Written by: Frank Walsh & Peter Jackson
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Dee Wallace Stone
The grand mysteries of the afterlife have taken shape in various forms of belief depending on the religion you subscribe to. Some find more comfort in the idea of death and what happens to souls after the body perishes, while things can get ridiculously wild as depicted in The Frighteners. An example of early Peter Jackson letting loose in a productive way.
After losing his wife, Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has noticed his ability to see spirits who have passed from their carnal bodies. He uses this to his advantage to team up with some in order to con other humans into thinking their house is haunted. A method that has garnered him a negative reputation but gets put to the test when an evil spirit is going around and killing people at will.
Following the career of Michael J. Fox following his star-turning role in Back to the Future comes with quite an intriguing group of selections. His work in the time-traveling stories definitely raised his profile specifically in family-friendly fare. His work in The Frighteners finds the balance of being a bit milder in the content while also getting a bit dark at times. Everything surrounding the character of Frank gets rather sinister at times, but the star remains a family-friendly icon and the good guy of this entire situation.
Having this ability to see ghosts and spirits puts Frank in quite the situation where he can choose to do good with it or take the route he eventually does, utilizing it for profit. Part of me applauds his willingness to turn something derived from trauma into a livelihood; talk about cornering the market. However, a parasitic action in nature, his decision to use this gift or curse takes advantage of people and provides them an unnecessary fright. It would be one thing if he encountered the spirits and performed the service, but he puts the scare upon these families and then charges. It takes some likeability away from this character, which certainly gets aided by the casting of Michael J. Fox in what we can forgive from this guy’s actions.
The introduction of this grim reaper-like spirit puts fright into the hearts of even the milder ghosts, which truly says something about this terrifying adversary. It has the ability to kill anyone at will and does so marking the victims as some sort of indication of it being a conquest. The appearance of this adversary comes with very shoddy digital effects as one would expect from this time period but the film adequately provides the necessary fear in creating this animated character. Its mere presence brings dread thus making for a strong threat for Frank to take on along with his fellow ghost friends.
When breaking down Peter Jackson’s filmography, I always create the split before and after The Lord of the Rings. Not only because it’s the best thing he’s ever done as a filmmaker, but also seeing his interest in features adapt with the amount of money given to him. His ventures in Middle Earth garnered him Oscar victories and plenty of cash, but this falls before that particular period and demonstrates him doing what he could with what he had. While I am not a fan of his earliest works like Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, this particular film hits the right balance intertwining his zaniness as a filmmaker and something accessible to others. Getting inside the mind of Peter Jackson must be quite the trip but he manages to reign it in a bit to ensure The Frighteners has just enough of his trademark weirdness. He combines elements of fun and all of the horror he could possibly inject to continually raise the stakes of the game.
Overly silly at times but still something to appreciate, The Frighteners shows that I enjoy at least one of Peter Jackson’s early works. Everything comes together particularly well from the emotion, to the horror, and comedy in a manner I did not particularly expect. It appeared to be the perfect material for Jackson to fully bite into and prepare himself for the greatest run in his career in the upcoming century. Come for the laughs and stay for the defining bits of horror making this film a definite recommendation.