|Review||The Frighteners (1996)||Director||Peter Jackson|
|Writer||Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh|
|Cast||Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans and R. Lee Ermey|
“My body is a road map of pain. And pain has it’s valves” – Milton Dammers
In the town of Fairwater seemingly healthy citizens are dropping like flies due to mysterious and sudden heart conditions. Frank Bannister (Fox), a fake psychic investigator, discovers that an entity resembling the Grim Reaper is literally stopping the hearts of people and carving numbers in their foreheads detailing it’s amount of fatalities. Frank teams up with Lucy (Alvarado), a recently widowed doctor, to put a stop to the killings which may have a big connection to his own wife’s demise in a car accident years before that also inflicted Frank with the ability to communicate with the dead.
Sometimes you get the feeling you’re watching a complete master of the craft weaving his magic on the screen. Director Peter Jackson started with a bang with the extreme low-budget cult splatter fest “Bad Taste” (1987), then “Meet the Feebles (1989) and, still low-budget but very visually impressive, the gonzo “Dead Alive” (1992) that was incredibly entertaining while being utterly repulsive at the same time before delivering the hard hitting drama/thriller “Heavenly Creatures” (1994). Obviously a filmmaker of many talents who’d eventually become best known for his foray into J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” films. But between his beginnings and Middle-earth adventures there was “The Frighteners”; a horror/suspense/comedy hybrid so skillfully made in terms of storytelling, writing, mood and atmosphere, set-pieces, performances and visual style that it’s hard to comprehend why this movie is more of a cult item rather than a bona fide classic.
The film was touted as a special effects extravaganza back when it premiered in ’96 and, incredibly enough, it looks more than solid image wise over a quarter of a century later. Jackson does not rely on visual trickery to create suspense or maintain a creepy mood but rather the effects compliment the storyline perfectly. The script by Jackson and Fran Walsh is really terrific and not only creates a bunch of interesting characters but presents a really suspenseful mystery that unfolds beautifully.
Many horror comedies have trouble with the tonal flow but Jackson effortlessly mixes some dark humor with the macabre storyline. That’s in no small way thanks to an outstanding lead performance by Fox who’s always had a broad comedic streak but also some dramatic chops as well. His excellent sarcastic line delivery coupled with his terrific physical comedy makes him the perfect choice for the film. He’s well supported by McBride, Fyfe and Astin as his ghost sidekicks who aid Frank in his job as a psychic investigator when he needs to create some ghostly happenings.
Dobson is very amusing as Alvarado’s ill fated husband who refuses to move on once he’s been killed. Wallace and Busey are also terrific in their parts. But a complete scene stealer is Jeffrey Combs as Special Agent Milton Dammers. Dammers is also quite an interesting character; an undercover agent who’s more or less been abused his whole working life by being sent to infiltrate all manner of sects and cults and as a result has become a severely damaged individual. Combs’s quirky tendencies are on full display and he completely devours every scene he’s in. I recently watched “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” (1998) where Combs has a rubbish part but even there he manages to impress; so give the guy a meaty role like here and he nails it. In fact I’d love to watch a film where Dammers’s origins and experiences undercover are detailed; he’s that interesting a character.
The film’s pacing and impeccable delivery of rousing set-pieces also make sure that “The Frighteners” is one hell of a ride. At over two hours it never drags and the quiet moments give the actors room to shine with their characters. The film effortlessly switches from fairly comedic to very dark and once the final act commences there are some truly frightening moments to behold. One particularly accomplished scene near the end mixes the past with the present in unnerving ways and from a technical standpoint it’s magnificently achieved. I can’t imagine the scene playing better today despite massive technological improvements since 1996. From a visual standpoint “The Frighteners” is a winner and thanks to all the other things it does so well it emerges as a high point in horror cinema near the turn of the century.
Jackson is one terrific filmmaker and he’s been rightly acknowledged as such. “The Frighteners” has been labeled as a minor accomplishment in his filmography but my hunch is it’s going to have an even longer shelf life than some of his bigger successes.