Halloween Count Down: 10 - The Frighteners (1996)

Before trekking across Middle Earth Peter Jackson made splatter gore comedies such as Bad Taste (1987) and Brain Dead (1992) (both of which I recommend). He changed direction with Heavenly creatures (1994) receiving critical for doing so. The film was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay Oscars. Following this the studios came knocking. Jackson put forward “The Frightners” a film he had penned with writing partner and wife Fran Walsh; it wasn’t the film the studios were hoping for.

The film follows window and spiritual psychic Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) who uses his psychic abilities (and two ghost partners) to carry out haunting cons. A Ghost disguised in Death’s robes is also numbering and murdering people in the small town and Frank becomes the prime suspect. Eventually he discovers that the ghostly killer is Johnny Bartlett. Johnny, with his girlfriend Patricia, carried out a massacre 30 years previously and killed Frank’s wife following a car accident.

This film is a mishmash of tone but there are so many good elements I enjoy, the whole experience becomes satisfying. Even without knowing the full behind the scenes story the unevenness smacks of studio interference. Jackson’s core story is incredibly dark, incorporating coping with grief, survivor’s guilt and obsession. This is overlaid with strange comedic scenes of flying babies and ghost sex jokes. The latter have an air of studio “notes” to make it lighter.

The final 20 minutes are mostly spared the comedic injections and benefit from it. It’s a cat and mouse chase through the abandoned hospital where Bartlett’s massacre took place. Bannister is trying to get to the hospital chapel but keeps having flashes back to the massacre. We and Bannister watch helplessly as Bartlett and Patricia kill innocent people left and right. The joy taken in the senseless killing is shocking and while a good piece of film it fits awkwardly with the previous 70 minutes.

The killing of the character Milton Dammers further suggests studio issues. Originally written as an off screen gunshot to the chest. However once the MPAA made it clear the film would get an R instead of the much coveted PG-13 Jackson filmed Dammers’ head being blown apart on screen. Also, the fact this was held back from a 1996 Halloween release for a January 1997 release in the UK strongly suggests that the studio didn’t know what to do with the end result.

Despite the unevenness the script is good. Frank and Patricia are parallel characters. Both trapped in the aftermath of the death of a lover, not able to move on. They are being forced to face their past on a daily basis. Frank in his unfinished dream home he was building for his wife and Patricia from her mother’s unrelenting hatred and fear. This theme of loss and being unable to move on is carried through most of the film. The spirits that remain on earth decay and start to fall apart, it is only if they let go and move to the other side that they become “pure spirits”.

There are several standout performances in the film. The first is Jeffery Coombs as the damaged and deranged FBI agent Milton Dammers. He steals every scene he’s in despite leaning a little too much towards wacky comedy. There’s so much more to the character. His reaction when shouted at by women hints at past trauma. Also the scene in which he recounts how Bannister’s wife died could have been just an exposition dump. By adding in a series ticks and character flourishes it becomes just as much about his character as progressing the plot. I would love to see this character in his own film.

The second is Dee Wallace as Patricia. For the first two acts she is the perfect meek guilt ridden victim. When this mask is torn away she relishes in the wild menace and freedom of being able to be the killer she has always wanted to be. While this twist is sign posted pretty early on her character portrayal makes the reveal so much fun. Another highlight is an amazing cameo by R. Lee Emery as a version of the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.

The decaying ghost make-up affects are really good throughout but the film is let down a little by early CGI affects. They are flat and lack texture which took me out the film in parts. Despite these flaws the film has a look which works for the content.

The Frighteners is an enjoyable horror yarn that has confused moments of horror and comedy but has darkness at its heart that makes it a Halloween must see.