Frighteners, The (New Zealand/United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Frighteners isn't a bad film, but it is a disappointment. Following director Peter Jackson's powerful, true-life matricide tale, Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners falls short of expectations by being just one of many in the long line of 1996 summer movies. It's driven by some pretty nifty special effects, but the characters are fairly lifeless, and the plot, when it makes sense, is silly and needlessly convoluted. As horror-comedies go, this one doesn't offer much that's original or daring. Jackson's past efforts, such as Braindead and Meet the Feebles, have taken more chances, and The Frighteners doesn't match the audacity of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies or even this year's Cemetery Man.

It's not hard to pinpoint what's wrong with The Frighteners. The storyline is extremely confused, and there's no big payoff. The proceedings meander along, throwing jokes, dripping ectoplasm, unnecessary characters, and pointless action sequences at the audience, until they rather suddenly come to an end. There's no big buildup to a final confrontation, nor is there any real sense of anticipation regarding the climax. The script is unpolished, and often feels more like a draft than a finished product.

The Frighteners opens with a solid premise. Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is a paranormal investigator operating in the small town of Fairweather, California. Bannister is a con artist, but his accomplices are unusual -- a trio of ghoulish spirits named Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Cyrus (Chi McBride), and the Judge (John Astin). Because, even though Bannister is a fraud, he really can see, communicate, and interact with the dead. Bannister has a simple arrangement with his associates. Stuart, Cyrus, and the Judge haunt a house, then Bannister shows up to do an exorcism -- for a fee, of course.

But, when a local doctor, Lucy Lynsky (Trini Alvarado, from Little Women), loses her husband, both the dead and the living of Fairweather have cause to be worried. Victims all over town are dying of sudden heart attacks, and only Bannister knows the cause. Cloaked and armed with a scythe, the Grim Reaper (a.k.a. the "Soul Catcher") has arrived, connected somehow to the spirit of an executed serial killer. When Bannister sets out to end the massacre, he finds that the living are impotent against Death. Lucy believes in him, but, when he's arrested on suspicion of murder and she is marked as the Soul Catcher's next target, there's not much she can do to save Bannister or herself.

The Frighteners includes some enjoyable, and potentially interesting, elements, none of which are given enough exposure to do them justice. Bannister's interaction with his ghostly con partners could have made for an enjoyable film on its own; here, it's part of the setup. Then there's the idea that the protagonist might have to kill himself to do battle with the Soul Collector on its own turf. Again, the possibility is only toyed with, not fully realized. At times, it's frustrating to watch The Frighteners, because the seeds of a good story are there, struggling to get out.

That said, the movie held my attention for its one-hundred ten minute running time. It's lighthearted and paced like a runaway train, and some of the gore-and-humor mix works. The special effects, which were done exclusively by a New Zealand company, are as impressive as anything produced by ILM. The Frighteners isn't as eye popping as Twister or Independence Day, but it functions as a nice piece of visual candy. Michael J. Fox does a better-than- adequate job in the lead role, and he and Trini Alvarado display a nice rapport, even if their romantic relationship remains underdeveloped.

The Frighteners is about as mixed a bag as you can get. The muddled story is a serious drawback, as are the host of unnecessary characters and subplots. A nutcase FBI goon (Jeffrey Combs) and a loony agoraphobic woman (Dee Wallace Stone) irritated me; every time they appeared, I wanted them to go away. The former, although supposedly on hand for comic relief, was a little too creepy to be funny, and the latter was critical only to an unnecessary plot twist. Essentially, neither was needed, and The Frighteners would have been better without them.

If there's one obvious aspect of this movie that recalls Heavenly Creatures, it's that Jackson once again plumbs the depths of his imagination. Next time out (possibly for his rumored re-make of King Kong), if he can wed that creativity with a substantive, less convoluted story, he should be able to regain the form that catapulted him to international acclaim last year.

Frighteners, The (New Zealand/United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1996-07-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1