The Frighteners is a strange movie. I liked it more than this review will properly convey, but I’m reluctant to say it was a good movie and find myself instead more willing to say that it wasted an hour and a half of a boring afternoon quite efficiently. It was a popcorn movie without the popcorn, but maybe that’s got less to do with the film and more to do with my diet. Like my questions surrounding some of the film’s more gaping plot points, I guess that one will have to go unanswered.
The film follows around one Frank Bannister, played by the always-awesome Michael J. Fox, who has quite the interesting job. He and a trio of ragtag, somewhat stereotypical spooks, go around town bringing mayhem and madness down upon whatever unwitting soul Bannister may have issues with. The best part is, he charges these people for his services as an exorcist and thus manages to live the highlife in an old yellow beater powered by ectoplasm and a house he never quite finished that drips rainwater into overflowing buckets set on the concrete floor.
The plot thickens once the Grim Reaper shows up and starts killing people, and I think this is where the film finds its feet the most. The Reaper sequences are undeniable and…well, frightening. Not so much in the “BOO” factor, but more in the idea of it. The Reaper kills indiscriminately, crushing people’s hearts in their chests, ripping the faces off ghosts and killing them for good, cutting favorite characters in half, and pressing out from underneath wallpaper like an overgrown cockroach from the “War of the Coprophages” episode from The X-Files.
Now, let me just say that from the opening credits scene I realized two things – the first being that this film’s special effects were going to seriously underwhelm me, and the second being that the tone of the film would never quite find a rhythm that was consistently awesome. Before the naysayers and the feel gooders make some comment about the film being made in 1996 and the tone of the film being its best qualities…no. Here’s why.
The Frighteners is actually directed by Peter Jackson, the same guy who turned the special effects world on its head and then sent it spinning with The Lord of the Rings franchise, and was produced by Robert Zemeckis, the same guy who’s been the driving force behind a laundry list of films that were visually arresting, if not much else. (I’m skipping Forrest Gump with that one.) James Cameron’s The Abyss and John Carpenter’s The Thing were released 10 and 17 years earlier, respectively, and both had special effects that left The Frighteners in the dust. The Frighteners is yet another example that lackluster CG does not age well, especially when pitched against films that do use it effectively, like Jurassic Park.
The overall tone of the film ranges from the cartoony and the comedic to the surprisingly dark and disturbing. Make no mistake, the funny moments are funny and the scary moments are scary, but unlike Drew Goddard’s recent The Cabin in the Woods, or Ron Underwood’s 1993 cult classic Tremors, the thematic siblings don’t mix very well here. Instead what we’re left with is Casper meets Silent Hill, with Michael J. Fox in the middle acting brilliantly, somehow managing to shine like the star that he is.
Still, the film has some great parts – namely, the chemistry between Bannister’s sidekick ghosts, the undeniable menace of the hooded Reaper which terrorizes the town, the eerie soundtrack done perfectly by the great Danny Elfman, and the twist that we sort of see coming. The story is interesting, involving a haunted hospital and haunted house, a seriously messed up FBI agent who can’t figure out if he wants to be comic relief or a serious villain, and some surprisingly tender moments. So well done there.
All in all, I’d say The Frighteners is worth a look if you like Michael J. Fox, if you like ghost stories, and if you’ve got an hour and a half you want to kill. It’s a fun ride that has more plot holes than a hunk of swiss, but in the end you feel like you saw something you’ll remember. Go for the ghosts, stay for the Fox, and bring some popcorn. Unless you’re like me. Then bring a pack of playing cards to neurotically shuffle while you watch.