Sick of the Halloween hype yet? I hope not, because the month is only half over and the vault’s got plenty of fun fare waiting for induction! Today’s selection is special because it is the first of Peter Jackson’s film I saw before the Lord of the Rings trilogy made him a household name.
Fairwater is plagued by death. In the past five years nearly thirty residents have died from a mysterious heart disease and decades before this grim medical phenomenon beset the town, orderly Johnny Charles Bartlett (Jake Busey) and his lover Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace) became famous for murdering twelve people in just under half-an-hour at the psychiatric hospital. It’s the perfect burg for Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), architect-turned-psychic investigator, to offer his specialized services. Though Bannister can actually communicate with the dead, he uses his friendship with the ghosts Cyrus (Chi McBride), Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and the Judge (John Astin) to instead con trusting people. But when his abilities forewarn of death’s next victim, he teams up with physician Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) to uncover the Grim Reaper’s fascination with this quaint town.
Though The Frighteners quickly faded into obscurity when it was released in the summer of 1996, the story, penned by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, is one that deserves your attention. It’s rich with twists and turns, humorous antics and frightful imagery and yet the intricate plot still supplies substantial backstory for its main characters. One could argue the story has too much going on; there are moments where I questioned a plot point or an aspect that seems to contradict earlier details. The Frighteners is intriguing and entertaining enough to set nitpicking aside.
Speaking of nitpicking, the Weta Digital CGI hasn’t aged as well, but the imagery is still imaginative. Bannister’s ghost buddies provide the amusing slapstick visuals like Stuart being diced and sucked into a car motor and out the exhaust. The ominous Soul Collector is imposing; he glides underneath wallpaper and carpet as he attacks his victims. The ghosts’ prosthetic makeup is quite amazing, especially that of the Judge.
Bannister has a tragic past which has led not only to his newfound abilities, but to his reclusive lifestyle and distasteful occupation. His past makes him as much a suspect as a hero, especially in the eyes of Special Agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs). Combs imbues Dammers with a good mix of buffoonery and peculiarity. Fox slips in a bit of Marty McFly into Bannister’s furious attempts to stop the Soul Collector, but also conveys the emotions of a man haunted by his past. Dee Wallace’s portrayal of the completely mental Patricia is eerily convincing. McBride, Fyfe and Astin chew up the scenery despite their transparent roles, though R. Lee Ermey’s turn as the graveyard protector Sgt. Hiles takes the cake.
Humor, horror, tragedy, redemption. Crazy folks, wacky ghosts, faceless phantoms. The Frighteners may seem like it has a little bit of everything, but it definitely has more than enough charm to captivate your attention for a couple hours.