Hidden Gem: The Frighteners
By Stephanie Star Smith
September 8, 2005
Before Peter Jackson became King of the über-Geeks and auteur of the most successful fantasy film trilogy to date, he made some very intriguing films, some of which never got even a smidgeon of the attention they deserved, much less of the attention lavished on all that Ring nonsense.
One of these is The Frighteners, which despite the presence of perennial fave Michael J Fox as lead actor and the genre cred of Robert Zemeckis as executive producer, was barely noticed when it was released 1996. Which is a real shame, as The Frighteners tells one of the more original stories of psychic ability and ghostly happenings that has ever graced the silver screen.
The opening credits roll over newspaper clippings about a horrible mass murder in a local sanitarium. We learn that the murderer allegedly forced a teenage girl into being his accomplice, and that the girl turned state's evidence on the serial killer, who, after due process, was executed. The opening credits end in a Victorian mansion, with a young woman, who it's pretty easy to deduce is the teen accomplice all grown up, being terrorized by a number of paranormal phenomena which appear to be the work of a particularly nasty entity, and being condemned by her mother as being in league with the Devil and deserving of these horrific visitations, which her mum sees as just desserts.
We then move into the meat of the story, which is where we first encounter Fox's character, Frank Bannister. A former workaholic architect, Bannister acquired the ability to "see dead people" following an auto accident that killed his young wife. Bannister leaves the field of architecture and uses his new-found abilities as his livelihood, advertising himself as a "psychic detective", going round to people's houses and ridding them of "evil spirits" for a fee. I put a quote on "evil spirits" because in fact, the spirits that haunt each and every house Bannister "clears" are in his employ, a trio of dearly-departeds who aren't quite ready to head off to their final rewards and are happy to have something to do besides just hang around being ghosts. We find Bannister doing his thing for a young doctor, Lucy Lynskey, who has been convinced of his powers by the activities of his ghostly helpmates. Bannister's dog-and-pony show is interrupted, however, by the entrance of Ray, the woman's husband, who doesn't believe in any of this mumbo-jumbo/spirit entities stuff. As Bannister is gathering his equipment and making a somewhat-hasty departure, he notes Ray has a number glowing on his forehead. Thinking this an odd but intriguing new trick one of his spirit friends added to the usual gig, he finds it strange that when he brings up this addition to the routine, none of his house phantoms cop to having done such a thing, but quickly consigns it to the unusual anomalies receptacle and then promptly forgets it.
Until the next day, that is, when aforementioned husband suddenly drops dead whilst jogging, victim of an apparent heart attack. An event Frank probably still wouldn't have paid much attention to, were it not for the fact that Ray has come to join Frank's other spirits, much to Frank's dismay. Particularly when Frank is trying to scam Lucy that he's "communing" with Ray's spirit; having the actual entity there, it turns out, isn't conducive to the con. Before long, Ray isn't the only one in town who suddenly drops dead of an apparent heart attack, even though none of the victims have any prior history of heart disease, and Frank not only becomes the prime target of an obsessive FBI agent, but the only person who can see who will be next and perhaps the only person who can stop what is happening.
The Frighteners succeeds on several levels. First and foremost, the script, by Jackson and his wife/writing partner, Fran Walsh, is an original take on the standard haunting genre. The script is also witty without being precious, never takes itself or its subjects too seriously, never treats its audience as if they were brain-dead, and offers three-dimensional characters when the temptation to mask stereotypes with special effects would have overwhelmed lesser writers. Not that the special effects are overlooked; there are a plethora of eye-popping F/X shots, but unlike some bloated, empty-headed blockbusters (pick anything from the Michael Bay oeuvre as an example), it doesn't rely solely on F/X to hold the audience's attention. Instead, Jackson and Walsh have come up with an actual plot, something that is still a rarity in the effects-driven films today. It's the story and the characters that matter, not the next money-shot.
The acting is also largely top-drawer. Fox, primarily known for his sit-com roles, plays somewhat against type here. He's not really the good guy, and he's not playing for laughs (although his impeccable comic timing serves the black humor well). He carries off a role that could easily have devolved into shtick with just the right balance of pathos and vulnerability; he's the huckster with a heart; the tormented man who keeps his pain quiet; the reluctant hero who really doesn't like being cast in that role, but does the right thing because...well, it was his turn. And while Trini Alvarado is somewhat bland but serviceable as the romantic interest who is also the only one in town who believes Bannister, the rest of the supporting players reach the bar that Fox has set, including Dee Wallace-Stone as the haunted woman and Jake Busey as the very determined mass murderer. Of particular fun are the inimitable Jeffrey Combs as the FBI agent who pursues his man - even if it is the wrong one - literally to the end, and John Astin as The Judge, one of Bannister's pet ghosts.
So next time you're in the market for a scary movie that isn't too scary, or want to watch a film that doesn't think its audience is dumber than a box of hammers, invest an hour-and-three-quarters in this buried treasure from Peter Jackson's career before he made that celebrated journey to Middle Earth.