Before he disappeared to make films in Middle Earth, Peter Jackson wrote, along with his longtime writing partner Fran Walsh, and directed this little gem of a film; a blackly comic supernatural caper from 1996, with Michael J Fox in one of his best non-time travelling roles (also incidentally one of his last feature film appearances before his Parkinson’s diagnosis.): The Frighteners.
Fox stars as Psychic Investigator Frank Bannister who, after a near death experience is able to see the other side. Rather than be tortured by being able to see ghosts, Frank employs a trio of spirits to haunt houses so that he can con the occupants into hiring him to remove the ‘demonic presence’. For a fee, of course. Basically, he’s an anti-Ghostbuster. But before long, the spectre of death falls over the town. Literally in this case, with a hooded ghost that only Frank can see, causing the townsfolk to drop dead from heart attacks. Frank, after becoming chief suspect for the murders due to his ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as well as being able to see those marked for death due to a ghostly number carved into their soon to be dead foreheads, must find out exactly what going on before the body count rises further.
It’s an odd film this, as it switches tone so often throughout its running time that you’d be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Starting off as a very comedic film, very much in the vein of Ghostbusters, it soon develops into a (halfway) serious supernatural serial killer movie before the close. But the shifts make perfect sense within the film itself, with the seriousness of the situation escalating you’d hope the film would treat it with the right level of respect. And by the time we reach the climax, you’re hopefully fully on board with the film that it’s as riveting as it would be in a more ‘traditional’ serial killer film.
But the film certainly never pauses for breath; it throws idea after idea at the audience and expects you to keep up. In two hours you have the afterlife, ghosts, a murder mystery, a blossoming romance, heaven and hell, flashbacks, as well as a lot of good comedy and a few scares chucked in as well. There’s no chance of the leisurely pace of the Lord of the Rings here; things happen quickly and often in very (intentionally) cluttered and busy scenes. Admittedly, it’s a very messy film but it’s one with a lot of charm and it zips along cramming a lot in that if there’s one bit that doesn’t work you’ll have gotten caught up in the next bit of madcappery. It’s very much like Jackson’s debut films Bad Taste and Braindead, in that respect with its constant noise and its SOMETHING IS ALWAYS HAPPENING nature even in the quiet scenes. And it’s buoyed along by an exuberant score from Danny Elfman, bringing to mind his work on Tim Burton’s Batman films, as well as the film’s closest comparison, Beetlejuice. In fact, perhaps the highest compliment you could offer The Frighteners is that it feels like the best Tim Burton film he never made. Although that in itself does a disservice to Jackson. Perhaps a better way to think of it is a lighter version of the last Forgotten Nerdy Gem, Constantine.
Fox is, as always, brilliant, with the frenetic pace of the film suiting his trademark panicky line delivery perfectly. But he’s ably supported by an eclectic cast of mostly unknowns, or at the very least no big marquee names, who take the spotlight away from the star. Each character has their own quirky tic to add to the mix, with the standouts being Frank’s trio of ghosts (Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe and John Astin) but the highest honour goes to Jeffrey Combs’ unhinged Milton Dammers, who is the film’s most memorable oddball.
To say too much more would be to spoil the film’s surprises, of which there are many, but overall it’s a clever, quirky little film that deals with big themes but never in a downbeat or remotely serious way. It’s pretty over the top at points but never veers into stupid territory and it has a charm about it that can’t help but win you over.