Film

Short Cuts - Forgotten Gems: The Frighteners (1996)

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

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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