It’s hard to remember a time when Peter Jackson was NOT synonymous with middle earth and hobbits, but long before he gave us one of the best (and worst) trilogies of our time, he was an up and coming director who helmed the strange horror comedy “The Frighteners.”
Produced by Robert Zemeckis and written by Fran Walsh, it is a collaboration bursting with potential of greatness even if it suffers from tonal imbalances and violent elements that simply don’t hold up into today’s climate. It sports a solid cast without weak points as far as performances go, special effects that stand the test of time, and a competent enough story to be remembered by those who enjoyed it as well as a catalyst for major future projects. Unfortunately, “The Frighteners” suffers heavily from tonal imbalance, with its narrative sprawling a bit too far to really come together as well as intended.
That’s not to say the film isn’t enjoyable, as “The Frighteners” is a prime example of what fantastic filmmakers can do with flawed ideas. Narratively messy and tonally imbalanced films can be watchable in the right hands, and this one is about as close as you can get to a successful attempt to make it all make sense. You can see all the makings of a brilliant filmmaker and competent screenwriter here; they all simply need a little bit more pruning and focus which they find with “Lord of the Rings.”
The first two acts are easily the most enjoyable, blending the comedy of things like “Ghostbusters” with the weirdness of “Twin Peaks.” The film is quirky and silly, operating with an acute level of self awareness of their absurd premise. The final act doesn’t quite hit the mark, ramping up the violence and disturbing subject matter to a level that becomes wholly off putting to most. “The Frighteners” is a two act film, starting strong and ending with a few too many WTF moments.
Luckily the film sports just as much of an impressive cast as it does filmmakers behind the camera. We tend to forget just how charming and likable Michael J. Fox is onscreen. That’s not to say we forget his most beloved film roles, just that due to his illness we have a tendency to lose sight of just how damn good he is. Fox brings a grounded charm to the titular character Frank Banister, one that keeps you intrigued even if the plot around him tends to fall apart at times. Likewise, Trini Alvarado as Lucy Lynskey is a wonderful compliment to Fox, as both really become the driving force behind the film. They have fantastic onscreen chemistry, which allows more absurd and support characters to go all in without going completely over the top.
That’s not to say everyone elevates the messy narrative though. Jeffrey Combs‘ Milton Dammers does the best with what he’s given, but becomes far too eccentric and out there to really find relevance to the overall plot. One could argue that you need a human antagonist to round out the grim reaper mystery, but Dammers feels out of place from the moment he shows up, diving head first into the absurdity without any regard for trying to balance himself out. It’s this kind of character that really sends the film off the rails the longer it goes on, abandoning the cool, sharp, and mildly weird premise for a no holds barred, all out strange and violent conclusion. I’m all down for weird and experimental genre blending, but you really have to set that tone early on and “The Frighteners” escalates this beyond the framework it sets itself up to be.
There’s also a giant elephant in the room that can’t be ignored: the very premise of gun violence portrayed as the set up for our antagonists. I get that this movie takes place before we really understood or ever experienced the idea of mass shootings, but “The Frighteners” literally uses this very thing as nothing more than exposition to set up our future villain. It feels so insensitive and out of touch with our current climate, and while you can give it pass for not having any idea that this was something we would reckon with for years to come, “The Frighteners” placing this as a front and center narrative feels extremely uncomfortable 25 years later. It also happens so early on in the film that it’s hard to let it go the longer the film goes on. There’s also some strange choices with The Judge (Jon Astin) having sex with a mummy tomb for….reasons?
It’s moments like this that stop “The Frighteners” from not only having better critical reception but also being remember by more people. These things are just too strange and too out of place to really count the film as a comprehensive narrative. There are multiple plot points that could be deleted altogether that would actually enhance the overall enjoyment of the film. There’s a lot to like, but there’s a lot to make you get up and turn it off. It gets weird to say the least, some would even say disturbing. But you can still see all of the building blocks of great filmmaking. “The Frighteners” sports some fantastic visuals, most of which still hold up today. The majority of the cast elevates the script regardless of how chaotic the narrative is, and gives us performances to enjoy throughout.
Overall, “The Frighteners” is a fun but flawed film that can be enjoyed as long as you’re willing to excuse some of its more bizarre elements. You can rent it on Amazon Prime here.