at Frank when he comes to the cemetery. I don’t know where ghost guns and bullets come from (would you have to have died with it in your hands?) but if your ghost gets killed, it seems you then go to Heaven or Hell. There’s not a second layer of ghosting, as far as we see.
One of the few people who believes Frank is Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado, LITTLE WOMEN), because she’s open-minded and new in town. She connects all the different plot threads: Frank scammed her, she’s the widow of the first Reaper victim he sees, and she made a house call to Patricia Ann Bradley (Dee Wallace, E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL), who she learns was the girlfriend of infamous spree killer Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey, STRAIGHT TIME).
(In case you don’t notice that the last name Lynskey is a tribute to Heavenly Creature Melanie Lynskey, she has a cameo as a deputy. No sign of Kate Winslet, who had at that point been Oscar-nominated for SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.)
The funniest and most early-Peter-Jacksony character is FBI Special Agent Milton Dammers, played by Jeffrey Combs (RE-ANIMATOR, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM). It’s great to see Combs going full weirdo in probly his most mainstream movie besides I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER. We hear Dammers is kinda fucked up from years of going undercover in cults. He’s clearly a loon from the beginning, but he keeps revealing new layers – not just figuratively, but literally too. He tears off his shirt to show the lead vest he thinks will protect him from heart-crushing. Under that his body is covered in ritual scarring (or, as he puts it, “is a roadmap of pain.”) And his butt is part of the road map, judging by the inflatable donut he puts on his car seat.
My favorite Dammers detail is that he has a fear of women yelling at him. The first time it happens he runs out of the room and pukes. The Sheriff (Troy Evans, THE LAWNMOWER MAN) looks at him with a combination of pity and embarrassment, like his drunk friend just pissed himself at a wedding. Sadly, Dammers is a character who is relevant to our times.
He kind of seems like he’s gonna be an occult expert. Instead he’s a militant skeptic who arrogantly fails to figure out what’s going on and just makes everything way more dangerous for everybody. Should definitely have been fired the fuck out of the FBI even though I respect that he doesn’t believe in ghosts.
Busey gets to go even more mega than Combs, and I think he is genuinely scary in the flashbacks. His face has that Son of Sam look of insanity, like his eyes are focused on something other than what’s in front of them. Zemeckis must’ve liked him because he used that same nutso quality in a small part as a terrorist in CONTACT.
I have always found Frank’s ghost buddies Cyrus and Stuart to be a little embarrassing. They really project “we’re the funny part of the movie” without actually being funny. It seems like we’re supposed to just be delighted as shit that Cyrus died in the ’70s and wears bellbottoms – to me he comes across as too much of a racial stereotype to be cool. Maybe it’s a New Zealand thing. The better ghost character is The Judge (John Astin), a ghost from the old west with great rotting jaw makeup designed by Rick Baker. He seems like a friendly old cowboy who’s falling apart and scared about the state of the ghost world, so it’s a triumphant underdog moment when he shows up at the museum and fires ghost bullets into the Reaper. It is less triumphant when he gets distracted by a sarcophagus, goes over and humps the mummy inside and then declares “I like it when they lie still like that!”
The FX are very complex because so many scenes have an actor or actors who are glowing transparent people shot separately but having conversations (or fights) with Frank. And it’s probly made harder by the hyperactive camera moves Jackson prefers. He’s always swooping around, and it’s fitting because it really feels like a rollercoaster ride through various FX sequences. I think there are two scenes sort of based on that moment in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET when Freddy’s face comes out of the wall above Nancy’s bed. They did that with a sheet of latex, but THE FRIGHTENERS uses CG to have the Reaper stretching out of walls and floors, paintings and rugs, gliding across all surfaces like a shark fin through water. Also there’s a chase with the Reaper hopping from roof to roof, then onto Frank’s car, trying to pull him out.
And what about that scene where they’re at the restaurant watching the Ghost-52s and Frank pours a glass of water but then you see that the pitcher is actually a ghost and when the water finishes pouring out of his mouth he looks at the camera and goes “It’s a living.”
I might’ve imagined that part, I cannot recall, but there definitely is an exciting sequence where Frank decides he has to enter the ghost world to fight the Reaper. He’s gonna just shoot himself in the head until Lucy spontaneously comes up with a plan to freeze him so that his heart rate slows. (Even small town doctors know about this type of shit.) He floats around, chases the Reaper, manages to tear off his robe and face and knock him around but suddenly is jerked away when Lucy, across town, zaps his dead body with the defibrillator. It reminds me of going into the dream world to fight Freddy, or going into the Matrix, or Avatar-ing a N’avi body. And come to think of it I bet it directly inspired the cool ghost fight against Scott Adkins in DOCTOR STRANGE.
