Published on November 26th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
The Frighteners 
Summary: Michael J. Fox's final starring film role was also Peter Jackson's last foray into horror. This campy flick is too hard to be the lighthearted romp it tries to be and offers little more than a ton of special effects shots.
R | 110 min.
Director: Peter Jackson | Screenplay: Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Jeffrey Combs
Studio: WingNut Films | Distribution: Universal Pictures
Once upon a time, Peter Jackson was not known as one of the world’s top directors. He could always be counted on to gross an audience out with ridiculous special effects-laden horror schlock but studio heads in Hollywood wouldn’t be lining up to attach his name to their $100 million blockbusters. The Kiwi filmmaker put together a string of inventive horror flicks starting with 1987’s Bad Taste — which might as well have been the title of his 1992 cult classic Dead Alive (aka: Braindead), my favorite Jackson movie. Eventually though, he became a household name when his The Lord of the Rings trilogy redefined epic filmmaking in the early-2000s.
Jackson’s 1996 horror comedy The Frighteners marks the final chapter in his career as a horror director (thus far) and is also a kind of finalé in another notable name’s career. Michael J. Fox was THE MAN in the 1980s. Between Family Ties, where he played one of TV’s great smartasses and Back to the Future, where he launched to a ridiculous level of celebrity, Fox single-handedly made having a middle initial badass. Obviously, his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease made him dial back his workload and by the mid-90s, he was all but finished with acting. The Frighteners would be his final starring role on the big screen to date.
We love Fox as an actor because he is the relatable guy next door. He turned every character into our buddy and, for instance, even when he played a coke-addled struggling writer, he still managed to make it look kind of fun and nonchalant. I feel like he was completely miscast in this movie and since his presence was the single biggest selling point of The Frighteners, that’s a big problem.
He plays Frank Bannister, a low-rent ghostbuster/scam artist that uses his actual ability to communicate with ghosts to haunt houses and then turn their residents into clients. Bannister is flat-out not a likable character. Throughout the film, he’s beating up police officers, stealing guns from federal agents, driving his car like a nut while destroying people’s property, wrecking artifacts at a museum and at one point he even punches a woman in the face, knocking her out cold. In short, he’s an asshole.
Bannister’s crew of go-to poultergeists include a flamboyant gangster, a mild-mannered nerd and an old west gunslinger. These characters are always played for laughs and for a film with so many dead characters, The Frighteners is very lighthearted until the climax. His love interest is the recently-widowed Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado)–and by recently-widowed, I mean she goes on a date with Frank the night after her husband’s funeral. Most of the characters in this picture are zany, fitting the overall mood of the movie but the villains are downright brutal, taking all the fun away as soon as they’re introduced.
Re-Animator‘s Jeffrey Combs provides the films best performance as the extremely paranoid FBI agent Milton Dammers. The scene where we meet his character is probably the best in the film. Dammers is completely off-the-wall but it’s not out of place in this manic picture. As I mentioned before, The Frighteners wants to be a lighthearted popcorn movie but at the same time it has too much language, sex and death to be for anyone but adults.
Another cameo comes from R. Lee Ermey, who is served a straight helping of typecasting. He plays the ghost of a former US Army Sergeant. It’s so shameless, Ermey even uses a few of the exact lines of dialogue he spit brilliantly in Full Metal Jacket. When he tells Bannister to “Sound off like you’ve got a pair,” it feels like a bad parody.
In line with the rest of Jackson’s projects, The Frighteners relies heavily on special effects. At the time it was produced, this movie featured more digital effects shots than nearly any ever produced (thanks Wikipedia!). The effects on display here still look decent but they are literally everywhere. Half of the movie’s characters are ghosts and after a while, we become so used to special effects shots that they lose their sizzle.
The film’s action scenes are mostly just awkward because of the heavy use of ghost characters. You’ve got bodies flying through each other with nobody really hurting anyone. It’s tough to feel much impact when the characters in a fight scene are each lacking a physical body. Watching Michael J. Fox tousling with a pile of slime in one scene is about as odd as you would imagine–the scene when he battles a roll of carpet even more so.
The highlight of The Frighteners is its climactic sequence, set in a creepy abandoned hospital. The film’s heroes escape a pair of human villains and see vibrant technicolor flashbacks of the atrocities of a third apparition villain. This entire sequence is played for thrills and Jackson does a nice job of creating tension, much like he would do in some of The Lord of the Rings‘ creepier scenes.
This movie has picked up a strong cult following in recent years but it just didn’t do much for me in the way of laughs or scares. The Frighteners is on Netflix as of this writing and if you’ve got a subscription and love campy horror flicks give it a go but if you’re just watching because you like Michael J. Fox, do yourself a favor and pick up the first season of Spin City instead.