In July 1996, Universal released a little film called The Frighteners directed by one Peter Jackson and starring Michael J. Fox. Despite generally positive reviews, the film was a flop at the box office, scoring just $29.3 million against a $26 million budget.
Too bad, because The Frighteners is actually pretty great, and actually foreshadows Jackson’s filmmaking genius.
For those unaware, here’s the plot synopsis: “Once an architect, Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) now passes himself off as an exorcist of evil spirits. To bolster his facade, he claims his “special” gift is the result of a car accident that killed his wife. But what he does not count on is more people dying in the small town where he lives. As he tries to piece together the supernatural mystery of these killings, he falls in love with the wife (Trini Alvarado) of one of the victims and deals with a crazy FBI agent (Jeffrey Combs).”
It’s weird to think there was a time when Peter Jackson’s name was only uttered amongst diehard cinephiles. His body of work pre-Frighteners consisted of films such as Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Dead Alive, Heavenly Creatures and the TV movie Forgotten Silver, which is why so many people scratched their heads when he was announced as director on The Lord of the Rings. Peter who? And yet, Jackson’s horror sensibilities are exactly what made him the perfect man to helm J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels, as he leans into the grimy, violent, supernatural Middle Earth with infectious glee, and perfectly blends fantasy, gothic and adventure into one spectacular whole.
Re-watching any of Jackson’s pre-LOTR work post-LOTR is a fascinating exercise because all of his pics, right down to the gleefully disgusting Braindead, feature elements that would creep up during Sam and Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring of Power.
In the case of The Frighteners, Jackson’s affinity for whacky, Sam Raimi-esque shots, over-the-top violence and dark humor is on full display, as his is panache for creatively blending unique visual FX with live action ala Robert Zemeckis (who serves as producer here).
Check out the opening scene, which features Dee Wallace Stone running from a psychotic demon:
I love the extreme angles, the wild closeups and cartoony nature of this sequence, which owes as much to Looney Tunes as it does George Romero and Sam Raimi. Sure, the FX are quite dated, but since a majority of the mayhem features practical props — dishes, shelves, etc. — and is designed around Dee Wallace Stone’s frenetic performance, the bit still works as a solid, attention-grabbing intro.
Later, in one of the film’s best scenes, Frank crosses over into the spirit realm to do battle with the demon while Trini Alvarado’s Lucy deals with Jeffrey Combs’ insane Milton Dammers in the real world.
Jackson’s love affair with spooks, specters, and ghosts has no equal; and the spirits in The Frighteners very much resemble the Army of the Dead in Return of the King. And yeah, the Grim Reaper-styled antagonist wields a massive scythe, displaying the director’s fondness for oversized, cartoonish weapons.
There are other great sequences in which Jackson uses humor as a means to set up scares. In this bit, Frank pokes around a bathroom searching for the demon while a nervous bystander watches with confusion.
The admittedly mild jump scare only works because the moment literally slices through the lighthearted nature of the scene — a simple, though effective, technique Jackson would utilize in Fellowship of the Ring during the Hobbits’ first encounter with a Ringwraith.
“A Shortcut to Mushrooms” scene begins in a cheery upbeat manner, but quickly gives way to outright horror as the Ringwraith stalks our tiny heroes. Again, a simple tonal shift goes a long way in creating tension for the audience.
Much like LOTR, The Frighteners also features a very distinct battle between good and evil. Frank has his problems, sure, but he’s very much a good guy in need of personal redemption, while the villains of the piece — Patricia Bradley and Johnny Bartlett — are horrifying monsters with zero redeeming characteristics. That makes it easier to swallow their terrifying end at the story’s climax:
The Frighteners also features a number of deliciously theatrical characters, none more memorable than Special Agent Milton Dammers, who behaves like a cross between Jim Carrey and Grima Wormtongue from The Two Towers.
That scene is wild. What could have been a painful exposition dump is given so much life thanks to Jeffrey Combs’ scene-stealing performance and Jackson’s manic camerawork. Similarly, Fellowship of the Ring opens with a history lesson that could have felt dry and longwinded if not for Jackson’s decision to intermix large scale spectacle into Cate Blanchett’s dialogue.
Actually, a better example might be the opening to Return of the King, which successfully blends all of Jackson’s techniques — jarring tonal shifts, over-the-top violence, extreme camerawork, memorable characters — into one thrilling sequence that perfectly reveals Gollum’s tragic backstory whilst simultaneously setting the tone for the intense journey that lies ahead.
Anyways, 25-years later, The Frighteners remains far from perfect. After a solid 90 or so minutes, the film goes a little too zany in its final reel; and the ending in which Frank goes to Heaven is not nearly as enchanting as it thinks it is.
Still, as a wild horror comedy, The Frighteners entertains largely due to Jackson’s solid directing and the impressive-for-the-mid-90s FX. If anything, one can appreciate the film for the role it played in Jackson’s historic filmmaking legacy.