Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Terror/Violence
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Dee Wallace Stone, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, R. Lee Ermey, Chi McBride & Jim Fyfe
THE FRIGHTENERS is not only one of the best horror-comedies to come out of the 90’s, but also a significant stepping stone for Peter Jackson’s career. Between low-budget New Zealand cult films (DEAD-ALIVE, MEET THE FEEBLES) and big budget epics (THE MIDDLE EARTH saga, KING KONG), Jackson carved his way into the mainstream with this humorous ghost story. The effects (a blend of practical and CGI) might seem very over-the-top by today’s standards, but the film holds up as a hugely entertaining flick that’s ripe for the Halloween season!
Frank Banister is a former architect turned paranormal investigator. Blessed with phenomenal psychic powers, Frank uses a few ghost friends to haunt potential customers and makes bank in “cleansing” of the hauntings. When his small town is besieged by a plague of mysterious deaths, Frank begins seeing a ghostly figure resembling the Grim Reaper and fiery numbers appearing on soon-to-be dead people’s heads. It turns out that a great evil is on a rampage and Frank is the only one who can put a stop to it. Aided by Lucy, a customer/love interest, Frank must solve the mystery of the supernatural force on the loose and also contend with a rogue FBI agent convinced that Frank is behind the deaths.
The biggest element that truly sells THE FRIGHTENERS as a superior horror comedy is the script. This story is clever, creative, and interesting. The mystery aspect might seem fairly obvious to some viewers, but the film plays out in a fairly suspenseful way. It also manages to incorporate spectacle into the story in a fashion that doesn’t feel forced or unnecessary. Some movies rely on extravagant effects as glue to hold a messy excuse for a story together. FRIGHTENERS uses (at the time) fairly impressive CGI to bring the semi-transparent spirits to life, but also has its share of touching scenes that don’t have any deceased characters present either. When certain protagonists/antagonists require additions to appear on-screen, it offers a legitimate reason to use some (at the time) cutting edge effects often. Even when though a few moments of CGI haven’t aged very well, their cheesy nature lends well to the humor of the film.
The plot may be awesome on its own, but its made all the more enjoyable by stellar performances. Michael J. Fox is great as Frank. Besides sporting a smartass attitude, Fox adds a layer of humanity to a character who may have been seen as a pure scumbag in any other movie. Here, he’s the unlikely hero and the viewer has every reason to root for him. Trini Alvarado is solid as Lucy. She’s far more than just a bland love interest to be used for a damsel in distress plot device. There’s an independence to her and Frank needs her as much as she needs him to beat the supernatural menace terrorizing the town. Dee Wallace Stone, R. Lee Ermey, and Jake Busey are good in colorful side roles as well. As Frank’s undead friends, John Astin (Gomez from the original ADDAMS FAMILY TV series), Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe are funny as comic relief. The best performance comes from a show-stealing Jeffrey Combs. As the mentally unstable FBI agent Milton Dammers, Combs brings the biggest laughs and makes for (personally) one of the funniest villains to ever grace the silver screen.
Though it might not be nearly to the excessive level of gore and offensive humor that Jackson’s earlier films were, THE FRIGHTENERS is awesome in the sheer spooky atmosphere maintained by it. The laughs are always prevalent, but there are genuinely creepy moments. The climax (which plays out in a rip-roaring 20 minutes of cat-and-mouse between our protagonists and more than a few threats coming from different angles) is wildly exciting. The execution of this showdown is nothing short of absolutely perfect for a film of this kind. It’s satisfying beyond belief. The only real complaint I can level at this movie comes from that maybe too many things were packed into a mere two-hour running time. Even in the director’s cut, it feels like a few scenes could be missing (you can never have enough Dammers in my opinion). It’s a minor complaint given how well everything plays out and that this film delivers in being a near masterpiece of horror comedy. Think a more intense story told in the BEETLEJUICE universe and you’ve pretty much nailed the vibe of FRIGHTENERS!
Filled with ghoulish laughs, an ingenious plot, and genuinely spooky atmosphere, THE FRIGHTENERS is an almost perfect blend of horror and comedy. If at all possible, the Director’s Cut is the best way to watch this film. However, the theatrical version doesn’t differ too much. FRIGHTENERS is not only a great flick that holds up nearly two decades later and is perfect for the Halloween season. It also has one of my favorite cinematic baddies: Milton Dammers (in a standout performance by Jeffrey Combs). This is a must-see if you’re at least remotely interested in the film.