[Deep Focus]
THE FRIGHTENERS
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Jackson and Frances Walsh
Edited by Jamie Selkirk
Starring Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, and Jeffrey Combs
USA, 1996

GRADE: B+


Here's the pitch: New Zealand-based iconoclast Peter Jackson (Braindead, Heavenly Creatures) hooks up with tinseltown golden boy Robert Zemeckis and perennial smart-ass Michael J. Fox and tries to fit his very twisted sensibility into the mainstream American groove with his $30 million SFX-driven horror-comedy extravaganza The Frighteners. Subplot: Jackson tries to work within the Hollywood machine without getting his soul sucked in and torn up between the cogs. Cliffhanger: Does he come out alive?

Hell, yeah.

The Frighteners, a horror comedy that steals its ideas from Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, and Natural Born Killers and then runs them through the blender, is as big and brazen in its quest to entertain you as any summer blockbuster. Peter Jackson has always been a terrific entertainer, giving his all even when he was struggling through the no-budget shooting of his own Independence Day, an amazingly gross alien invasion picture called (accurately enough) Bad Taste. Jackson followed up with Meet the Feebles, an almost inexcusably tasteless riff on The Muppet Show that hit its stride in a climax featuring the grotesque puppets exploding in clouds of blood as one of the main characters goes postal with some heavy weaponry. His next film, Braindead (shortened and released in the U.S. as Dead Alive), was more than a quantum leap forward in terms of style and comic timing -- it was unquestionably the single goriest film ever made.

Horror fans were split on the film's virtues, with Evil Dead 2 fans claiming that Sam Raimi mined that turf first, but to this viewer's eyes there's a lot more going on in Braindead (for what it's worth, Jackson began developing his style with Bad Taste, which was more or less contemporaneous with the second Evil Dead picture). But I think it's foolish to argue with the follow-up, Heavenly Creatures, which seemed almost to have come out of nowhere. An exuberant and chilling picture whose impact is amplified on repeated viewings, Heavenly Creatures is a rare contemporary masterwork that creates and inhabits its own exiliharating, terrifying cinematic world. (When Sam Raimi turns in a similarly bewitching piece of work, I'll take another look at Evil Dead 2.)

Heavenly Creatures didn't exactly take the states by storm, but it was impressive enough that Jackson was offered the job of directing the spec script he and partner Frances Walsh had written for a big(ger) budget Hollywood-style picture. He convinced Universal to let him shoot the picture in New Zealand (which bears little resemblance to the movie's California setting), and had his crack team of FX wizards churn out some of the most beautiful, brain-boggling cgi work yet accomplished. Even though the main attraction of The Frighteners is a bunch of translucent ghosts, Jackson infuses those scenes with a physical oomph that was sorely missing in, say, From Dusk Till Dawn.

Fox plays Frank Bannister, an architect whose life fell to pieces after his wife died in a car wreck. So traumatic was the experience that Frank now has a window on the afterlife -- he can see and speak to ghosts. A guy's got to make a living, and Frank makes his by sending his friendly spooks to "haunt" residents in Fairwater, California. The ghosts tear up the joint and drop Frank's business card. When the mark calls him, Frank shows up with a ghost detector and a pistol full of holy water, and exorcises the spirits. The ghosts are never heard from again, and Frank makes a few bucks to put toward work on his never-completed dream house.

The problem starts when Frank learns to his horror that Fairwater is being haunted by a ghost who's not his friend -- this one's a malevolent, cloaked apparition who leaps through town from rooftop to rooftop, reaches into the chests of his victims and squeezes their hearts until they burst, and then carves a number into their foreheads. The story as it unfolds has something to do with the abandoned Fairwater Sanitarium, an old haunted mansion where a woman keeps her daughter locked up, and a string of serial killings from years past. Needless to say, Frank is the only person in all of Fairwater who can put an end to the scythe-wielding spirit's rampage.

The performances are mostly adequate, nothing more. Jackson coaxes his actors into servicable caricatures, but allows Fox free rein to pretty much be himself. The problem is that Fox trades on understatement in a movie that's all about overstatement -- I like him fine, but this picture needs a more energetic presence. Trini Alvarado, who believes in Frank's abilities even after a local newspaper reports on his scam, is fine, even though you wonder what happened to the romantic subplot that might have added value to her scenes with Fox. (I keep hearing how much she looks like Andie McDowell in this movie, but I honestly don't find her nearly as irritating). Jeffrey Combs, of Re-Animator fame, is a stand-out as Milton, the FBI agent who specializes in paranormal psychology. When he first shows up, in a scene that has him peeking fervently around corners, sizing up the pipsqueak Fox (Milton's theory is that Fox is the real killer), you get the very palpable sense that here, finally, is someone Jackson can really work with.

The more idiosyncracies, the better, as far as this movie is concerned -- The Frighteners is at its dullest during a long midsection featuring an awful lot of plot exposition. Spectacularly unfunny are Frank's ghost pals, who are kitsch stereotypes from someone else's movie -- the geek, the judge, and the righteous brothah. Still, it's fascinating to watch these ghoulish constructs in motion. The judge's midriff is completely missing, the skin is peeling away from his skull, and parts of his body tend to slip out of his skin (talk about jaw-dropping effects work). By far the best character, the judge also catalyzes the film's most tasteless (and most undeniably Jacksonian) gag, which involves sex with a mummy and is punctuated with a casually perverse punchline.

When the movie cranks into high gear for its extended denouement, it's clear that Jackson is better at slam-bang filmmaking than just about anyone working in the field. The only director I can think of who reaches this level of exuberance with any regularity is Jackie Chan, whose comedies suffer from a similar episodic structure of set piece after set piece -- but what set pieces! There's a style and confidence in the long climactic sequence demonstrating that Jackson knows exactly what he's doing, cutting back and forth not just in geographic space, but in time as well. No ordinary flashbacks here, Jackson's backstory shares screen time with the narrative in The Frighteners' most crucial scenes. Finally, having pulled out all the stops, Jackson takes his story completely out of this world, with an ending so cornball that it's oddly touching.

Too often, action pictures stumble and fall stupidly in their final minutes, when it becomes obvious that the director has simply run out of ideas, or can't top the breathless pace the film set early on. But The Frighteners is a good old-fashioned thrill ride -- the kind that actually gets better and more inventive as it goes along. It's no Heavenly Creatures, and I don't even think it's Braindead, but it proves that Jackson can play Hollywood's game, and he can bring it in cheaper than the Hollywood players.

Coming soon: Jackson's mammoth take on Lord of the Rings (a planned remake of King Kong for Universal fell through). If Jackson fails with this project, he'll fail spectacularly -- but at least we'll have the satisfaction of watching him try.


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