I love the mainstream, popular, and critically acclaimed films as much as the next person. The last thing I’d consider myself is a cinematic snob. But there are times when a truly amazing movie slips into—and out of—theaters without much buzz before fading into obscurity. So I’d like to bring a few of those gems back into the light and remind you that sometimes the blockbusters aren’t the only films that can give you plenty of bang for your buck.
Before Peter Jackson was synonymous with Lord of the Rings, he cut his directing eye-teeth on horror. And by far the most polished of his earlier schlock-fests is 1996’s The Frighteners.
In the foggy town of Fairwater a strange heart condition has claimed the lives of thirty seemingly healthy people. As the death toll grows and the town sees more than its fair share of funerals, psychic detective/con artist Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) starts to wonder if there isn’t something more sinister afoot.
A con artist he may be, but Frank isn’t lying about his psychic abilities: following a car crash and the death of his wife several years ago, Frank discovered he could see and talk to ghosts. But years of bitterness and guilt—he naturally blames himself for what happened to his wife—have left him cynical and opportunistic. Aided by ghostly assistants Cyrus (Chi McBride), Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and The Judge (John Astin), Frank masterminds fake hauntings in order to bilk desperate customers with phony exorcisms.
But when Frank starts seeing glowing, ghostly numbers on the foreheads of people marked for death, witnesses a demonic Grim Reaper in the act, and finds himself attracted to a pretty grieving widow, Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado), things start getting serious. The consummate con artist suddenly realizes he wants to do good by the people of Fairwater and stop the ghostly killer before anyone else dies.
Of course, Frank’s gonna have some hurdles to clear. His swindling ways are well-documented by the press, the soon-to-be-victims refuse to take him seriously, and a very intense FBI agent named Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) is determined to pin the deaths on him.
And then there’s Lucy’s unusual patient, Patricia Ann Bradley (Dee Wallace), a wild-eyed shut-in with an overbearing elderly mother and a sordid past. It seems that when Patricia was fifteen she fell in love with a psychopathic orderly named Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), who went on a killing spree in her father’s sanatorium back in the 60s. Bartlett was executed decades ago, and Patricia spent most of her life in prison as an accessory after the fact—but for the last few years she’s lived with her mother in the sprawling family house, where some very strange things are happening…
Anyone familiar with Jackson’s early movies, or New Zealand, will recognize that the town of Fairwater is actually not American in the slightest: it’s the Kiwi capital of Wellington. The frequent rain, grey fog, and winding roads lend themselves perfectly to a horror story. And the foreboding Bradley house is none other than Lionel Cosgrove’s house in Jackson’s earlier film, Braindead, where the bloodiest scene in movie history (featuring hundreds of zombies and a lawnmower) took place.
Speaking of atmosphere: Frank’s half-finished dream home on the hill, left to rot and ruin in the wake of his wife’s death, would be pretty spooky even if it wasn’t full of ghosts. There’s a very Beetlejuice-vibe in the visuals of The Frighteners, an interesting mixture of Gothic shivers and cartoon-y imagery and characters. This is only emphasized by the Danny Elfman score and the ghostly special effects from the WETA Workshop.
And the special effects are pretty damn impressive for 1996, with the Grim Reaper killer frequently melting into tar-like ooze, the ghosts all properly dripping with ectoplasm and falling to pieces when they’re not shape-shifting or walking through objects, and all manner of things and people flying through the air.
As a whole, The Frighteners is a horror comedy that skews more towards humor than outright terror, but there are still some suspenseful sequences and genuinely emotional moments. Michael J. Fox has long been America’s sweetheart, and for good reason: few have puppy eyes quite so endearing, or can make even con artists likable. His Frank Bannister is a complicated guy—a bit of an asshole, definitely jaded, but under it all very caring and wounded. If your heart doesn’t squeeze just a little when Lucy is comforting Frank in jail, you probably don’t have one.
Besides Fox’s stellar performance there’s genre icon Jeffrey Combs as the wonderfully unhinged and spastic Dammers, a weirdo of the first degree and far stranger than any of the ghosts. With his Hitler haircut, tendency to vomit when women raise their voices, and obsessions with cults and the paranormal—most of his personality tics ad-libbed or suggested by Combs himself—he makes a colorful foil to our psychic hero.
Then you’ve got the ever fantastic Chi McBride as the Afro-ed and fast-talking ghost assistant Cyrus, the original Gomez Addams as The Hanging Judge, and the best-known drill sergeant in the world, R. Lee Ermey, as the perpetually riled and ghostly Sgt. Hiles.
And we absolutely can’t forget Dee Wallace, one of horror’s greatest Scream Queens, as the frantic Patricia or Jake Busey as the sociopathic Johnny Bartlett. I always say: when you need someone to play crazy, you can’t go wrong with a Busey. (You just can’t trust those teeth and eyes.)
With obsessed FBI agents, psychic visions, ghosts and murders galore, and a dash of humor and romance, it’s a madcap, action-laced film from start to finish. And what a finish—given how much fun The Frighteners is to watch, they must’ve had a helluva time making it. Thus far, this is still Michael J. Fox’s last feature film (excepting Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, for which he only provided a voice-over), which is a real shame for those of us who’ve always loved his work. But there’s some comfort in knowing he at least made a wise choice with his last role, and went out on such a high note.
The Frighteners is a film that I love to re-watch at least once a year—the Halloween season just doesn’t feel right without Frank Bannister and his ghostly friends. But don’t feel like you have to wait months to check it out: any night is a good night for some Peter Jackson-flavored horror comedy.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.