One of the conceits of Ghostbusters is that some people consider them frauds. In both films, there’s a human villain, a government administrator in both cases, that thinks the Ghostbusters are con men; filling the public’s head with concerns of spooks and then charging the suckers to “get rid of them.” In The Frighteners, Frank Bannister is a con man ripping people off for “eradicating” spectral activity, but that’s not to say that the ghosts aren’t real, they’re just in on the con.
The Frighteners was released on July 19, 1996, and while it was not a success at the box office, it has developed a devoted cult following. Of course, some of that might have to do with the appreciation of the work of Peter Jackson by the broader audience. It was after he finished this movie that Jackson, and many of the same members of the film crew, took up the challenge of a little project called The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Back in 1996 though, Jackson was merely known for a few, small gross out horror films like Meet the Feebles, and his critically acclaimed drama Heavenly Creatures. After that success, Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh pitched a projected about a town haunted by the Grim Reaper, and the huckster exorcist that knows all the ghost stories are real. This would become The Frighteners.
Jackson and Walsh were lucky enough to find a patron that believed in their pitch, Robert Zemeckis. It was Zemeckis’ intention to take the idea, and turn it into a Tales from the Crypt spin-off movie that he would direct, but he ended up liking the finished script so much that he agree to let Jackson direct it as a standalone story. Universal Pictures financed and distributed the movie, and gave Zemeckis and Jackson rare creative control, including final cut.
It was also the Zemeckis connection that allowed Jackson to cast his first choice for Bannister, Michael J. Fox. Although not necessarily as bankable as he was in the 80s, Fox was still steadily employed, and perhaps in the midst of a bit of a career resurgence. It was later that same year when Fox returned to TV and starred in a new successful sitcom called Spin City in which he played the put upon deputy mayor of New York. It was while he was shooting Spin City that Fox announced that he had Parkinson’s, and to date, The Frighteners is Fox’s final leading role in a film.
It could be argued though that the real star of The Frighteners though, was its visual effects. Weta Digital, now at the forefront of computer effects technology, was just three years old at the time, but it carried the heavy load of the film’s complex visuals effects, including characters that were all or partially CG. These include “The Judge” played by John Astin, an Old West hanging judge with a loose jaw and a skeletal torso. While The Judge is partially CG, the Grim Reaper figure was all computer generated, and it doesn’t quite stand out by 2018 standards.
That Reaper figure is not the actual spectre of death, but the film’s villain Johnny Bartlett played by Jake Busey. Barlett was a spree killer put to death decades earlier, but even in the afterlife he was obsessed with ratcheting up his “score”. Through the course of the film, it’s revealed that the ghostly Bartlett had killed Bannister wife after the two were in a car accident, the originating event of Frank’s psychic ability’s and Johnny Bartlett’s first post-death murder.
Now Johnny Bartlett the character is inspired by real-life spree killer Charles Starkweather. Starkweather killed his way though Nebraska and Wyoming over a two month period in December 1957 and January 1958, and was arrested after murdering 12 people. During a one week period in January, Starkweather killed 11 people, and it was during this period we has in the company of his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Fugate served 17 years in prison after a jury found testimony that alleged she was a hostage of Starkweather to not be credible.
This dynamic comes into play in The Frighteners too. Like Starkweather, Bartlett had an accomplice in a teenage girl named Patricia Bradley, who was more than a little than just okay with being romantic with a psychopath. The adult Patricia is played by Dee Wallace Stone, who Jackson cast because he liked the idea of hiring the mom from E.T. as a way to surprise the audience about Patricia’s allegiance.
Trini Alvarado, then perhaps best known for playing Meg in Little Women, and the Re-Animator himself, Jeffrey Combs, round out the main cast. Alvarado plays Dr. Lucy Lynskey, a doctor who’s husband is killed by ghost Bartlett, and becomes Frank’s sidekick and love interest. Combs is FBI Agent Dammers, which sounds a lot like “Dahmer”, an expert in cults and the paranormal who suspects Frank is the real killer and only pretending to see ghosts.
There are a lot of players on this complex stage that Jackson set. Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe play two of Frank’s ghostly partners, Julianna McCarthy plays Patricia Bradley’s paranoid mother, and R. Lee Emery appears as, what’s essentially, the ghost of this drill sergeant character from Full Metal Jacket. The setting is the town of Fairwater, Jackson’s native New Zealand dressed up to look like a quaint sea-side town in either New England of the Pacific Northwest.
As to the play itself, it’s clear that Jackson pulled influences from Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice. At its heart is the idea that death is not a transformative experience, but just another condition of life where people become more of what they are. After he dies, Lucy’s husband Ray continues to jog and be considered about his physical health even though he’s an intangible spectral blob of ectoplasm. In other words, you can’t change who you are even after you’re dead.
There’s also a bit of Stephen King and Twin Peaks in The Frighteners. It’s the small town tableau where everybody knows each other, and knows about the strange goings-on, but at some level refuses to accept it. And considering that New Zealand was still an unknown element to a lot of North American moviegoers, so the real life locale accentuates the fantasy in a way.
Indeed, The Frighteners laid the ground work for Jackson’s journey to Middle Earth in many ways: shooting New Zealand, and mixing practical effects with computer generated imagery. In hindsight, The Frighteners might be seen as a dress rehearsal for The Lord of the Rings, a chance for Jackson to stretch his skills and prove he was ready to tackle the complex technical requirements of the trilogy. That’s not to say that Jackson wasn’t talented enough to pull off LOTR without the work on The Frighteners, but it was mentioned in many reviews for The Frighteners that the effects work overwhelmed the story.
On the other hand, Jackson’s career path might explain the success of The Lord of the Rings. In an era when a director is plucked from the indie oeuvre and given a $200 million budget, said director either rises to the challenge or buckles under the weight of the size and scope. Could Jackson bear the weight of LOTR easier having made The Frighteners?
Looking back at The Frighteners it’s easy to see why critics would get the impression that it’s more interested in the technical. Have said that, what’s working in the film’s favour is that The Frighteners is chock full of ideas, and is capable of navigating a wide spectrum of tones from camp to thrills. The film also reminds us of the inherent charm of Michael J. Fox, even when he’s trying to play someone unlikable on the surface.
It also marks a passing of sorts. Horror sometimes seems like the game for the younger directors, a chance for them to show their proficiency in the language of cinema. After The Frighteners, Jackson worked on the blockbuster scale with a King Kong remake, and The Hobbit trilogy, with only a break in between for the smaller Lovely Bones adaptation. Jackson’s not shown much of sign that he’s interested in going back to splatter shock and gallows humour. It seems that time has passed.
The Frighteners though stands at a fascinating intersection in terms of its director’s resume, and being the rare horror comedy that slips through the studio machine. It’s interesting to note that The Frighteners was released on the same day that the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta began, so as soon it opened, The Frighteners was buried under the anticipation and expectation of something decidedly more upbeat. The makes The Frighteners, in the end, ripe for rediscovery.