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‘The Frighteners’ 20 Years Later

On July 19, 1996, Universal released Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners into U.S. theaters. Originally intended as a Tales from the Crypt film to be directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), Zemeckis eventually decided that Jackson should direct it as a standalone horror-comedy. Now twenty years later, let’s have a look at how it’s held up.

The goal was to release the film with a PG-13 rating to better compete with July’s summer blockbusters but the MPAA stamped The Frighteners with an R. And though you’re most likely familiar with his work now, the average American hadn’t heard of Peter Jackson in ’96. The New Zealand filmmaker didn’t start working on The Lord of the Rings until ’97. Furthermore, The Frighteners only had one household name as a main player, which wasn’t enough to lure audiences away from Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. On its debut weekend, The Frighteners opened in fifth place.

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But after The Lord of the Rings happened and Jackson came back to Universal for King Kong, the studio decided to release Jackson’s preferred cut of The Frighteners on DVD. The film received a grand reappraisal then, finding a new audience with horror fans who may have missed it back in ’96. While it wasn’t a critical dud upon its initial release, it’s regarded by many as a charming cult gem. 20 years after its theatrical release, has The Frighteners aged well?

After revisiting the theatrical cut, I’m tempted to say no. But there is so much about the film that still works beautifully. The absolute best thing about The Frighteners is its premise: Paranormally gifted Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) uses his wiles and his ghostly friends (Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, John Astin) to con unwitting homeowners into paying him to fix their poltergeist problems. That was a great idea for a movie in 1996, and it’s an even better idea for a movie today. It could even make a great TV series.

But the film Jackson built around this premise is a rough one. The first act races with unbound energy, packing in an effects-laden opening chase, a heap of exposition, and a handful of breezy character introductions. It weaves a dense setup that doesn’t provide ample time for audiences to settle into the film. Jackson teases an exciting world of ghosts, murderers and mystery, but that first act never gives us a moment to absorb it. There’s a haunting sequence that swiftly recreates some fun gags from Poltergeist, but it trades atmosphere for brevity.

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Luckily, once the second act of the film starts, some breathing room opens up. It’s not much (the film is very lean overall), but we do get some much-needed time to know Frank, Lucy (Trini Alvarado), and Lucy’s newly dead husband, Ray. And though Fox and Alvarado have good chemistry the emotional beats around Ray’s death are grievously mishandled. The rapidly forming romance between Frank and Lucy leaves good storytelling sense behind when Ray’s ghost sees them flirting mere hours after Ray’s funeral. It’s one of the many scenes in which the film chooses to fast-forward through necessary emotional beats or provide the characters with moments they haven’t yet earned.

So while the characters don’t quite get their due they’re at least well cast. Fox plays Bannister with a sense of deep guilt and isolation, avoiding eye contact with nearly everyone until the film’s second half. Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, John Astin, and Jake Busey all deliver memorable performances as ghosts, despite most of their work having been shot separately and composited into the film by Weta Digital. Dee Wallace gives an interesting take on a middle-aged woman stuck in her angsty teen years, and Trini Alvarado holds her own against the film’s standout: Jeffrey Combs.

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Combs, the cult actor behind Re-Animator, gives one of the best performances of his career as weirdo FBI agent Milton Dammers. His fascist costume, Hitler haircut, and black contact lenses make him look more like an SS officer than a federal agent, but they all contribute to making Dammers the film’s most memorable character. Combs’ performance is flawlessly overdone, which is appropriate because Peter Jackson is one of the greatest cinematic overdoers of our time.

An excellent cast is timeless, but shoddy CGI is not. In ’96, newcomers Weta Digital couldn’t match the standard set by companies like ILM whose 3D effects helped make Jurassic Park into a monolith. Weta’s not-quiet-there-yet effects are a big problem for The Frighteners because it’s an ambitious effects film. In a way, it’s even more ambitious than Jurassic Park because it relies much more heavily on computer-generated effects. That’s apparent from the first sequence, in which Jackson takes the infamous “Freddy Krueger In The Wall” gag and turns it into a full-blown Sam Raimi style fright sequence. And while the “wallpaper man” effect doesn’t hold up, the action is at least staged very well. It’s a reminder that Jackson is (or was) a terrific effects filmmaker even when the CGI doesn’t match the quality of his filmmaking.

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But despite its glowing cast, admirably ambitious effects work, and an all-time performance from Jeffrey Combs, The Frighteners hasn’t quite made the jump from cult film to cult classic. As a horror comedy, it doesn’t offer enough laughs or scares. The film’s human drama is undermined by a desire to be a live-action cartoon full of spectral slapstick. But there is so much potential in the premise that if the film were to be remade or the premise turned into a TV show, I’m there. I just hope Jeffrey Combs will be, too.


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