I read that JURASSIC PARK had 75 CG shots in it, and three years later THE FRIGHTENERS had 570. It was one of the most intensive digital effects movies made at the time, with Jackson’s fledgling company (with the aid of ILM vet Wes Takahashi, after getting behind schedule) pioneering new shit left and right. So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that watching it now most of it looks very dated. The Reaper is animated very fast and the tentacles dragging them to hell don’t seem that much better than SPAWN anymore.
That’s okay, but I was surprised to find that I really don’t like this movie as much as I did 24 years ago. Re-reading Roger Ebert’s one-star review, which seemed insane to me at the time, I kinda get it now. It’s a very frantic movie, without solid enough characters to ground it.
At the time this kind of seemed like a reinvented Michael J. Fox. It was cool to see him in one last starring role in a movie where he’s not voicing a mouse. The closest he’d done to a horror movie before was TEEN WOLF, and we’d never seen him play a broken guy like this, a pathetic small time con man who fucked up his life, lives in a house with holes in the roof, shunned by most of the town, including many of the dead people.
And it’s kind of interesting the journey it asks you to take with him. At first you just know he’s this scam artist, but because he really does talk to ghosts it’s kind of a funny scam. Then we find out about his dead wife and it seems like he definitely caused the car accident and we can guess that he’s not really the one who carved ’13’ into her head with his box cutter, but we can see it through Lucy’s eyes and know that she should never, ever talk to this fucking guy after she hears about that, jesus christ what the hell is she doing. And on more than one occasion he fights and escapes from the police as if he is guilty. And when he’s trying to protect Magda (Power Rangers Dino Charge) from the Reaper he punches her in the face, carries her to his car, drives crazily and crashes in the same place where his wife died and then accidentally jumps on top of her. Most of this is innuendo, we know he’s innocent, but it’s a dark life this Frank Bannister is living, you know?
And, uh, I don’t really see it in Michael J. Fox. I don’t see a different side of him. I just see the same lovable guy pretending to be this fucked up guy. And I think he’s too pure. I don’t quite buy it.
Man, I saw this a bunch of times in the ’90s, but I have so many more questions now. What’s in it for Cyrus and Stuart to help Frank with his scams? Why does the Sheriff like and trust Frank so much when it seems like he murdered his wife and got away with it? Why does Frank seem to assume that the FBI agent chasing him is not armed, and why when he is does he have an uzi? Why does the ghost of Johnny Bartlett disguise himself as the grim reaper if he’s so obsessed with being a famous high body count killer? Why don’t other ghosts change themselves into scary forms? Is it weird that Frank’s reckless driving is treated as wacky eccentricity when he crashes into Ray’s fence, but then we find out that his whole life was ruined five years ago when he was being an asshole to his wife and caused a similar accident that got her killed? (Or did Johnny and Patricia somehow cause the crash? If so why isn’t that shown in the flashback? And if not why the hell are they there in the woods when the accident happens? And was she already dead when they carved the number in her head?)
It’s more of a mess than I was prepared to face at the time, but I don’t want to disparage it too much. It’s still a unique mix of tones and gimmicks, and Jackson’s excitement for digital era spookablastism is pretty infectious, even when it’s not working. There’s definitely alot of cleverness put into all the ghost gags, like when a certain character gets his head shot off and all the sudden he’s a gory headstump with a transparent ghost face.
Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh came up with the idea for THE FRIGHTENERS while they were writing HEAVENLY CREATURES. Zemeckis saw their treatment and hired them to write it in 1993, planning to direct it himself as a TALES FROM THE CRYPT movie – this was before DEMON KNIGHT. Then he decided Jackson should direct it. They left the Cryptkeeper out, but at least TALES theme composer Danny Elfman came along to do the score. It comes across as overbearing at times, but I like how its use of harpsichord adds a haunted house twist to his familiar sound.
Known for gloriously excessive gore in three of his four previous movies, Jackson deliberately played it down here because he was aiming for a PG-13. That’s one thing Ebert definitely got wrong – on his show he called it a “non-stop gorefest.” I always thought it was weird that Jackson didn’t expect an R, because the flashback to the hospital shooting rampage, especially with Johnny delightedly rattling off the body counts of real life killers who he’s surpassing, would seem to guarantee one, at least back then. Not to mention The Judge raping a dead body.
Anyway, they still made collector’s cards and a novelization.
You see that? It was an event. In fact, “THE MOST GHOULISH EVENT OF THE YEAR.”
THE FRIGHTENERS almost wasn’t a Summer Fling. According to Entertainment Weekly, it was scheduled to be released on Halloween until “Universal Studios brass finally screened footage” and were so impressed they moved it to “a prime summer slot” and signed up Jackson to remake KING KONG (which ended up happening seven years later than expected). Although this was a box office disappointment, being able to make it in New Zealand with his own company set the stage for Jackson to do the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy with all the advantages of those resources and the geographic isolation from Hollywood oversight. In that sense it could be the most important movie of this review series.
NOTE: There is a director’s cut that’s 12 minutes longer, but I chose to go back to the theatrical version for historical purposes.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.