Monday, October 21, 2013

The Frighteners

Fun fact: The Frighteners was the movie that convinced executives at Universal to offer director Peter Jackson the chance to make King Kong (2005).  Why?  I honestly do not know.  The Frighteners is not a bad movie, but it doesn't scream "give me the keys to a blockbuster remake," does it?  We're talking about a Michael J. Fox film where he neither travels through time nor is a werewolf --- hardly the sort of thing that makes you sit up and notice.  And yet, there was something about this film that gave those movie execs faith in Peter Jackson's talent.  Of course, those same bigwigs also chose to move scoot up the release date of this film from October (which makes sense for a movie about ghosts) to July (where it could get crushed by Summer blockbusters), so maybe the answer to this mystery is that Universal only hired idiots.  Or, maybe The Frighteners is an underappreciated gem, a glimpse at what a moderately successful Jackson could do, back before The Lord of the Rings made him truly famous.

The Frighteners follows Frank Bannister (), as he operates a low-rent ghost-busting business out of his (unfinished) home.  Many of the locals consider Frank a con artist, and they're right --- just not in the way they think.  Following a car accident that killed his wife, Frank gained the ability to see and speak to ghosts.  In fact, a trio of ghosts --- disco gangster Cyrus (), classic nerd Stuart (), and Old West veteran The Judge () --- are his only friends, as well as his business partners.
Frank sends his ectoplasmic buddies to haunt a place, and he shows up to "exorcise" them for a fee.  Things start to get weird for Frank shortly after meeting Lucy () and her awful husband, Ray (); Ray drops dead and starts pestering Frank, so Frank starts spending time with Lucy, only to fall in love with her.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a rogue ghost that is murdering folks around town.  Even more unfortunately, the FBI believes that Frank is the killer.  Worse still, the killer likes to mark his upcoming victims with a ghostly number on their forehead...and Lucy is lucky number forty-one.
Who can possibly clear Frank's name and save Lucy and the other innocent victims-to-be?  Frank.  It's obviously Frank.  He's the only one who can talk to ghosts.  Think about it.

The special effects in The Frighteners are probably the most memorable aspect of the film.  They still look pretty good, even if the CGI is a little dated now.  It just depends on how creative Peter Jackson & co. were.  For instance, the whole killer-pressing-his-face-out-of-the-wall bit wasn't that great.
MJF realizing that they're aping A Nightmare on Elm Street 12 years too late
Unfortunately, that bit was used a lot.  On the other hand, scenes that toyed with the idea of what ghosts could do or have done to them turned out much, much better.  When I think of The Frighteners, my mind doesn't jump to the killer --- I think about when a ghost got a blast of bug spray through the face.
That sort of creativity overcomes some of the technical shortcomings of the FX in general.  Granted, they aren't all examples of great special effects, but they are probably what you will remember about the film.
I will never forget shit stain Jake Busey face

The acting in The Frighteners is pretty much all over the place.  doesn't play angsty very well, and a lot of his character's mannerisms bring Marty McFly to mind.  He's still able to make the character likable, though, even when the script doesn't do him any favors.  played a paper-thin character, and she didn't do it very well.  I get it, her role was poorly written --- that doesn't excuse her lack of range.  Of the ghosts, , , and probably got the most screen time, but the most entertaining one was definitely playing a (surprise!) drill instructor.  Yes, he's done this schtick before, but he does it well.
His likes could be "Blah, blah, blah, maggot!" and I'd still smile
I was surprised to find in a role that I liked him; he was completely over the top, but he doesn't play "convincingly human" well, so it fit him.  Another pleasant surprise was getting a chance at a memorable role outside of the Re-Animator series.
Above: Combs as "An asshole with an uzi" --- actual movie quote
Combs was my favorite character in the movie.  His particular brand of crazy matched the tone of the film better than anyone else in the cast.
I'm not entirely convinced this isn't Combs' actual chest
I also enjoyed in his role as a self-absorbed jerk.  Like Ermey, Dobson doesn't stray far from his comfort zone, but there is no denying that he is good at what he does.  It was also nice to see horror veteran in a key role.  She hams it up a bit, but I think she did well, given the lines she had.

Director and co-writer made an unusual film in The Frighteners.  It's not a straight-up horror movie, but it's not funny enough to succeed as a horror-comedy hybrid, either.  The main reason for this is a dumb script.
I mean, how do they expect us to believe a dementor got from Azkaban to Australia?
Some of it can be seen in the little moments, like a flashback to Michael J. Fox's character --- an architect building his dream house --- playing basketball A) in a suit B) with bad 90s skater hair C) on a court he put in before he finished his house, because architects LOVE basketball courts and D) on what appears to be a regulation -height hoop, despite being approximately 4'6".  Other times, the stupidity comes at you in the main plot, like when MJ figures out who killed his wife thirty minutes after the audience does --- and the film treats that moment like it's a revelation.  Hell, you can argue that the entire climax at the abandoned hospital felt rushed and under-explained.  If the script was wittier or funnier, the flaws in the plot wouldn't matter so much.  But it's not and they do.  Thankfully, Jackson knows how to film entertaining action sequences and goofball moments, or else this movie would be painful to watch.  And if you were expecting the acting to save this movie from it's plot, then you aren't familiar with most of Peter Jackson's work.  The Frighteners is at its best when it is being weird and goofy, but there's just not enough of those elements to make the movie stand out.
Chi McBride's last-ditch meeting to salvage the movie: everybody gets an afro

The Frighteners is undoubtedly a flawed movie.  It's too kooky to be scary, but not funny enough to balance dozens of murders.  The central concept is a solid one and Michael J. Fox and the ghosts are likable enough, but the picture doesn't gel as a whole.  Even Danny Elfman's score feels a little scatterbrained.  Is there a good idea for a movie here?  Yes.  Does The Frighteners pull it off?  Not really, but it's not offensively bad.  It's a good try that didn't quite work.

Am I the only one who watched Michael J. Fox's erratic driving in this movie and immediately blamed it on his Parkinson's?  And then felt kind of bad?

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