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Movie Review: The Frighteners (1996)

Updated on October 3, 2013

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Dee Wallace, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, John Astin, Jake Busey, Jeffrey Combs, Peter Dobson, Troy Evans

"Don't tell the boys, but my ectoplasm is all dried up!"

-- Dialogue from The Frighteners

The Frighteners is really just an exercise in special-effects, but what an unpretentious, energetic, and wildly entertaining exercise it is. Directed by Peter Jackson with an almost breathless energy, the movie may not have a brain in its head, but those looking for a a goofy and exuberantly made bit of escapism should be happy with the results here.

A string of mysterious deaths have been plaguing the small town of Fairweather, California. Nearly twenty eight people have fallen victim to what appears to be a massive heart attack, but when an autopsy is performed on the victims, it reveals that both their hearts and arteries have been mysteriously crushed. The town's local con man, Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), knows the truth about the deaths. You see, Frank has the ability to see ghosts, a gift he aquired after suffering from a near death experience years ago, and uses three spirits -- Cyrus (Chi McBride), Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and Judge (John Astin) -- to haunt the locals until he shows up to exorcise their homes (for a heavy fee, of course). He spots a mysterious, Death like figure lurking around town, reaching into people's chests and killing them right on the spot. With the help of the friendly Dr. Lynskey (Trini Alvarado), whose husband Ray (Peter Dobson) was one of the heart attack victims, Frank sets out to stop this supernatural killer and put and end to his reign of terror.

Dee Wallace co-stars as Patricia Bradley, a hapless young woman who lives as a prisoner with her mother (Julianna McCarthy) at the local sanitarium, which was the site of a gruesome killing spree many years ago. Frank discovers a connection between the killing spree at the sanitarium and the recent string of deaths. The sanitarium murderer, the now deceased Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), carved a number in his victim's foreheads that marked the order in which they were killed. The victims of the Death being also have a number on their foreheads, a number which only Frank can see. This lets him know in advance who's about to die, and because of this, he's suspected of the killings by the borderline insane FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs).

You gotta ask yourself something: Do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?!
You gotta ask yourself something: Do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?!

From the film's dark and stormy night prologue to its very final shot, the special-effect never let up. We're treated to scenes where a ghost vomits out of his ears; where the spirits of the recently deceased are lead to Heaven by a blinding vortex of light; where the ghost of an irate general (R. Lee Ermey) haunts the local cemetery and fires machine guns at any ghost trying to escape from their graves; where the main villain chases after our heroes with a stick that morphs into a scythe every time he bangs it on the ground; where a sinister being moves within walls of a spooky old house and lunges out through the wallpaper in an attempt to strangle its victims; where a trio of babies levitate and fly around their play room, scaring their parents; and where the ghost of a canine runs off with Judge's lower jaw bone. All of these scenes are directed with gusto and reckless abandon by Jackson, who seems to be having the time of his life making the movie.

His enthusiasm for the material wears off on the actors. Busey seems to be having a grand ol' time playing the impossibly sadistic Bartley, and Combs turns in a hilarious, scenery chewing performance as Dammers, who has a panic attacks any time a woman screams at him, and scolds people when they violate "my territorial bubble!" Michael J. Fox is immensely likable as Frank, as is Trini Alvarado as Dr. Lynsky, who builds a fairly nice rapport with Frank over the course of the film. R. Lee Ermey is a riot, pretty much parodying the character he played in Full Metal Jacket, and McBride, Fyfe, Astin, and Wallace all provide solid work as supporting players.

Usually things tend to fall apart in horror films during the climax, but that's not the case with The Frighteners. The end is just as imaginative and wildly over-the-top as the rest of the film (one shot shows the mouth of Hell opening up and swallowing two souls -- I hate it when that happens), and is a fitting conclusion for the movie. The Frighteners may not be a great movie, but it isn't trying to be. It wants to be nothing more than an outrageously nutty special effects extravaganza, and in that regard, the movie is a success.

*** (out of ****)


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    • priley84 profile image

      priley84 4 years ago from Warner Robins, Ga

      Thanks for reading.

      I can understand this being your least favorite film of his films. He's certainly been in better movies than this one.

    • Tonyx35 profile image

      J Antonio Marcelino 4 years ago from Illinois, USA

      I usually like any movie that Michael J. Fox has been in. This being my least favorite of his roles/works. Been getting into horror films lately. Danny Elfman composed the film's score? I really should take the time to rewatch it at some point.

      +1 Useful

    • priley84 profile image

      priley84 4 years ago from Warner Robins, Ga

      Thank you for reading.

      It is interesting that he would go from this to the Lord of the Rings movies, but he pulled it off magnificently. He is one of the better filmmakers working in the business.

      I'm almost ashamed to admit that I never saw the Lovely Bones. Do you recommend the movie?

    • amandajoyshapiro profile image

      amandajoyshapiro 4 years ago

      You wrote a great review. The summary describes the plot and characters well. Isn't it interesting that before Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson directed The Frighteners? He revists the film's themes of death, the afterlife, and suburbia in The Lovely Bones. Jackson definitely knows how to combine characters and effects.