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The Frighteners (1996)
Directed by Peter Jackson Written by Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh
Before the times of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson was quite comfortable making films that already pertained to a realm he would later become most notorious for. Working alongside writing partner and wife Fran Walsh, it was on the set of Heavenly Creatures that they began toying with the idea for something geared solely in the paranormal territory. Though going through its ups and down as far as where they were willing to take the story, there became a period of almost seven months where it was all together forgotten, lost in the finishing of their previous film. Later teaming up with Robert Zemekis, who had been looking for ideas to create feature-length films for his Tales From the Crypt series. Clearly fond of the script, he was sure it could stand up well on its own. Holding a meeting with Jackson and ultimately deciding that they would want Michael J. Fox for the main character, Zemekis made a call and after some consideration and Fox watching Peter’s previous film, agreeing. It was also what would be his last time leading on the big screen after spending so much time in New Zealand and deciding that he wanted to be closer to his family.
The story itself follows Frank Bannister (Fox) who through a traumatic event, is able to see ghosts. Posing as a psychic investigator with the help of two ghost in particular, Stuart (Jim Fyfe) and Cyrus (Chi McBride), is able to manage some form of a lifestyle by convincing the town of its entities roaming about. Ironic in it all actually being some world in which they couldn’t even begin to understand. Bannister simply tortured with such a ‘blessing.’ Death having come to stay in their otherwise quiet town, having killed a total of thirty people within the past four years. After a terrible history of a massacre having occurred in 1964 at the Fairwater Sanatorium where John Charles Bartlett gunned down twelve people, in hopes of topping a record he felt should be held by an American. Accompanied by his girlfriend Patricia (Dee Wallace), who while they couldn’t prove had any involvement, was either way sentenced to life imprisonment within her home under the care of her mother.
With things around town looking gloomy as a pattern began to emerge, pinning Frank to the recent string of murders that seemed to be occurring, always within his perimeter. Forcing local Sheriffs to bring in outside help in the form of Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs), a FBI Agent whose experience over the past decade of delving into an assorted array of cults had cultivated his mind into something vastly warped and troubled beyond belief. Convinced Bannister had been behind the death of his own wife and the several following in his hometown, it’s his unwillingness to relent that ultimately does him in. While Frank could only muster help from the widow of his previous customer, Lucy (Trini Alvarado), who had believed that she had witnessed his true talents firsthand, uninterested in the town’s thoughts of otherwise. Forging an alliance in order to thwart the grim reapers plans and put an end to his soul for all of entirety.
Michael J. Fox had surly been no slouch on the big screen by this point. Almost always the same character (himself), he’s sure to give each film its appeal with his over-sized charm and boyish good looks. However, while Trini Alvarado fit the script rather perfectly and certainly worked well with Fox, the mere fact is she wasn’t the most memorable thing about the film. With his sidekick ghosts meant as a comedic relief, Jackson felt strongly about bringing McBride into the mix after initially not catching his interest and almost immediately locating Fyfe for his part. Admittedly needing help juicing up the script in the comedic sense, a lot of what we see Chi say was ad libbed. This of course being all in the Directors Cut but like I always say: “The Cut! Always.” Not to mention the other horde of other spirits lurking about. The Judge played by veteran Actor John Astin. Cameo from R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) mimicking the role he was apparently born to play. With residential specter Ray (Lucy’s husband;Peter Dobson) roaming about, finding new ways to crawl under Bannister’s skin as he tried coping with his own sudden death.
Though the antagonist were a favorite, by far, for myself. Typically seen as the good heartened mother in most of her films, Dee Wallace was able to be more of a red herring this time around. For who could blame the lost little girl simply following her heart. Not only having a surprising twist to her character but able to play it accordingly while giving into her murderous side, despite her reservations about guns in real life. She was able to be playful with Johnny (Jake Busey) whose able to rise to the occasion of a psychopathic maniac because of some innate instinct that must run in his family. (Just Sayin’) But that’s in part what I love about him as an Actor, his ability to let go, give into the script and become as passionate a role as the audience may need. Rounding out our triangle of psychos with Jeffrey Combs, who came up with the idea for most of the look for his character, a thoughtful process in which he took rather seriously despite the questionable context of his character.
But what made this film so great throughout time, besides the array of talent working both on and off screen, was the simplicity of it being a truly fun script to see played out. Though if wishing to see what the ‘original’ version of the film would have been like, your best choice would be checking out the book in which they conclude a majority of differences in story. With Peter Jackson already filming on familiar ground and using his own special effects studio in which was upgraded to about thirty-five computers (by the end of filming) in order to complete the nearly five hundred effects onscreen. Assistance from Danny Elfman coming as a result of viewing Heavenly Creatures and deciding he too, wanted to be a part of the Director’s unique vision. Keeping things onscreen surprisingly upbeat with a lively cast sure to hold your attention while taking another look at the afterlife and its ghastly inhabitants.