Universal // 1996 // 123 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // December 12th, 2005
Death is no way to make a living.
Peter Jackson has had one very interesting career. He started out making no-budget splatter films, only to go on to helm one of the most successful cinematic trilogies of all time. His love of genre gore and filmic excess have befuddled critics wondering why someone as gifted as he would languish away in B-grade macabre when he's obviously more skilled than that. Indeed, his oeuvre can be divided into two distinct phases. Bad Taste, Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive) and Meet the Feebles represents his fanboy fascination with the gruesome and the gratuitous. Heavenly Creatures, the Lord of the Rings films, and his vastly underrated mock-documentary Forgotten Silver argue for a label of "auteur." Somewhere in between is this purposeful popcorn movie, The Frighteners. With a big-name producer, full Tinseltown backing, and likeable leading man, it was Jackson's bid to banter with the big boys. While many feel he failed, a second look at this delightful movie argues for its place among the director's best.
Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Doc Hollywood) is a broken man living in an unfinished house high on a hill in a sleepy little Northern California town. He's the local scandal, the man with a haunted past -- and an even more spook-filled present. After the loss of his wife in a "suspicious" accident, Frank has had the ability to see ghosts. Now, years later, he is using the spirits to con the citizenry out of their money. His ethereal pals Cyrus (Chi McBride, Boston Public), Stuart (Jim Fyfe, The Real Blond), and "The Judge" (John Astin, The Addams Family) "scare up"' business, leaving Frank to offer his poltergeist cleaning service -- available for a nominal fee.
But Frank's friends aren't the only presence pestering this vexed village. More people die of heart attacks in this particular parish than anywhere else in the country. This fact piques the interest of the FBI, which sends Special Agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) to investigate. Naturally, he figures Frank has something to do with it. When the husband of a local doctor (Trini Alvarado, Stella) passes away, Frank's phantom friends believe it's the work of the actual Grim Reaper himself. But the mere mortal sees things differently. For Frank, it may all have to do with a series of brutal killings from years before, and an insane psychopath named Johnny Bartlett who wants to be the biggest mass murderer of them all.
The Frighteners is Peter Jackson's lost masterpiece, an important cinematic cog linking his genre work of the past with the monumental achievements in fantasy filmmaking he would attain with the Lord of the Rings. Coming right after the personal, praised Heavenly Creatures, Jackson had wanted to make a more mainstream film. Thanks to the success of the aforementioned true crime story, Who Framed Roger Rabbit's Robert Zemeckis stepped in and offered the director a chance to make a full-blown Hollywood hit. With longtime partner Fran Walsh, Jackson had been kicking around the idea of a Ghostbusters-style psychic who conned people out of money by pretending to purge spirits from their home. The only catch was that Frank Bannister could actually see spectres, and was using the otherworldly agents as his grifting partners. Agreeing to let the director film in his native New Zealand (which more or less passes for the Pacific Northwest) and also allowing all the post-production work to be done by Kiwi craftsman, The Frighteners suddenly had full U.S. studio support.
Though it failed to become the blockbuster everyone had hoped for, The Frighteners still became a real stepping-stone in its creator's canon. Beyond its import to his career, Jackson's film is also important in the ongoing evolution of CGI. Before WETA's work in The Frighteners (they also helmed a few scenes in Creatures), computer-generated imagery was seen as the exclusive domain of the Americans -- and ILM in particular. From their initial attempts at controlling "water" for The Abyss to the full-out mechanized mayhem of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the Tinseltown tech-heads were setting the benchmark for all digitally-rendered animation. While Jurassic Park will always be seen as a monumental step forward, The Frighteners was a formidable attempt at the seamless incorporation of motherboard rendered visuals into a narrative. The main monster here, a wonderfully fluid and fierce figure known as The Reaper, may seem a tad dated in light of our post-millennial management of CGI elements, but for its time, the callous cloak with a deadly sickle was quite a quantum leap.
Jackson also pushed the basic boundaries of the new effects format in his
film. For him, it wasn't just eye candy or a visual set piece. The CGI
characters in The Frighteners had to live and breath, acting with
emotional resonance and believable authenticity. Though he would have much more
success in this department with Rings (and now King Kong), the
ghosts created for the film really do live up to their spectral specifics.
