Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, a small-town “ghostbuster” in league with the very spirits he’s supposed to be exorcising. The scam works well until a powerful spirit goes on a murderous rampage, forcing Frank to find a way to stop the diabolical ghoul in this special-effects-packed supernatural chiller that’s so fiendishly entertaining, it’s frightening!
eyelights: Michael J. Fox, John Astin, Dee Wallace, Danny Elfman
eyesores: mid-’90s CGI
Wow. What a difference a decade and 14 minutes make!
I first saw ‘The Frighteners’ some ten years ago, after becoming enamoured with Peter Jackson’s ‘Heavenly Creatures’. Unfortunately, I was left quite indifferent with this one; I found it okay, but no more.
Now, however, perhaps due to my evolving tastes, or due to Jackson’s new cut of the film (which includes extra footage which was excised or excluded for various reasons), I was almost completely thrilled by the picture, a supernatural comedy-thriller of the best kind.
I honestly didn’t even remember the tremendous murder mystery part of ‘The Frighteners”. My only recollection was of a goofy Michael J. Fox film with silly ghosts and lots of effects. It’s as if I had only watched half the film, and skipped the rest of it.
Because, indeed, the first part of the picture is sillier, focusing more on Fox’ kooky scam artist, a “ghost buster” who plants ghosts in people’s homes (along with a convenient business card) to then come to their rescue with his hilariously dubious devices.
But the movie eventually morphs into a supernatural thriller, a race against time, as Fox and Lucy (played by Trini Alvarado), the surviving spouse of one of the victims, try to prevent further killings from taking place. It gets quite intense, with much conflict and running about quickening the pace considerably.
It’s, quite frankly, a MUCH better film than I had remembered (from my recollection, I would have given it a 6.5 or perhaps -perhaps- a 6.75). The only problem with it, accounting for the lower grade, is the middle section which suddenly becomes too manic and illogical for my taste.
From the moment that Fox’ character gets detained by the police, it seems to devolve into a convoluted mess for a little while, stretching the boundaries of reason:
-Why would Fox’ character act the way he did when he found out that the newspaper editor was a target? Wasn’t he making an unnecessary fuss and rightly scaring the pants off of her?
-How could the police trust the deranged FBI agent over Fox (or at all, even)? He’s so damned scary and chill-inducing that, if I had been the Police Chief, I would probably ostracize him on purpose.
-How could Fox and Lucy escape the prison cell, given that they were locked in with the Grim Reaper? Oh sure, they had help, but this very help actually let the Grim Reaper in in the first place!
-How moronic is Fox’s character to think that he could just shoot himself in the head to go fight the Grim Reaper? This is blatantly ridiculous and I could not believe that scene one bit.
-How utterly insane is the idea of putting Fox into deep freeze so that he could die for a short while, basically cryogenically putting him under?
Thankfully, after this muddled part, ‘The Frighteners’ picks up and focuses on the frights. From then onward we get close to the killer(s) and the mystery unfolds before our eyes, helped along by Jackson’s ground-breaking CGI work, which takes us back and forth between the real world and the ghost worlds that Fox’ character can see and experience. Excellent stuff.
Sadly, much of the CGI work is extremely dated. We are talking 1995-1996, here, when CGI was still in development. Admittedly, Jackson’s WETA Digital is a fantastic outfit, and they were likely the best in the world then, but things have evolved dramatically since. So, unfortunately, much of the CGI stuff looks like stretched cellophane; it doesn’t look realistic at all.
But there is so much of it that it’s easy to accept it for what it is, much like one would with the dated optical effects of older films. And it serves the picture beautifully: it was all done to enhance the film – it doesn’t exist just for the sake of it, like in so many modern films. At least ‘The Frighteners’ is buoyed by a solid script and some excellent casting choices.
For instance, there’s the pick of Michael J. Fox as the lead. I remember the stigma attached to him back then, after so many lackluster efforts, and this was a deterrent in seeing the film for me. I mean, for the most part, Michael J. Fox is Michael J. Fox. Even here. He reminds me of Marty McFly if he had become a failure (so, basically, a credible version of the adult Marty McFly from Back to the Future – part 2). Sounds like I’m criticising, but actually, I now find him almost essential to the picture; I can imagine very few others in his place. So he was a nice choice.
There’s also the casting of John Astin as The Judge. Astin only has a small part, and I remember not caring for it at the time, but I savoured it this time around, knowing full well that this was Gomez Addams dressed up as a ghost. I love John Astin: he’s such a quirky character, what with that extremely expressive face, his maniacal eyes and that $#!t-eating grin. (when I grow up, I want to be insane-looking like John Astin! Mind you, I’d be happy just being Gomez Addams: nutty and loveable)
Dee Wallace Stone was as breathtaking as usual, even though she is made plain, beat up, and worn down. She’s not the best actor in the world, but she brings a grounded, natural quality to all her parts which very few manage. I don’t know how she does it, but she always feels real, like they grabbed someone off the street and put that person in a fictional setting. There’s just something homey and beautiful about her, despite her sometimes seemingly emotionally-congested delivery.
Then there’s Jake Busey, who is not worth a damned as an actor, but who gives off such a creepy vibe that he was completely suited for his part as a demented serial killer. Granted, he’s over-the-top most of the time, and one might feel compelled to smack him around to get that look out of his eyes and shut his big mouth shut, but since he’s playing an unhinged murderer, it actually works quite well.
I should note that the whole film is deftly supported by Danny Elfman’s score. I have tired of Elfman, much like I have grown weary of John Williams: it seems to me that most of his themes and score resemble one another and the freshness that was one inherent to his compositions are now gone, leaving staleness in its place. But not in ‘The Frighteners’. While it’s not quite as delicate and gorgeous as his ‘Edward Scissorhands’, the music here is the nearest to it in all his oeuvre. It’s excellent.
All this to say that ‘The Frighteners’ is actually a pretty good picture, overall. It could have been better, especially if the CGI and the mid-section were improved, but it’s nonetheless a blast. I’d say that it nestles itself somewhere amidst the works of Sam Raimi and Tim Burton when they’re at their mischievous best. I’d definitely recommend this one to fans of ‘Beetlejuice‘ and ‘Drag Me To Hell‘. ‘The Frighteners’ is a kooky, spooky good time.
Date of viewing: September 19, 2012