Outside of the midnight movie circuit, no one 30 years ago probably knew who Peter Jackson was. Australian cinema was big following Mad Max in 1978 but even by the early 1990s, people were tired of things coming from down under. Paul Hogan had used up his catchphrases and Yahoo Serious was a like a one-night stand we wished to forget.
Then, in the Fall of 1994, a movie titled Heavenly Creatures distributed by then indie-powerhouse Miramax was released and critics loved it. It didn’t make a lot of money but the very sympathetic story of the Parker-Hulme murder case of 1954 attracted critics and found a good fanbase. We were introduced to Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynsky as two teens struggling through angst in Christchurch, New Zealand. Mixing fantasy set pieces with a friendship that suggests it might be more than platonic as well as the gruesome, brutal murder gave Jackson and his long-time partner (personally and professionally) Fran Walsh their first Oscar nomination.
And Hollywood came calling. And they delivered with a script, The Frighteners, intended to be the follow-up to Robert Zemeckis’ Oscar-winning Forrest Gump. It started out as just an episode of Tales from the Crypt before Zemeckis had Jackson and Walsh expand it. But Zemeckis felt Jackson should direct it as a regular stand-alone movie.
In many ways, The Frighteners should’ve been a success. It was the perfect marriage of an Oscar-winning filmmaker and an Oscar-nominated writing team with Michael J. Fox in a horror-comedy. The movie seemed to be along the lines of Arachnophobia and Army of Darkness blending thrills and laughs together with eye-popping special effects and an in-joke as R. Lee Ermey spoofs his popular drill instructor role from Full Metal Jacket.
But originally intended to premiere in theaters shortly before Halloween, it was pushed up by three months to late July 1996 at the same time the Olympics began. And audiences stayed away. Were they at home watching the Olympics? Who knows? Horror comedy was a difficult sell at the time. Scream was still four months away. It also didn’t help matters that the MPAA had slapped the movie with an R-rating even though Jackson and Walsh intended it to be a PG-13 movie. But more on that later.
The plot revolves around a coastal town, Fairwater, presumably in the Pacific Northwest or Northern California, where a lot of town residents, who seem to be healthy, are dying of heart failures and cardiac arrests. There’s also a con man, Frank Bannister (Fox) who uses two ghosts, Cyrus (Chi McBride), who wears 1970s attire, and Stuart (Jim Fyfe), who’s rather nerdy, to help him create problems at people’s homes so he can charge them with getting rid of evil spirits.
After running off the road and destroying the fence of new resident, Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobbins), Cyrus and Stuart make it look like a poltergeist is in their home so Ray’s wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado), a physician, will call Frank. He agrees to come over but quotes them a high price but offers to do the work if Ray won’t charge him for the work on the fence, which Ray reluctantly agrees to. As he’s leaving, he sees a number on Ray’s forehead initially thinking it was something Cyrus or Stuart did as a joke.
Frank lives in a half-completed house. At one time, he was a successful businessman but following the death of his wife, Debra (Angela Bloomfield), he’s been in mourning and has developed the ability to see ghosts. Some people in town suspect that Frank may have inadvertantly led to the death of his wife as they were in a car accident after eye-witnesses observed them fighting and Frank drinking a lot of alcohol. Also with Frank is The Judge (John Astin), a ghost from the Old West who’s also falling apart and the ghost of his bloodhound is always grabbing a bone of the Judge’s to gnaw on.
When the local media call Frank out for a con man, he notices that Lucy is in a funeral procession passing by the newspaper office. Then, he sees Ray’s ghost scared by all that’s happened. All Ray can say is that he was exercising and felt a huge pressure on his chest. Frank and Ray go up to the cemetey where Lucy remembers Frank and asks to speak with him at a later date.