Thanks to the added footage included in the new director's cut, we get to see
Jackson having more fun with his phantoms, putting them through their
physics-defying paces to increase the crazy cartoon-like anarchy of the film.
Jackson enjoys giving the Judge character a less-than-complete corpse, and has
fun fooling with some attempted splatter effects as well. The entire movie feels
like a resume reel for a man who would one day create the most consistently
accomplished trilogy in the history of motion pictures.
Though the effects always get the notice in Jackson's films, in the end it's the amazing acting that really sells The Frighteners. Michael J. Fox -- near the end of his reign as a box-office champ and ready to challenge himself with different, difficult roles -- finds a lot of heart and horror in the backstory of his bogus psychic detective. Frank Bannister is supposed to be a scarred man, more figuratively than literally, and Fox wears such wounding across his still cherubic face. But when asked to dig deep and play the depths of despair, he really delivers the goods. Trini Alvardo, Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey, and the ghostly trio of John Astin, Jim Fyfe, and Chi McBride are all excellent. But if the movie truly belongs to one individual, it would have to be everyone's favorite Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs. As messed-up FBI flatfoot Milton Dammers, Combs creates a character so unique, so unbelievably idiosyncratic and iconic that he truly deserved Oscar recognition for this work. Every line reading is like an adventure, every reaction a study in sensational strangeness. By the time he's reduced to a near-routine villain, spitting out his threats with varying vileness, we want as much Milton as we can get.
One of the best things about The Frighteners, though, is that Jackson never overstays his cinematic welcome. We receive just enough Dammers to satisfy our sentiments, not so much that we grow weary of his weirdness. The same with the spooks. Had Jackson turned them into the poltergeist version of the Three Stooges, all slapstick and joking jive, we'd want less of their ethereal lunacy. Indeed, everything about The Frighteners is measured and metered out in sly, successful segments. The film has the real feeling of a completed, complementary work, where narrative ends are tied up and tossed together with other cinematic specialness to create a solid, satisfying whole. There are those who believe that the film is still missing a key entertainment element (and they will probably feel the same after viewing the long-dormant director's cut), but the truth is that, for its time, The Frighteners was one masterful movie. It deserved more credit than it got during its initial release. Here's hoping this new DVD will restore some of its lamentably lost glory.
Ever since its initial home video release, fanatical lovers of the film have been scouring eBay for a rare Special Edition Director's Cut laserdisc put out by Universal near the end of the entire mega-disc digital craze. In said package was a new cut of the film (12 minutes longer than the original), a commentary track by the elusive auteur, and a four-hour (four hour!!!) making-of documentary that highlighted every possible production issue in the film. When DVD stormed the market, many assumed a smart studio would drag out this jerryrigged gem and release it on the latest home theater format. But what arrived on disc was just a bland, bare-bones presentation of the theatrical release. Thanks to the box-office billions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the arrival of Jackson's reimagined King Kong, Universal is finally making the laserdisc edition of the film available on DVD. While it's far from perfect (no original version here), this is still one of the best digital packages ever presented on the medium.
Before addressing the true technical merits of the disc, let's get into the added footage. Jackson appears at the beginning of the film (in his new, slim and trim persona) to discuss why he wanted this DVD released. Having learned from the spectacular results of the "extended" versions of the Rings films, he is one of the few filmmakers who understands the nature of editing and the value of revision. This new cut of The Frighteners changes very little, yet the movie seems to actually open up and breathe within its new parameters. Some of the goofy ghost material has been reinserted, and an entire subplot involving Dammers, the Manson family, and a controversial tattoo has been retained. We get more sequences with the Judge (learning why he is so important to Frank) and some additional glimpses into Bannister's tormented, troubled psyche.
By giving the movie back these scenes, Jackson jump-starts what is already a wonderful film, adding depth and density to all the action and anarchy. We still have the sensational special effects and amazing acting, but the movie now makes more sense, seeming to say things that Jackson only hinted about before. As we learned from his other films, this director is also a smashing writer, and much of the material that makes it back into The Frighteners fleshes out that which seemed to be unusually underwritten before. Sure, some of the snips came after troubling test screenings and failed focus groups, but unlike other filmmakers in the movie game, Jackson likes to work on an exceptionally large canvas. Any attempt to control him only undermines his work.
