Missing Reels: “The Frighteners” (1996)

Missing Reels examines overlooked, unappreciated or unfairly maligned movies. Sometimes these films haven’t been seen by anyone, and sometimes they’ve been seen by everyone… who loathed them. Sometimes they’ve simply been forgotten. But in any case, Missing Reels argues that they deserve to be seen and admired by more people.

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When most moviegoers hear the name Peter Jackson, they think of a sprawling fantasy adventure like he delivered with “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies. However, Jackson got his start with low budget works, first with the independently made horror comedy “Bad Taste” (1987) and then with the deeply profane Muppets send-up “Meet the Feebles” (1989). While popular in New Zealand, these were mainly cult films for international audiences who had to purposefully seek out these quirky and raunchy examples of genre by the then-little known Kiwi auteur. His first real brush with international acclaim came with “Dead Alive” in 1992 (also known as “Braindead”), which was a gory zombie flick that included some of the most gruesome, outlandish and hilarious effects seen on film since Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead 2.” Gorehounds and horror fiends had found a new sensation with Jackson and reveled in the madness he was bringing to their screens and VHS rental stores.

The filmmaker really broke out internationally with “Heavenly Creatures,” his poetic tale of magical realism that centered on the dangerous romance between two (ultimately) murderous teen girls played by a young Kate Winslet and a young Melanie Lynskey. The film garnered acclaim outside of the genre crowd and proved that Jackson was a versatile filmmaker capable not just of incredible sequences (usually involving gore) but also of truly understanding the emotional depths of his characters.

Based on the successes of those two films, it makes sense that the New Zealand director was soon brought over to the States to work with producer Robert Zemeckis on his first American co-production (though the film was shot in New Zealand). Originally, the film was to be made under the auspices of a “Tales from the Crypt” title (like “Demon Knight” or “Bordello of Blood”), but eventually it was made a film in its own right, though it did keep a lot of the gallows humor one might associate with the EC Comics’ tradition. “The Frighteners” is a 1996 film that stars Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Chi McBride, Jeffrey Combs and Dee Wallace Stone that more people should be aware of and seek out to watch.

The last film Jackson made before venturing to Middle Earth, “The Frighteners,” is a fun spookhouse ride of a film that features Fox as a small town man who uses his abilities to see ghosts to ply a trade as a psychic investigator. Meanwhile, a specter that bears an awful close resemblance to the Grim Reaper is haunting the town and killing off its unwitting folk. The film isn’t terribly scary, although there are a few surprising jump scares and orchestral stings that may make some skittish viewers recoil in fright, but the film is a lot of fun and works so well because Jackson clearly put a lot of thought into the world (and its rules) he was creating with his various phantoms. The film also acts as a stepping stone between his more practical F/X work and his CGI work, melding the two here as he did with “Lord of the Rings” by using CGI in ways that hadn’t been used before.

Some of the jokes are juvenile and obvious, but it’s part of that haunted house vibe that carnival barker Jackson has instilled in “The Frighteners.” It’s entertaining to explore this world of haunts and spooks, with scumbag conman Fox leading the way and interacting with the denizens of the dead. And while the mystery as to who is behind the killing isn’t too hard to crack, there is a great reversal that shows off one actress’ abilities to play a deeply complicated role and makes the final act an exciting race against time and death.

Also of note is Jeffrey Combs as FBI Agent Milton Dammers, a man who has spent 20 years submerged in the occult and undercover in cults for the sake of his country. What has emerged is a deeply troubled, borderline psychotic personality that goes off on odd tangents, looks for clues where there are none, and reacts nauseously to women screaming at him. Combs practically steals the show as Dammers and is a hilarious foil to Fox’s Frank Bannister as someone wrapped up in a world he can’t even begin to understand.

The design work on the ghosts, especially John Astin’s “Judge” character (designed by Rick Baker) is phenomenal, and Jackson does a great job of filling the screen with all sorts of ways to abuse those in spectral forms. The Reaper character’s CGI hasn’t aged particularly well, but it’s still a cool visual and was pretty much reused when Jackson was designing the Ringwraiths for “Lord of the Rings.” It’s a simple, ancient appearance, but it manages to be creepy and foreboding even when it strains the credulity of what computer imagery can do. Even with his shoestring budget beginning in “Bad Taste,” Jackson has always been able to deliver excellent sequences with memorable visuals and that continues into “The Frighteners” as well.

Many people have probably not sought out much of Jackson’s work pre-“Lord of the Rings,” or if they have, they may have only seen his more obscure New Zealand contributions and glossed over this studio work. “The Frighteners” lacks the profane sensibility of his earlier output and the tenderness of “Heavenly Creatures,” but it does suggest this is a filmmaker with a real perspective that can create a world to visit and make an adventure out of it. Not all horror films are great Halloween films; some are too dark or misanthropic to be festive enough for the holiday. In order to be a great Halloween movie, it needs to be lighthearted, fun, accessible and remind viewers what it was like to tell ghost stories as a child. Peter Jackson’s “The Frighteners” is just that kind of film – one that people of all ages can enjoy and watch with glee, as it moves along at a quick pace and is full of macabre humor and impressively icky images.

  

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