Night has fallen on the small town of Fairwater, and in one isolated manor house all hell is breaking loose as the walls are erupting with a supernatural force victimising a middle-aged woman, Patricia Ann Bradley (Dee Wallace), chasing her around the premises until her mother (Julianna McCarthy) appears with a shotgun and blows the apparition's head off. But the town does suffer with spirits, and one man, Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), is a psychic who knows how to deal with them thanks to his otherworldly gift. Can he stop murders, though?
The Frighteners was the film that marked a transition between filmmaker Peter Jackson's smaller films - he'd just come off Heavenly Creatures - and the blockbusters he went on to make with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which left this, something of a disappointment at the box office, as rather the odd film out. It did quite well in the U.K. where its mixture of laughs and scares went down well with a nation who had grown up watching Rentaghost on the television, yet elsewhere it struggled, leaving it one of the last true cult movies Jackson made in his original style, only with one notable difference.
That being the preponderance of computer graphics which made up most of the effects work, here applied in the liberal amount Jackson's low budget gore movies had enjoyed. This was the beginning of his Weta studio which fast became a hub of CGI expertise, and it was the efforts demonstrated in those Rings movies which made that come to pass, though you only had to look back to the cartoonish but well-applied technical skill in this neglected entry into the filmmaker's canon to see where it all began. There had been such effects in Heavenly Creatures, but it was here that Jackson truly ran with the style and there was an exuberance to the visuals which distinguished it.
Fox, in one of the last movies he made before his Parkinson's Disease grew too debilitating (though he continued to appear on television in specially-written roles), illustrated not a comic aplomb he might have developed elsewhere, but surprising dramatic chops. Before, when he had tried this he had been accused of being a lightweight punching above his weight when he attempted to be serious, so it was rather poignant that in one of his final movies he should prove his worth in that field as his Bannister character slides into terror-fuelled depression. Fox really sold these scenes, and made the turn from humour to something far more grave (pun intended) all the more convincing.
It could have come across like two halves of a film awkwardly joined together, but if the transition between them was almost purposefully spiky, as if Ghostbusters had switched horses midstream to transform into a horror sequel to Badlands, then that was what offered the work its genuinely unusual, though more than simply quirky, personality. Bannister may be an authentic psychic, but he is a charlatan who uses actual ghosts to stage poltergeist hauntings so he can pretend to solve them, yet after a while what was a rather flippant plot device is deepened when the grim reaper spectre killing off the townsfolk is linked to the tragedy in Bannister's past which gave him his powers.
Add in shocker favourite Jeffrey Combs as a crazed FBI agent, matching the nuttiness of the effects with sheer force of acting, John Astin as one of the spooks sporting very impressive Rick Baker makeup, and Trini Alvarado as the love interest who more than proves her worth when the reaper comes after her, among other neat character performers, and you had a kidding but oddly revealing commentary on the cult of the serial killer and the rivalry it could exacerbate which doubled as a high octane rollercoaster ride which just happened to revel in its protagonist's emotional suffering to get him through his torment and out the other side. As a study of grief, The Frighteners was hard to take in many ways when it indulged in showy morbidity, yet in others it was unexpectedly sharp-witted and lucid. Pretty busy, then, and not quite like anything else, which may explain why it took a while to catch on, if it ever did. Music by Danny Elfman.
Hugely talented New Zealand director best known today for his Lord of the Rings adaptations. Started out making inventive, entertaining gore comedies like Bad Taste and Braindead, while his adult Muppet-spoof Meet the Feebles was a true one-off. Jackson's powerful murder drama Heavenly Creatures was his breakthrough as a more 'serious' filmmaker, and if horror comedy The Frighteners was a bit of a disappoinment, then his epic The Lord Of The Rings trilogy - Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King were often breathtaking interpretations of Tolkien's books. 2005's blockbuster King Kong saw Jackson finally realise his dream of updating his all-time favourite film, but literary adaptation The Lovely Bones won him little respect. In 2012 he returned to Middle Earth with the three-part epic The Hobbit.