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Film Review: The Frighteners

The Frighteners (1996; Directed by Peter Jackson)

The frantic, often hugely entertaining climax of this frantic, often hugely entertaining genre film earns director Peter Jackson his belated druthers. Indirectly, the sure hand Jackson showed with the film’s complex and artful digital effects likely also earned him his massive Lord of the Rings budget, and made him a blockbuster film mogul and as much of a household name as a film director can get.

If PJ’s career will always retrospectively be divided into its pre- and post-Middle Earth phases, then The Frighteners is the border-stone marking the transition. The creative embrace and boundary-pushing of CGI effects hints at what is to come in the trilogy that would make Jackson a cinematic immortal, while the gory humour of his low-budget early films is largely preserved (though undoubtedly toned-down; Jackson seems to have little to prove in that vein by this point).

The story focuses on Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, in his last lead film role before a Parkinson’s diagnosis pulled him away), a purported paranormal detective and exorcist who takes advantage of his ability to see ghosts (and his friendship with a roguish trio of them) to run an ongoing con on superstitious locals. He “detects” his dead buddies, and “clears” them out of the afflicted customer’s premises, for which he charges a comfortable premium. This greedy scheme is dangerously disrupted by a genuine, malevolent spectre in Grim Reaper garb, harvesting the souls of the living like a serial killer from beyond the veil. Both this supernatural murderer and Frank’s unique ability to see it are connected to his wife’s apparent death in a car collision years before, and he’s the only one who can put a stop to the pitiless reaping of unready souls.

The supernatural hijinks that follow spike up and down, though they build towards a frantic, well-executed crescendo. The Frighteners is hardly a flawless film; the story takes its time amping itself up, all of the villains are miles over the top (especially Jake Busey as an insane sort and Jeffrey Combs as an oleaginous, paranoid FBI agent), and some of the jokes fall flatter than the lid of a sarcophagus (Jackson never has had a good sense of when he’s really funny and when he’s just stretching).

For its propulsive last hour, however, Fox (always at his most endearing when rushing, flailing, from one location to another) is hurled through atmospheric cemeteries, abandoned hospitals, a Psycho-esque house inhabited by demented killers, and past the threshold of death itself. In The Frighteners‘ climactic phase, it’s exquisitely-staged, exciting filmmaking, barely taking a pause to check its pulse. While not exactly a great overall piece of work (which its middling box-office receipts may reflect upon, though that likely had more to do with its MPAA-imposed R rating), The Frighteners remains a testament to Jackson’s skill with images, action, and movement, as if the triumph of Lord of the Rings left us needing any more.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. December 17, 2013 at 8:41 am

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