The Frighteners (1996) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 17

by Jovial Jay

In the world of the living only one man can see the dead, and he’s out to scare up some new business!

The Frighteners is part comedy, part scary, and 100% fun. Director Peter Jackson elevates his filmmaking from low-budget gore-fests to an effects laden, star-studded spectacle.

Before Viewing

This film is a favorite of mine, and the trailer does a good job of setting up the story. Michael J. Fox has the ability to communicate with ghosts, which he uses to bilk money out of people, clearing out spirits from their homes, which he introduced there in the first place. Suddenly a dark spirit begins creating havoc in his town, and he is the first to be blamed. It’s one part comedy, one part ghost story, and one part bizarreness from director Peter Jackson. Check out this film first before reading further if you don’t want to be spoiled!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

The Frighteners

The Frighteners title card.

After Viewing

Ex-architect Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) now works as a con-man exorcising spirits from people’s homes for a fee. He has gained a unique ability to be able to communicate with the dead and uses three ghostly assistants to help him scare up business; Stuart (Jim Fyfe), a 1950’s nerd-ghost, Cyrus (Chi McBride), a 1970’s disco-era-ghost, and the Judge (John Astin), an 1800’s gunslinger-ghost. Working at the home of Dr. Lucy Lynskey and Ray Lynskey (Trini Alvarado & Peter Dobson), Frank notices a mysterious glowing number on Ray’s forehead. The next day Ray dies of a heart attack.

Frank begins seeing these numbers pop-up on other people’s heads, and also begins seeing am ominous figure in a dark cloak that looks like the stereotypical representation of Death. Ray’s ghost asks Frank to talk to Lucy for him, but Frank begins getting closer to her than Ray likes. After three more deaths Frank is brought into the jail on suspicion of murder. Eccentric FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) is brought in to question Frank, presuming that Frank is responsible for all the deaths – 28 in all over the last five years.

Lucy comes to visit Frank at the jail and gets the story on him from the local police chief. Six years previous Frank and his wife were in a car accident. She was found dead on the scene with a number “13” carved into her forehead, while Frank was picked up a ways away with no memory of the incident. Frank gained his powers due to the stresses involved with this incident. Lucy is attacked by the Grim Reaper spirit at the jail, but is saved when Stuart and Cyrus step in, being fully banished by the spirit.

The Frighteners

Frank sees mysterious numbers manifest on Ray’s forehead.

Frank and Lucy realize that the spirit is not really the Grim Reaper, but psychopath and serial-killer Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), who was put to death in the 1960s after killing twelve people at the local hospital. He was aided by Patricia Bradley (played in the present day by Dee Wallace-Stone). Together, they are continuing his killing streak, which is now up to 40 individuals. Frank sees that Lucy is 41!

They manage to get Johnny’s ashes from Patricia’s house and run into the abandoned hospital next door to place the ashes on the consecrated ground at the chapel. Patricia comes after them with a shotgun. Dammers gets in the way and is killed, as Johnny’s spirit grabs Lucy. Patricia kills Frank, but his spirit lingers ripping her spirit from her body. He heads up the tunnel of light towards heaven with her. Johnny follows, but he and Patrica are denied entry and sucked into hell. Frank’s wife Debra (Angela Bloomfield) tells him it’s not his time and he should “live his life.” He returns to Earth, goes on a date with Lucy and starts a new chapter of his life.

Death ain’t no way to make a living!” – The Judge

The Frighteners

Frank and Stuart return home after a hard day of haunting.

The Frighteners is unique in horror films, in being an R-rated film that’s not too scary. It’s got some jump scares and tensions, but it’s more of a mystery and comedy, with some thriller elements sprinkled in. That being said, it’s a super-fun film to watch this season!

The film was the last film in Peter Jackson’s line of horror films which started with the splattery-gore films Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and the excellent Dead Alive. His film immediately previous to The Frighteners was the well-praised Heavenly Creatures which featured the film debuts of Melanie Lynskey (the inspiration for the surname of Trini Alvarado’s character) and Kate Winslett, and was a different sort of horror tale, having been inspired by an actual murder case in Christchurch, New Zealand. Jackson’s next project would shift gears dramatically as he began working on his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Frighteners

Milton Dammers, FBI. His mind may not be all there after his previous missions.

The Frighteners also has an interesting theme for a ghost-story: moving on and living your life. The main character affected by this is Frank, who was a burgeoning architect before his wife’s death, and now lives in his unfinished house, working as a con-artist, with spirits trapped on earth. He hasn’t had the ability to move on, or forgive himself in the events surrounding her death: an argument, which led to him crashing the car, killing her. Throughout the film he realizes that he may not be responsible for her death, as the ghost of Bartlett had picked her for death possibly before that moment. It’s also about moving on for the spirits. Some of the deceased see the tunnel of light and immediately ascend into it while others, like the ones that hang around with Frank, decide to stay on Earth. Reconciling his wife’s death, coupled with Frank being able to save another woman he cares about, allows him to move forward. He tears down the partially finished house and becomes romantically involved with Lucy, who is revealed to be able to see ghosts at the end of the film now as well.

Being produced by Robert Zemeckis (who was also producing a Tales from the Crypt series at the time, which this film was slated as a single episode before being expanded), the film brings a lot of fun and comedy to the table, which included a lot of the physical humor from Michael J. Fox. From the character of the Judge deciding to “get it on” with a mummy in the local museum (he likes it when “they lay still” like that!), to the ghostly interaction of Stuart with the physical world, the comedy is broad and often times dark. The only real complaint I have about the film is the CGI effects are definitely dated from 1996. While the ghost effects, which include make-up as well as optical effects are strong, the work on the Grim Reaper robe, and the descent into Hell sequences show the lack of detail and texture that mid-90s CGI offered. Otherwise, that is a small price to pay for such an enjoyable film.

The Frighteners

Patricia’s overbearing mother has characteristics of the evil-stepmother from Disney’s “Cinderella.”

Assorted Musings

  • Patricia’s stern mother is modeled on other imposing characters, and bears a passing resemblance to the wicked stepmother in Walt Disney’s Cinderella.
  • This marks Michael J. Fox’s last feature film (excluding voice work) as he decided to return to television work, with Spin City.
  • Seeing Jeffrey Combs in a larger studio film is a treat, as he was usually appearing in smaller B-movies, such as Re-Animator, or the Stuart Gordon remake of The Pit and the Pendulum.
  • Dee Wallace is obviously another horror mainstay, having appeared in Popcorn, The Howling and Cujo. She seems to play two types of characters: mothers or a scream queen (or maybe a scream-queen mother in a horror film).
  • John Astin as the Judge is a great cameo. Known primarily for his comedic roles in The Addams Family TV show, he also had cameos in Teen Wolf Too and Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
  • Another great cameo is R. Lee Ermey as the ghostly drill sergeant keeping the local cemetery ghosts in line. He is doing a comedic riff on his popular Drill Instructor character from Full Metal Jacket, but has also starred in the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the 1993 remake Body Snatchers.
  • Noted horror enthusiast and frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman contributed the eccentric musical score to the film, having been a fan of Peter Jackson’s work.
The Frighteners

Cameo appearances: Director Peter Jackson, Melanie Lynskey (star of Jackson’s previous film “Heavenly Creatures”), and John Astin as The Judge.

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