Along with the new material, we are also treated to the original commentary track from the laserdisc. While mentioning the desire to remake King Kong (very prescient considering the timing of this release), Jackson jokingly suggests that he won't be able to fill the two-hour running time. He then proceeds to spins endlessly entertaining yarns, having to literally reel himself in as the credits roll. Filled with insight and information, painfully honest about creative decisions and the rare missed opportunities, Jackson proves that he is an excellent oral as well as visual storyteller, filling in fans on how The Frighteners found its way into his oeuvre. He even provides us with a few storyboards from the film, offering up his thoughts on how they helped him realize his vision.
You'd think with all his talking there'd be very little left of the film to cover. Well, you'd be dead wrong, as the flip side of the DVD (yes, it's one of those) contains the entire three-hour and fifty-minute documentary on the making of the movie. Starting from the very beginning and moving through every phase of the film, we see the creation and the casting, the onset attention to detail and the amount of grueling physical labor it took to make this movie. Honestly, anyone who was amazed at the amount of depth found in the digital extras on the Rings DVDs really doesn't know Jackson. This man is a certified film geek and he wants to share his love of the process with everyone. Loaded with interviews, outtakes, bloopers, and missing material (including a weird naked cherub cemetery guardian that never made it into any cut of the movie), this is, hands down, one of the best Behind the Scenes featurettes ever offered as part of a Special Edition package. That Universal has sat on this sensational material for so long is just a crime.
As for the new version of the film itself, the transfer is excellent -- not perfect, but really remarkable nonetheless. The 2.35:1 original elements held over from the theatrical release are near-reference quality in their anamorphic widescreen wonder. The colors sparkle and the contrasts reveal details unseen before. But the minute the new footage falls into place, we start to notice a few flaws. The hues are not as strong in the added material, and the film has an old feel to it. What should be seamless ends up more or less announcing itself every time it arrives. Eventually we get used to the transitions, but they should have been more smoothed out. As stated before, this really doesn't detract from the film, but it doesn't make for a faultless DVD experience.
On the sonic side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack rocks. Danny Elfman's score is his typical Gothic groove while Jackson masterfully employs sound effects to heighten the horror -- and humor. Though not really immersive, the channels do get a very good workout (as does the subwoofer) and the resulting aural landscape is magnificently moody and spatially ambient.
What would make this package perfect, besides a better overall transfer? The
inclusion of the original theatrical cut of the film. Requiring fans to buy a
second copy to get the edited edition is just dirty pool,
no two ways about it.
History has already given Jackson a seat alongside the famed filmmakers of all time. His work on The Lord of the Rings destroys so much of what makes fantasy films fail that he will remain the benchmark for decades to come. Sadly, such sentiments mask a stellar canon of creative work. For all their horror nerd nuances, Bad Taste and Braindead are delightful. Even Meet the Feebles and Forgotten Silver have their merry (if sometimes minor) pleasures. Certainly fans find substance in his Heavenly Creatures, and those who try to deny his abilities (King Kong seems to be bringing them out) cannot refute his impact on cinema. Jackson came along at a time when an outsider needed to shake up the entire Spielberg/Lucas lexicon of film, and his efforts literally rewrote the blockbuster rulebook. Too bad The Frighteners couldn't have been that substantive turning point. As it stands, it is a fantastic first volley in Jackson's efforts to redefine the popcorn movie. It deserves a second chance, and this amazing DVD package provides that necessary new lease on life.
Not guilty. The Frighteners is free to go. Universal gets a 10-day suspended sentence for failing to offer the original theatrical cut of the film as part of this otherwise stellar DVD package.
Review content copyright © 2005 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2005 Nominee
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Commentary by Director Peter Jackson
* Selected Storyboards with Optional Commentary by Director Peter Jackson
* "The Making of The Frighteners" -- Four-hour Documentary
* Official Peter Jackson Fan Club