In my opinion, The Frighteners (1996), directed by Peter Jackson and co-written with his wife, Fran Walsh, is easily one of the most underrated movies out there. I’m a big fan of Michael J. Fox (Who isn’t, right?), and I remember watching this years ago with The Husband and just loving it. The story is different, there is great acting, and it has Jackson’s hand all over the film.
Fox plays Frank Bannister. Frank was once a gifted architect, now a con man looking to do one thing – make money to finish the dream home he started building for his wife before her death. The twist here is that Frank can actually see ghosts, and he has a few that work with him. They pick a family member of a recently deceased person and “haunt” them, until they have to call on Frank to “exorcise” the ghosts. Not a bad gig, right? I mean, sure it’s a little shady, but a guy’s got to make a living! And then enter the lovely Lucy (Trini Alvarado), a recent widow that, for some reason, never doubts Frank’s ability.
Let me interject here, Fox plays the tortured soul very well in this movie. Despair and heartache are plainly visible on his face, and he and Alvarado have great chemistry. Though the love story is rushed, they are great on screen together.
Note: There are potential spoilers throughout this review, so you may want to stop here and return after watching the movie.
The story is rich with details, so follow closely:
A few years ago, Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey) and his fifteen year old girlfriend, Patricia (Dee Wallace-Stone; No, not as fifteen year old Pattie, adult Pattie!), went on a killing spree at the hospital at which her father worked. Apparently, Pattie’s role in the killings was called into question, so only Johnny got the death penalty.
Fast forward, people are dying, mysteriously. It looks like a heart attack, yet when an autopsy is performed, nothing – clean as a whistle. But Frank knows a little detail that others don’t. Each of the victims has a number on their head – just like the victims of the hospital murders.
See, Johnny and Pattie were obsessed with serial killers. Their goal was to go down with the most murders, hence the numbers carved on their victims foreheads. Well, Johnny wasn’t happy with having his work interrupted by his execution, so he found a way back and continued racking up victims.
Jackson did a good job with the casting of Dee Wallace-Stone. Hello! The mom from E.T.? Who would suspect her? And Dee rocked as Patricia – just as doomed and demented as Johnny. For the majority of the movie, I never suspected she was truly an accomplice to the killings. Instead, I accepted her for what she appeared to be – a troubled woman trying to be as small as she can be when faced with an overbearing mother. Of course, then we find out that perhaps Pattie’s mom understood more than she let on and was keeping her daughter under lock and key for good reason.
A lot happens in this movie, and most of it is enjoyable, but for me the real fun in this movie was Frank’s ghostly assistants, played by Chi McBride, John Astin, and Jim Fyfe. The rapport between the four of them was hilarious.
When I think of horror, I won’t say that this movie is the first to come to mind, but what I enjoy about this film is that, for the most part, it’s family friendly. I wouldn’t hesitate to sit down with our ten and six year old to watch this movie. I don’t think younger kids are going to pick up on all the details of the storyline, but I think they’ll enjoy the ghosts (especially the ghost dog that carries around a human jaw) and the flying babies (just watch the movie!).
I loved the look of the movie as well. There was something very whimsical about the setting, and when you remember that this is a Peter Jackson film, you immediately get that. The lush rolling hills, the bright yet subdued colors (does that make sense?), and the over-the-top characters all seem to fit and make sense in this world that Jackson brings to life.
There are some great scenes (one with Fox and R. Lee Ermey comes to mind), and though there are some horror elements, I wouldn’t necessarily say this is scary. Rather what this film does is something not many can pull off well – it creates a movie that is both engaging to adults and children, and weaves together the horrifying with the whimsical. Personally, I can’t think of many movies that are able to do that successfully. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory maybe?
4 1/2 ghostly apparitions out of five.