Universal // 1996 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // September 13th, 2007
No rest for the wicked.
Bridging his career between weird, low-budget independent fare like Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste and the wallet-torching massive scale epics of The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, director Peter Jackson's ghost fable hit the North American cineplexes with little fanfare in the summer of 1996. Yet it would henceforth carve out a nice little cult following, and the film's release on HD DVD marks a hi-def haunting many fans have been no doubt waiting for.
Michael J. Fox (Spin City) stars as Frank Bannister, a broken-down paranormal investigator who scratches together an existence by exorcising spirits from people's homes. Little do the customers know, Frank is conning them, utilizing his ability to see and converse with ghosts to enlist the specters to do the haunting so Frank can show up and collect a payday.
Frank's life gets complicated when he meets the lovely Lucy (Trini Alvarado) and her overbearing husband Ray (Peter Dobson). They become victim to a malevolent Reaper sprit that's on a killing spree and Frank drags himself out of his malaise to take on the homicidal ghost.
Heretical as it may be to say in the presence of PJ fanboys (of which I consider myself one, by the way), I've never been a fawning admirer of The Frighteners. It's a fun movie with some decent (for its time) special effects, but nothing much more than that. And to be fair, judging by Peter Jackon's comments on the bonus features, I don't think he ever envisioned it as earth-shattering.
I've always found something sterile about the film. The characters are quirky, but they strike me as a bit too quirky (Jeffrey Combs, for one, needed to dial it down a notch) and much of the slapstick ghost humor -- overwrought Ray storyline, I'm looking at you -- came off as equally contrived. I did enjoy the central mystery however, despite some plot inconsistencies (Why wasn't you-know-who flying around after the big identity reveal? What's with the ghost machine guns?). The story is undeniably dark and PJ's discussion of the futile attempt to get a PG-13 rating elucidates this point. The R-rating almost certainly hamstrung the film's mainstream appeal, which I'm sure was disappointing for Universal as there was very little in the way of R-rated material in the final cut. The mummy dry-hump may have been a bit too much, though.
Still, I'm not hating on the film. I like its energy, aided by Jackson's typical back and forth kinetic shooting and a reliably cool Danny Elfman score. It just lacks the bizarreness of PJ's proto-film and the depth of the heavy-hitters he would direct subsequently (the bloated, faux-deep King Kong aside). In the end The Frighteners is simply a decent little Halloween confection, neither scary nor terribly funny, but ample enough for an evening of moderate enjoyment and ghoulish shenanigans.
How was the transition to hi-def? Largely good, but with a few nagging hiccups. The video quality (2.35:1, 1080p) is certainly an improvement over that oh-so-antiquated DVD release, but some soft color levels -- specifically flesh tones of the non-ghost variety -- and noticeable picture flaws keep the all-important video score from hitting the highs. The ghost effects look great, but the other CGI work buckles under the tighter scrutiny high-definition provides. It's still a good-looking treatment and the New Zealand establishment shots look really, really nice, but it's not perfect. I did enjoy the sound mix quite a bit (Dolby Digital Plus 5.1), which gives Elfman's score a nice boost. Dialogue was strong and the surround channels got a workout during some of the more hectic moments.
The extras are the same from the DVD version of the Director's Cut. Jackson introduces the film and delivers a very nice feature-length commentary -- his first! -- where he includes lots of interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits and explains the purpose of cutting the additional footage, which, of course, makes its debut on this version of the film. Then there's the making-of feature, a jaw-dropping three hours-plus worth of everything you could possibly ever want to know about The Frighteners. My favorite moment: a look at a Richard Taylor and humble WETA studios before they were awash in mountains of Hobbit cash.
The Extended Cut adds 14 minutes to the runtime, bringing the film over the two-hour mark. I think the film works better, leaner.
Peter Jackson made a fun film that, ultimately, is just a fun film. And that's about it. The HD presentation is uneven, but a major improvement over the DVD release, nonetheless.
Not guilty. Now clean up this ectoplasm.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Director's Commentary
* Director's Introduction
* Making-of Featurette