Frank and Lucy go out to dinner as Lucy hopes she can get Frank to communicate with Ray. When he goes to the restroom, Frank observes what appears to be the grim reaper come out of the walls and put its hand into the chest of a middle-aged man at the sink. Frank had noticed a number on his forehead just shortly before. Frank leaves the restaurant trying to track the entity down but it leads him to a museum event where the local young reporter who wrote the story about him has died. The news editor, Madga Rees-Jones (Elizabeth Hawthorne), accuses him of causing the death but Frank also sees a number on her forehead, so he kidnaps her hoping to keep her from the reaper.
However, this doesn’t work as they get into an accident and Rees-Jones is killed by the reaper. Frank goes and turns himself into the local law enforcement where an eccentric and nervous FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) questions Frank. Dammers has worked over the years with cult groups and suspects that Frank is causing people to have heart attacks by telekinesis.
But what’s really going on is something more sinister. There is a connection with the deaths and Fairwater’s tragic history from decades before when Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), an orderly at the former pscyhiatric hospital, went on a mass killing spree. Bartlett inspired by the murders committed by Charles Starkweather decided to one-up him and murdered 12 building, carving a number in each victim’s forehead. His underage girlfriend, Patricia Bradley, was named an accessory after the fact, but has since been living as a recluse under the care of her strict mother in an aging mansion nearby the hospital. The older Patricia (Dee Wallace Stone) is a patient of Lucy’s who observes the weird bruising on her body thinking it’s because of her mother.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce there’s something more going on between the reaper and Patricia who at first is observed being haunted by a poltergeist entity herself. To say The Frighteners does a lot in its run time which is about 110 minutes with credits shows how Jackson doesn’t settle for one simple story. Some of the criticism was that there was too much.
A movie like this starts out as a haunted house story and then turns into a comedy before a pseudo-slasher then ending as an action movie. I like movies that keep audiences on their toes. You never know what to expect and if you hear something in the first act, it’s going to come more pertinent and important later in the movie.
Since this was Jackson’s first Hollywood movie, Jackson toned some things down. For those familiar with his earlier works, such as Bad Taste and Braindead, or Dead-Alive, know that he doesn’t hold back in the gore and violence. It was part of the reason I was apprehensive about him tackling The Lord of the Rings, but he delivered there as he did here. Jackson also made the R-rated puppet movie Meet the Feebles which was Sesame Street if everyone was on crack. And how Jackson and Walsh connect these was a surprise the first time I saw it.
Like I mentioned earlier, Jackson and Walsh were trying to deliver a more commercial PG-13 rated movie. There is a little profanity but not much gore originally. However, the MPAA took some issues in which a character is shooting a shotgun at closed doors, resulting in a R rating. So, using his own special effects company, WETA Digital, they updated a scene in which a major character is killed to give it a better effect.
Like most cult movies, The Frighteners found its audience on the home video and cable market. Produced on a small budget of $26 million considering the technology, it only grossed over $29 million. Critics were more harsh with Siskel & Ebert giving it too thumbs down. Roger Ebert said it felt like a demo reel of a better movie that should’ve been made. Now, it’s a more favored movie with 67 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
For Fox, this was his last leading role in a major motion picture. He would later have a supporting role in Mars Attack also released in 1996 that would be his last movie role, before he went on to do the sitcom Spin City. He had been struggling with Parkinson’s Disease since 1991 when he was only 29. In 1998, he came out public with his diagnosis.
In 2020, he announced his full retirement from acting because of his inabilities to speak at times. It’s a sad because movies like The Frighteners showed what range he had as an actor. While mostly seen as a TV actor on sitcoms, he showed his abilities as an actor in movies like Bright Lights, Big City and Casualties of War where he played against the clean-cut type he played on Family Ties. He also gave an underrated performance as a White House aide in The American President. He was only in his mid-30s but he was starting to shake off the Marty McFly/Alex P. Keating persona and grow as an actor.
If anyone else, The Frighteners shows his abilities to blend comedy and drama together. While Jackson went on to have success with the Lord of the Rings movies and the 2005 King Kong remake, I feel The Frighteners was his Hail Mary pass of what he was available to do as an filmmaker. Fortunately, he got to do the Rings and other film productions as Weta has grown itself as a VFX company.
What do you think? Please comment.