The Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s lost masterpiece, an important cinematic cog linking his genre work of the past with the monumental achievements in fantasy filmmaking he would attain with the Lord of the Rings. Coming right after the personal, praised Heavenly Creatures, Jackson had wanted to make a more mainstream film. Robert Zemeckis stepped in and offered the director a chance to make a full-blown Hollywood hit. With longtime partner Fran Walsh, Jackson had been kicking around the idea of a Ghostbusters-style psychic who conned people out of money by pretending to purge spirits from their home. The only catch was that Frank Bannister could actually see specters, and was using the otherworldly agents as his grifting partners. Agreeing to let the director film in his native New Zealand (which more or less passes for the Pacific Northwest) and also allowing all the post-production work to be done by Kiwi craftsman, The Frighteners suddenly had full U.S. studio support.
Though it failed to become the blockbuster everyone had hoped for, The Frighteners still became a real stepping-stone in its creator’s canon. Beyond its import to his career, Jackson’s film is also important in the ongoing evolution of CGI. Before WETA’s work in The Frighteners (they also helmed a few scenes in Creatures), computer-generated imagery was seen as the exclusive domain of the Americans—and ILM in particular. While Jurassic Park will always be seen as a monumental step forward, The Frighteners was a formidable attempt at the seamless incorporation of motherboard rendered visuals into a narrative. The main monster here, a wonderfully fluid and fierce figure known as The Reaper, may seem a tad dated in light of our post-millennial management of CGI elements, but for its time, the callous cloak with a deadly sickle was quite a quantum leap.
Jackson also pushed the basic boundaries of the new effects format in his film. For him, it wasn’t just eye candy or a visual set piece. The CGI characters in The Frighteners had to live and breath, acting with emotional resonance and believable authenticity. Though he would have much more success in this department with Rings (and now King Kong), the ghosts created for the film really do live up to their spectral specifics. Thanks to the added footage included in the new director’s cut, we get to see Jackson having more fun with his phantoms, putting them through their physics-defying paces to increase the crazy cartoon-like anarchy of the film. Jackson enjoys giving the Judge character a less-than-complete corpse, and has fun fooling with some attempted splatter effects as well. The entire movie feels like a resume reel for a man who would one day create the most consistently artistic and accomplished trilogy in the history of motion pictures.
But it’s the amazing acting that really sells The Frighteners. Michael J. Fox—near the end of his reign as a box-office champ and ready to challenge himself with different, difficult roles—finds a lot of heart and horror in the backstory of his bogus psychic detective. Frank Bannister is supposed to be a scarred man, more figuratively than literally, and Fox wears such wounding across his still cherubic face. But when asked to dig deep and play the depths of despair, he really delivers the goods. Trini Alvardo, Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey, and the ghostly trio of John Astin, Jim Fyfe, and Chi McBride are all excellent. But if the movie truly belongs to one individual, it would have to be everyone’s favorite Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs. As messed-up FBI flatfoot Milton Dammers, Combs creates a character so unique, so unbelievably idiosyncratic and iconic that he truly deserved Oscar recognition for this work. Every line reading is like an adventure, every reaction a study in sensational strangeness. By the time he’s reduced to a near-routine villain, spitting out his threats with varying vileness, we want as much Milton as we can get.
One of the best things about The Frighteners, though, is that Jackson never overstays his cinematic welcome. We receive just enough Dammers to satisfy our sentiments, not so much that we grow weary of his weirdness. The same with the spooks. Had Jackson turned them into the poltergeist version of the Three Stooges, all slapstick and joking jive, we’d want less of their ethereal lunacy. Indeed, everything about The Frighteners is measured and metered out in sly, successful segments. The film has the real feeling of a completed, complementary work, where narrative ends are tied up and tossed together with other cinematic specialness to create a solid, satisfying whole. There are those who believe that the film is still missing a key entertainment element (and they will probably feel the same after viewing the long-dormant director’s cut), but the truth is that, for its time, The Frighteners was one masterful movie. It deserved more credit than it got during its initial release