Viking Night: The Frighteners
By Bruce Hall
August 13, 2013
It's hard not to like The Frighteners, but it's even harder not to think it should be better than it is. While it's not quite Peter Jackson's best work, it does possess his playful sense of humor and trademark fascination with darkness, death and making fun of darkness and death. But after an entertaining setup, it devolves into another 90 minutes or so of fun but frenetic and bewildering chaos. Jackson's screenplay (co-written with his wife Fran Walsh) flirts with big ideas about sobering things. It aims for big laughs - sometimes landing them - and other times earning something between a chuckle and a wince. There’s nothing offensive about it, but once in a while it's incomprehensibly tasteless. The Frighteners is a lot of things, but mostly it’s a whirlwind of digital effects, metaphysical meat loaf and good old fashioned slapstick that I'm willing to wager mirrors the hyperactive mind of its creator.
This movie literally can't sit still and it wants to try everything.
All that energy makes repeat viewings a lot of fun, but it doesn't take long for the seams to show. For example, I've never quite found Michael J. Fox to be an ideal fit as psychic shyster Frank Bannister. It's not that he doesn't have the chops to carry the film, because he certainly does. The problem is that while I find him easy to accept as the man Bannister becomes by the end of the film, it’s hard to buy Fox as the cynical, emotionally barren huckster he's playing at the beginning. Maybe that's the point, and maybe it's just a matter of personal taste. I just can't see Fox as a cheater. But a cheater is exactly what Frank is. After a deadly car accident claims his wife, he (inexplicably) develops an ability to commune with the dead, and takes to using a bumbling trio of restless spirits (John Astin, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe) to swindle the recently bereaved by posing as a paranormal investigator.
It makes for a funny setup, with the real ghosts entering homes in advance and wreaking madcap havoc before Bannister shows up and pretends to “exorcise" them - for a nominal fee. Don't stop to think about it or you'll start to wonder how someone who really can communicate with ghosts well enough to go into business with them couldn't make a hell of a lot more money legitimately. Especially once an intrepid newspaper reporter (Elizabeth Hawthorne) exposes Bannister for the semi-fraud he is. It's a small town, so it doesn't take long for business to dry up - but not before Frank manages to earn the trust of the recently widowed Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado). Frank does indeed communicate with Lucy's dead husband (Peter Dobson), and Lucy - because she's the love interest here - does indeed buy into it. Not 15 minutes into the movie, she's given this obvious con man her full and uninhibited trust. Before her husband’s body is even cold, she’s agreed to go out to dinner with the guy.