ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: The Frighteners
WEEK 6- "F"
Nominees: A Face in the Crowd, Frailty, The Frighteners, The Fountain, Fandango
Winner: The Frighteners
Background: For those who know their movies, The Frighteners was, for many, their first experience with New Zealand writer, director, and producer Peter Jackson, years before the height and acclaim of his epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Initially trounced during the summer of 1996 by Independence Day, The Frighteners has gone on to cult appreciation status thanks to its wild entertainment and groundbreaking special effects for its day.
The Frighteners, filmed in New Zealand modeled up to look like Midwest America, stars Michael J. Fox (in his last leading film role before returning to television and semi-retiring due to his Parkinson's disease) as a unique kind of con man. Ever since a tragic car accident that injured him and took the life of his wife years prior, Frank has been able to see, hear, and communicate with ghosts and the dearly departed. Retreating out of guilt from his life as an architect, Frank has now become a "hurse chaser," passing out business cards at funerals as a low-rent "psychic investigator." The rub is that he's got a pair of "associate" spooks working for him, Cyrus the 1970's player (Chi McBride) and Stuart the 1950's nerd (Jim Fyfe), to rile up people's homes enough for them to call Frank.
Frank eeks by and has mostly just the cemetery ghosts (including John Astin and R. Lee Ermy, among others) and the local sheriff (Troy Evans) to talk to. Business picks up when a rash of normal, healthy people are dropping dead with sudden heart attacks, branded with carved numbers on their foreheads that only Frank can see. Soon, a swooping Grim Reaper incarnate appears around town capable of harming both the living and the dead. Teaming up with a curious recent widow, Dr. Lucy, (Trini Alvarado) and dodging an FBI agent specializing in the occult (Jeffrey Combs of Re-Animator fame, a nice touch) who suspects him as the culprit to these recent deaths, Frank tries desperately to investigate and get to the bottom of this haunting and dangerous new presence, which seems to have ties to an old serial killer (Jake Busey) from the town's past.
Reaction: 2 STARS-- The Frighteners is definitely a up-and-down roller coaster ride of comedy and horror. Peter Jackson, with nods to many B-movies, conveys a faster pace, a more chipper spirit, and a more domestic tone than a gloomy-yet-decadent Tim Burton feature. With the presence of Burton veteran Danny Elfman steering the musical score, The Frighteners has its necessary darkness and spookiness with a side of weird. From an acting standpoint, Michael J. Fox was clearly game to throw himself into the material and does a fine job. The smaller parts (Busey, E.T.'s Dee Wallace, Alvarado, and particularly Combs) get a lot of moments to shine and participate in the supernatural schtick.
Like a scatter gun hitting everything in sight, the movie has a maddening pace and is all over the place. For me, its frantic organization is frustrating, and the shouting/talking ghosts get old fast. It's easily the weakest movie thus far in the "Alphabet Film Club." However, I can't deny the inventive set pieces and action sequences that weave well into the story arc the movie is trying to tell. Above all of that, the special effects are absolutely original and outstanding. Full of texture and interaction, you will love how the Grim Reaper cleverly seeps through walls, carpets, and surfaces. The effects hold up very well sixteen year later and put Weta Workshop on the road to its future significance as a place outside of Industrial Light and Magic for high-end and challenging effects.
LESSON #1: CHEATERS MAY PROFIT BUT NEVER WIN-- Frank runs an effective and profitable scheme milking his supernatural connections, but has an empty hole in his life to show for it. Like other con artists, he loses touch with his real identify and his day-to-day living becomes the con. Gone is the loving and inventive architect. Frank, in a lot of ways, is as dead as his associates.
LESSON #2: USING YOUR SKILLS FOR THE RIGHT CAUSE-- In many cases (take the true-life Frank Abignale character from Catch Me If You Can), criminals have advanced skills that can come in handy in the right setting. We commonly dismiss those skills for their uses, but don't properly respect the talent at hand. In connecting with and falling for Dr. Lucy along the way, Frank finds something to fight for and decides to use his gifts for a helpful cause rather than his usual less-than-stellar one.
LESSON #3: THE SCAR OF PAST DEATHS ON PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES-- The town and townspeople in The Frighteners have never really gotten out from under the dark cloud created by the Johnny Charles Bartlett (Busey's character) massacre and murders from years ago. The same can be said for Frank losing his wife. In both real and fictional settings, heinous crimes like that leave a scar on those that lived through them. As generations and time pass, those bad memories and tragic history may fade into urban legend, but their resonance and labeling recognition never go away. Just ask Columbine, Colorado or Amityville, New York.