The Frighteners (1996)

thefrighteners_1Starring Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne

Directed by Peter Jackson

Expectations: High. I love this.


The Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s transitional film, bridging the gap between his small, imaginative indie movies, and his blockbusters to come. The Frighteners isn’t a perfect amalgamation of these things, but it does represent the closest that Jackson could probably come to replicating the manic energy of his early work while under the watchful eye of Hollywood producers. Thankfully, Jackson’s executive producer here was Robert Zemeckis, who let Jackson be himself while trusting him to deliver a fun film. Jackson definitely delivers the goods, but it is also such a tonally varied film that it completely alienated most of the American audience, causing the film to undeservedly flop.

In addition to the wildly flip-flopping tone that goes from absurd comedy to grisly horror without a moment’s notice, the plot itself is nowhere close to being a traditional “Point A to Point B” Hollywood plot. Instead, the film opens with a thrilling scene that we have no context on, and then moves into introducing us to the many characters around town. This gives The Frighteners something of a small-town, Stephen King novel vibe, as Jackson sets up the world that his characters will play in before really going for the jugular. And like a good Stephen King novel, The Frighteners might take a little while to get going, but it is still engaging its audience with exciting and whimsical things around every corner.

thefrighteners_2Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is a paranormal investigator that most people in the town of Fairwater believe to be a con man preying on those who believe in the supernatural. This actually isn’t too far from the truth, but Frank can actually see and converse with ghosts. One night, while on a call, he sees a fiery number carved into one of his client’s foreheads. This brings us into the real plot of the film, the mysterious deaths by sudden heart attack that have plagued the town for the last few years. But even this mystery isn’t always the main drive of the film, as the film is ready and willing to take side jaunts whenever it sees fit. But this isn’t a bad thing — it’s exactly what makes this movie great.

Much like Bad Taste or Dead Alive, once Peter Jackson gets it rolling The Frighteners is a non-stop express train through many awesome, imaginative set pieces. This is one wild, manic film, and Jackson’s ability to wrangle traditional horror, horror comedy and genuine emotion serve the film very well. Sure, it’s watered down from the gorefest bonanza of Dead Alive, but The Frighteners is still a very similar film in the way it packs as much as it can into its runtime. The focus is shifted and much different from Dead Alive, though, making The Frighteners both a better film in a “Hollywood” sense, and a worse film in the overall filmography of Peter Jackson. But just taken on its own, there are few original ’90s Hollywood films with even half as much invention and imagination as Jackson has crammed into The Frighteners.

thefrighteners_3The film is notable for its extended use of computer FX, the first time Jackson went into the deep end of the digital playground. At times, the FX reminded me why I developed such a deep case of hatred for CG, but for the most part I thought the FX held up pretty well. It definitely looks like early CG, but they go to great lengths to make it integrate well. And with a story this wild, small issues with FX not looking real shouldn’t sink the film. It’s fun because of how daring they are at times with the FX, and those that work continue to look as great as they ever did.

But what really holds The Frighteners together are all the fantastic performances, shot energetically and beautifully through Peter Jackson’s moving camera. Having grown up watching and re-watching Back to the Future and its sequels, Michael J. Fox was always a favorite and he handles this role perfectly. There are shades of Marty McFly, especially when another character reminds HARD of Biff Tannen, but Fox’s character stands out as the psychologically frustrated and haunted character that the film needs, instead of just being “another Marty.” Trini Alvarado is also a perfect second lead to Fox, and their screen chemistry is palpable. They’re so good together that I wish there were a sequel! They could have called it The Frighteners 2: The Frightening :).

Jake Busey and Dee Wallace also turn in excellent performances in their respective roles, but the actor that I’m most happy to see on-screen is Jeffrey Combs. Not only is it great to see him out of the low-budget horror films he’s usually stuck in, Peter Jackson wrote an absolutely incredible, over-the-top weirdo for him to play and Combs blows it away. I don’t want to give anything of the character away, but trust me, the guy is unforgettable. Someone give Jeffrey Combs another meaty role!

The Frighteners is a great night’s entertainment for those ready for anything. Through the varied tone it carries, it feels like something that should’ve come out of the ’80s, as most films by the mid-’90s had eschewed the madcap fun for a focus on pseudo-realism. I should note that as much as I like this one, I also recognize it as a film that’s not for everyone, so only seek it out if you’ve got a twisted sense of humor.

7 comments to The Frighteners (1996)

  • Oh man, one of my all time favorite cinema experiences right here. That “skull through the poster” poster is easily one of the greatest promotional designs ever in modern cinema (IMHO) and Jackson really knocked this out of the park, as you say. Agreement on Jeff Combs, who rocks his creepy, eerie role, and Jake Busey (who played pretty much the same kind of role in Zemeckis’ Contact, out around similar times if memory serves) as the serial killer – is it just me, or does Busey really look like a serial killer? I think so.

    As you say, this film is a little hard to pin down tonally – it wavers between hard-core scares, comedy and a lot of slapstick – and I think this is definitely what put a lot of people off. And I also agree that there’s more creativity in this film than in about 10 generic films Hollywood produced in the same year. It’s a shame this film wasn’t more successful; having said that, if it HAD been a huge success, would we have got Lord Of The Rings when we did?

    And my suggestion for the (please, Dear God) sequel? The Frigh2eners: 2 Furious 2 Fright.

    • Ah man, I wish I had seen this in the theater! I’m sure it would play even better on the big screen. I do love that poster too, although it definitely didn’t put the butts in seats. I wonder how much effect a poster can have on a campaign, though. I would imagine most people don’t even see the poster. I agree that Jake Busey looks absolutely nuts, especially here where he’s really playing it up.

      Yeah, if it had been a big success who knows what would’ve happened with Rings. Peter Jackson initiated the project, so it’s possible he still would have gone directly into Middle Earth, perhaps with less cajoling to do of the execs. Or maybe its success would have given us another horror film first. Who’s to say, but even though this one definitely deserves more love than it gets, I’m happy with the way things turned out. Lord of the Rings rank as some of my favorite films of all time, and they seem to have happened at the perfect time for Jackson and crew. I can’t wait to crack into them in September! I haven’t watched them in years!

      HAHAHAHA, love your sequel title idea! Let’s get PJ on the phone!

  • You’ve got Lord Of The Rings coming next month? I’m so there!!!

    • Yeah my idea was to re-watch and review all his movies leading up to The Hobbit 2: The Legend of Curley’s Gold. I fell behind a little while back, but I’ve righted myself and should have LOTR rolling out in Sept. I’m so excited!

  • I watched this a couple years ago, and got a kick out of it. Michael J. Fox is great as always, and so is John Astin. Loads of fun.

    Talked a bit with Spikor at the time about its failure then and retroactive fandom. We both agreed that the success of Lord of the Rings has led a lot of people to give it a second chance. I also think that Michael J. Fox had a lot to do with it. At the time, people were still kind of thinking of him as Marty McFly (though it’d been more than half a decade), so they may not have been looking to see him in a horror(esque) movie. But when it’s one of the last live-action films he did (and he’s only just now getting back into live action TV), it becomes a curiosity on its own.

    • LOTR definitely led people back to this one, I just wish it led them all the way back to his even more fun super-splatter films Bad Taste and Dead Alive!

      I agree it’s a curiosity just for Fox’s sake. He wasn’t in many movies as it is, and none were distinctive enough to override that Marty McFly vibe in the public consciousness. I’ve liked this one ever since I saw it when it first came out on video, and I’ve just liked it more and more every time I’ve watched it. The director’s cut is also an improvement on the theatrical version, if you’re inclined to watch it again.

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