The Frighteners

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

In 1990, architect Frank Bannister loses his wife Debra in a car accident. He gives up his profession, letting his unfinished “dream house” sit incomplete for years. Following the accident, Frank gains the power to see ghosts and befriends three: Cyrus, a 1970s gangster, Stuart, a 1950s nerd, and the Judge, a gunslinger from the Old West. The ghosts haunt houses in the area to accumulate work for Frank’s ghostbusting business; Frank then “exorcises” the houses for a fee. Most locals see him as a con man.

Frank cons local health nut Ray Lynskey and his wife Lucy, a physician. Ray dies of a heart attack not long after. An encounter with his ghost leads Frank to discover that an entity representing himself as the Grim Reaper is killing people and marking numbers on their foreheads that only the psychic can see. Frank’s wife Debra had a similar number when she was found.

Because Frank can see the numbers ahead of time, he can foretell the murders, but this puts him under suspicion with the police, even Sheriff Walt Perry, who is usually patient with Frank. He calls in FBI agent Milton Dammers. Highly paranoid, obsessive and disturbed from years of undercover work, Dammers is convinced that Frank is psychically responsible for the killings. Frank is captured and detained after the town’s newspaper editor-in-chief Magda Rees-Jones is killed – she has previously publishing articles attacking him. During the confusion of the arrest, the Judge “dies” when he tries to protect Frank from the Reaper.

Lucy investigates the murders and becomes a target of the Grim Reaper. She is attacked while visiting Frank in jail, but they escape with the help of Cyrus and Stuart, who are both dissolved in the process. Frank wants to commit suicide to stop the Grim Reaper. Lucy helps Frank have a near-death experience by putting him into hypothermia and using barbiturates to stop his heart. Dammers abducts Lucy revealing that he had been a victim of Charles Manson and his “Family” in 1969.

In his ghostly form, Frank confronts the Grim Reaper and discovers that he is the ghost of Johnny Bartlett, a psychiatric hospital orderly who killed 12 people about 32 years earlier, before being captured, convicted, and executed. Patricia Bradley, then a teenager, was accused as his accomplice, although she escaped the death penalty due to her underage status. Lucy resuscitates Frank and they visit Patricia. Unknown to them, Patricia is still in love with Bartlett and on friendly, homicidal terms with Bartlett’s ghost. Lucy and Frank trap Bartlett’s spirit in his urn, which Patricia has kept. The pair make for the chapel of the now-abandoned psychiatric hospital hoping to send Bartlett’s ghost to Hell.

Patricia and Dammers chase them through the ruins. Dammers throws the ashes away, releasing Bartlett’s ghost again before Patricia kills him. Bartlett’s ghost and Patricia hunt down Frank and Lucy. Frank realizes that Bartlett’s ghost, with Patricia’s help, was responsible for his wife’s death and the number on her brow.

Out of bullets, Patricia strangles Frank to death, but Frank in spirit form rips Patricia’s spirit from her body, forcing Bartlett to follow them. Bartlett grabs Patricia’s ghost, while Frank makes it to Heaven, where he is reunited with Cyrus and Stuart along with his wife Debra. Bartlett and Patricia’s spirits claim they will now go back to claim more lives, but the portal to Heaven quickly changes to a demonic looking appearance, and they are both dragged to Hell. Frank learns it is not yet his time and is sent back to his body, as Debra’s spirit tells him to “be happy.”

Frank and Lucy fall in love. Lucy is now able to see ghosts as well. Frank later begins demolishing the unfinished dream house and building a life with Lucy while the ghost of Dammers is riding around in the sheriff’s car.

REVIEW:

A couple of years ago, AMC was showing The Frighteners as part of some scary marathon they were having at a time that wasn’t Halloween. I can’t remember what else was shown, but I know that Fright Night was shown either before or after this. I didn’t get the chance to watch for whatever reason, but I did say I was going to eventually get to it and, well, you get the picture.

What is this about?

Blending humor and horror, director Peter Jackson’s outlandish tale centers on shady psychic detective Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), who uses his ability to communicate with the dead to boost his business. But when a sinister spirit is unleashed and members of the community are mysteriously killed, the P.I. — with the help of a comely widow (Trini Alvarado) — must use his powers to get to the bottom of the supernatural slayings.

What did I like?

Balance. Horror comedies seem to be the type of films that everyone either love or hate, depending on if they swing toward the horror or comedy side of thing more. In this case, I believe we have a good balance between the two genres in this film, thanks to some good performances from the cast and decent direction from those on the other side of the camera.

Question. As the paranoid FBI agent, Jeffrey Combs is great. He actually reminds me of some shifty gangster turned stool pigeon from those old gangster movies, but that may be because of the hair. I wonder if he used this character as a basis for his voicing of The Question in Justice League Unlimited years later, because they have very similar timbres, except Questions isn’t insane…at least not in the same way.

Plot. I’m a little shaky as to my opinion on the plot, but if it gives an excuse to have a bunch of ghosts running around, then you can’t really complain, I suppose. The way the film climaxes is pretty nice. As a matter of fact that whole final sequence in the asylum (when did asylums become so scary, btw?) is a big payoff with all the shooting, stabbing, falling elevators, decaying floors and whatnot.

What didn’t I like?

Length. Can this be? Peter Jackson directed a film that was under 3 hrs? Even better, it doesn’t have that stretched out, padded feeling. Or does it? For me, at nearly 2 hrs, I felt this was a bit too long. Cut out a good 15-30 minutes and this would have been just fine, but that didn’t happen and we get this. I suppose it could be worse, though.

Newspaper. There seems to be some animosity between Michael J. Fox’s character and the editor of the local paper. At a couple of points in the film, I thought she was going to have something to do with the murders, or at least come back as a ghost the way the husband did earlier in the film.

Effects. For 1996, these aren’t exactly bad effects, but the Grim Reaper stuff still seemed rather cheap. Maybe I’m looking at it through modern eyes, but that whole computer grease look didn’t work, especially since a few years earlier liquid metal was done so convincingly in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a technique that still stands up here in 2013, so there’s no excuse!

Now that I’ve watched both, I can say without a doubt that this was a heavy influence on Paranorman. With a title like The Frighteners, the movie poster, and the way a good 60% of this flick play out, one would think is it some truly scary film, but it isn’t. As a matter of fact, this is one of those Halloween party films you put in while your guests are arriving, so that you can warm up before the scary “main event” films. That being said, for what it is, this isn’t a bad film at all. I just feel it needs a little work to be better. Does that mean I don’t like it? Of course not! As a matter of fact, I actually recommend it, so give it a go, eh?

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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