The Frighteners is uneven, but worth a watch

One of the reasons I like science fiction so much is I like rules. No, not rules like “don’t swim an hour after eating” or “no running.” The rules I like are more along the lines of “light is the speed limit of the universe” or “Don’t feed them after midnight or get them wet.” Any kid knows Dracula shouldn’t walk around in the daytime unless, of course, he slopped on a higher number SPF. When Asimov invented The Three Laws of Robotics it didn’t restrict his work as one might expect, but set him apart from the rest of the SF writers of that era in a major way. Restraint’s a good thing. You need it in addition to a healthy imagination. Crafting a story should be more like playing chess as opposed to Connect Four.

The problem with ghosts is they have no rules. Silver bullets don’t work and they don’t have a brain to destroy. Did you ever see the 1999 version of The Haunting? Ghosts could do absolutely anything or nothing at all, depending on what the writers needed at any given moment. Man, I hate shit like that. The same problems infect The Frighteners, too, but thankfully they’re fewer and farther between.

The first time I saw The Frighteners I was twelve or thirteen and I absolutely hated it. I’m still trying to figure out why ghosts fall through walls when they try to lean on them, but can walk on horizontal surfaces (at least if it’s on the first floor of a building) and ride in car trunks. And why can some ghosts smack Michael J. Fox around while others get stuck in doors? While we’re at it, why the hell is one of the dead sidekicks cursed to wear 1970s clothes forever while R. Lee Ermey’s ghost can change his clothes just by thinking about it? Speaking of Ermey’s character, I don’t know if I disliked it more when his early scene seemed like an unnecessary (and not very funny) cameo or when the plot curved back around to reveal it was a setup to an ultimately pointless twist.

Let’s get one thing straight: I love Peter Jackson’s work. I really do. I’m not knocking the director and, to be sure, I’m barely even knocking the movie because it’s actually pretty solid in terms of structure and sometimes—okay, rarely—it plays like a bizarre version of Ghostbusters. I was somewhat invested until the tiresome climax which seems to go on for half an hour. And let’s face it, the jokes in the movie feel more like afterthoughts. I have a feeling someone with money on the line called it too dark and hastily told a script doctor to “make it funnier.” As a comedy it just doesn’t work. Having an elderly ghost screw a mummy is a pretty dumb gag, far below the credibility of the guy who made Heavenly Creatures, especially when the ghost is initially turned on by the bone structure in an x-ray.

Oh, and as a horror picture it doesn’t work either.

If you must know the plot, let me rattle it off as quickly as possible. Michael J. Fox is a former architect who had a car crash in which his wife died. The traumatic event apparently gave him the ability to see ghosts (just go with it). His only friends in the world are three ghosts who he uses to terrorize people who recently lost a loved one. You know, this guy just seems like an asshole when I put it in words because then the mourning people typically pay him a few hundred bucks to rid their homes of the evil spirits.

In addition to Jackson I’m also a fan of Jeffery “I gave him life!” Combs, but here he’s more like a Jim Carrey impersonator, not to mention his character is a rip-off of Major Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In that movie there’s a gag in which you think he’s going to torture Marion, but it turns out his would-be instrument of pain is just a portable coat hanger. In this movie the character reaches into his jacket and instead of the expected gun he pulls out an inflatable donut. Yes, hilarious.

That’s it. I have nothing else bad to say about this film. I mean, other than the sound effects of the squirt gun. I’m not sure what was going on in that scene, but—you know what? That’s it. All my complaints are out of the way. Well, okay, except for the fact Michael J. Fox drives like a maniac despite the fact he killed his own wife in a car accident. But anyway, I’ll bite my tongue if I remember anymore complaints from here on out.

You should know this movie looks amazing. Seriously amazing. If you’re not watching it on a projector or an LED screen, you’re likely missing out. The best shots are in the opening reel, but the breathtaking views are peppered throughout. Then there are the special effects which had to have been a nightmare for the filmmakers, but they pay off. Wikipedia says:

The visual effects were created by Jackson’s Weta Digital, which had only been in existence for three years. This, plus the fact that The Frighteners required more digital effects shots than almost any movie made up until that time, resulted in the eighteen-month period for effects work by Weta Digital being largely stressed.

Also worth noting is Trini Alvarado who doesn’t have much to do as the leading lady, but damn it, she should be in a lot more movies. She’s just one of those people you like to look at. Fox, on the other hand, does what he does very well, but he’s not right for this picture, which was his last leading role. As for Jake Busey… well, what the hell can you say about Jake Busey? He’s another one of those people you like to look at and while I didn’t buy his character, it was interesting to see him paired with a brunette Dee Wallace.

The sum is greater than the parts, but it really is worth a look as it’s currently on Netflix Instant. Perhaps the reason I hated it so much the first time is because I had to pay to see it. Or maybe I was just expecting a bigger, better version of Bad Taste or Brain Dead. If you do watch it, pay attention to the opening shot, which floats through a window in a very familiar manner. What does that shot remind you of? If you had HBO in the nineties, you’ll probably place the connection in an instant. I’m guessing it’s no mistake the first credit is “Robert Zemeckis Presents.”

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