Universal // 1996 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // October 24th, 2011
"Death is amongst us"
The general population may think of director Peter Jackson as "that Lord of the Rings guy," but film geeks know that he had a career long before he set foot on Middle Earth. The New Zealand director made his bones with low-budget horror flicks Bad Taste and Dead Alive, both infamous for their over-the-top gore. It was the success of his first mainstream effort, Heavenly Creatures, that gave Jackson his first chance at a big-budget Hollywood film.
Produced by Robert Zemeckis and starring Michael J. Fox, offbeat ghost story The Frighteners is largely remembered these days as Jackson's last film before the fantasy trilogy that made him famous. That's too bad, because even though it exists in a weird middle ground between the two halves of Jackon's career, there's a lot of spooky fun to be had in both the theatrical and director's cut versions of the film available on The Frighteners: 15th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray).
Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is a psychic investigator who employs real-life spirits to con the living. With the help of deceased disco king Cyrus (Chi McBride, Pushing Daisies), expired poindexter Stuart (Jim Fyfe, Moonlight Mile), and a decomposing cowpoke named The Judge (John Astin, The Addams Family), Frank creates the hauntings he swoops in to get rid of. Things get complicated for Frank when he starts investigating a series of mysterious deaths. Among the victims, the husband of a young doctor (Trini Alvarado, Little Women), who joins forces with Frank to find and stop the ghostly killer.
For all the focus on vampires and zombies these days, there's something satisfying about a good old fashioned ghost story. Not that anything Peter Jackson does can be called old fashioned. His oddball sensibilities are present in every aspect of The Frighteners, from his decision to shoot the movie in New Zealand despite its supposedly being set in Northern California to the characters and outlandish special effects.
The Frighteners starts with a nifty premise about a self-styled ghost buster who uses the dead to fleece the living. Michael J. Fox's amoral Frank steals the film. His performance bridges New Zealand and Hollywood sensibilities, giving mainstream appeal to Peter Jackson's surreal vision. The film also has a compelling mystery, regarding the sudden deaths of otherwise healthy people, that builds to a thrilling climax. Unfortunately, that mystery gets lost in a flabby middle act that shifts focus to unnecessary subplots and side characters.
Some of those characters are fun on their own but slow down the film's pacing. The twisted FBI agent Dammers (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) might be the most Jacksonian of the film's characters, but his single-minded obsession with Frank derails the plot. Other characters overstay their welcome. Lucy's lunkhead husband Ray (Peter Dobson, Forrest Gump) provides comic relief early on, but can't take a hint when it's time to move on. Then there are the ghosts. Frank's paranormal counterparts, played by Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe, are memorable comic creations on their own, but their scenes with Fox never feel right due to the limitations of having to shoot the actors separately to achieve the ghostly effects. Only John Astin's jawbone-jutting Judge somehow manages to avoid this disconnect.
The Frighteners' other big problem is its soft R rating. Jackson and his life/writing partner Fran Walsh are at their best when anything goes, as it does in their indie films. The switch over to a big studio brings with it a more reserved take on violence and gore. This movie has its subversive moments, and the final sequence is a spooky free-for-all, but compared to Jackson's earlier films, The Frighteners feels toothless.
Even with the toned down violence, the movie is more success than failure thanks to the energy Jackson brings to the direction and story. The camera is in constant motion, swooping in on characters like a cloaked figure stalking in the night. He shows the same talent for staging and editing complex action sequences as he does in The Lord of the Rings films, albeit on a smaller scale. Even though Jackson and Walsh's screenplay sometimes wanders off course, it's still full of imaginative and original ideas.
After a brief stop on the now defunct HD-DVD format, The Frighteners comes to Blu-ray with a satisfying 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. Color, contrast, and detail are all excellent, although the sharp visuals come at the expense of noticeable edge enhancement visible mainly in outdoor sequences. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is a powerhouse, balancing Danny Elfman's bombastic score with swirling surround effects and dialogue that manages to stay clear despite overly aggressive bass.
The Frighteners' CGI effects might not look as impressive in 2001 as they did in 1996, but they marked an important step forward for movies. When Peter Jackson co-founded Weta Digital to create the effects for Heavenly Creatures he didn't know it would become one of the biggest and best effects houses in the business. That transition began during The Frighteners, when Weta added computers and employees to handle all the CGI shots. Jackson also couldn't have known that the extensive behind-the-scenes footage he shot during the making of the film would find a welcome home on digital media formats that hadn't yet been released.
As he explains in the introduction to the nearly four hour making-of documentary included on the Blu-ray, Jackson shot the footage with the small laserdisc audience in mind. Little did he know how important bonus features would be once DVD became the dominant home video format. Whatever inspired the effort, his obsessive documentation of his first big studio production paid off. The massive documentary includes sections on script development, casting, special effects, filming in New Zealand, blue screen effects, deleted scenes, music, and long sections of raw footage included as a window into the filming process.
The other big bonus feature included on the Blu-ray is a commentary track Jackson recorded for the longer, director's cut version of the film. Like the making-of feature, the commentary has been ported over from earlier releases. Still, it's a fun and informative track, full of the infectious enthusiasm that Jackson brought to making the film.
Rounding out the extras is an introduction to the director's cut that Jackson recorded for the 10th anniversary DVD; and a 45-minute featurette covering the storyboarding process, including Jackson narrating several sequences.
The Frighteners exists somewhere between the two halves of Peter Jackson's career, both in style and quality. It isn't his best film, but what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in twisted fun. Mainstream audiences might not have been ready to see this side of Jackson, but The Frighteners was, at the very least, a stepping stone to greater things. Without this film, we wouldn't have The Lord of the Rings, or a Weta studio big enough to work on Hollywood heavyweights like Avatar or Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Jackson's love for his work is as evident in this overstuffed Blu-ray as it is in the movie itself. Fans have plenty to dig into here, though the standard-definition bonus features are repeated from earlier releases. The double, triple, or quadruple dip might not be for everyone, but it's the definitive version for those who haven't yet experienced The Frighteners in high definition.
This BOO-ray is not GHOSTLY!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Version
* Pocket Blu
* D-Box Enabled