Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: The Frighteners

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today, our pick comes from a much-maligned era of horror history: the 90s.  

So, 1996’s The Frighteners, Peter Jackson’s strange, hodge-podge mess of a horror-comedy, remains a film about which I cannot be objective. I know it’s tonally all over the shop. The then-cutting edge CGI looks hopelessly dated and just real enough to be completely distracting. It’s incapable of pulling off the scares it attempts.

Yet, for a film that found itself in possession of a decent-sized budget ($26m), its filled with idiosyncrasies and an inherent strangeness which gives it an endearingly scrappy and edge-frayed feel. It flopped upon initial release but has since gained a cult following, particularly after Lord of the Rings drew new eyes to Jackson’s earlier films.

The Frighteners functions as Jackson’s gateway into more mainstream fare. He got a budget and the chance to play with the latest technology had to offer, but his grungier tendencies remain, toned down but present.

I can’t help it. I love The Frighteners. I love it despite and maybe slightly because of its flaws and the strange tangents it adopts. It strives for the Tales from the Crypt fusion of horror and slapstick comedy, but then never really balances itself between the two. Instead, it feels as though Loony Toons spawned a love child with House on Haunted Hill.

The story centers on Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox in his final leading man role before retreating to TV and voice acting), who lost his wife in a tragic car accident that many in the town feel he caused. Couple that with his current career choice and Frank is basically the town pariah. He uses his psychic ability to con people into letting him exorcize their homes, keeping a cadre of ghosts in his company (Chi McBride, John Astin, and Jim Fyfe) who “haunt” prospective clients. Bannister arrives on the scene, pretends to clear the house of supernatural forces, collects his paycheck, and returns home with his ghosts in tow, ready to repeat the scam on a seemingly infinite loop. Eventually, he finds himself faced with a truly malevolent spirit killing people in a way that disguises itself as heart attacks, and he’s forced to confront both the evil infecting his town and the reality of what killed his wife.

Casting Fox goes a long way in mitigating Frank Bannister’s innate sleaziness. He has good comedic timing and charisma to spare, so we’re willing to have some affection for him even when he’s doing pretty despicable things. When Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado), who initially uses Bannister to channel her recently deceased husband, begins to develop some semblance of feeling for him, it’s almost believable, because who wouldn’t develop feelings for Michael J. Fox? The film eventually becomes about Bannister’s redemption from douchebag to good guy, and it helps that Fox’s considerable appeal make the douchebag portion of the film a bit more tolerable.

However, the one performance that makes me truly love The Frighteners comes from Jeffrey Combs as Special Agent Milton Dammers. Combs is a character actor with a glorious array of strange, twitchy performances to his name (I’m covering Re-Animator later, so I’ll bring him up again), but his portrayal of Dammers is truly a sight to behold. He snivels and stammers his way through his lines in a way that no one else ever could. He’s a character who has survived supernatural infiltrations but emerged as a completely damaged mess. Like Bannister, he’s haunted by his past and the toll knowing about the supernatural world takes. He should be a semi-tragic figure, but Combs’s performance is so delightfully bonkers it’s hard to see beyond the considerable comedy.

Dammers thinks Bannister is psychically killing all of the recent heart attack victims. The true culprit is eventually revealed to be the ghost of a serial killer played with uninhibited nuttiness by Jake Busey and the mortal girlfriend (Dee Wallace Stone) who still pines for him.

Honestly, the plot’s a mess. The movie plays with so many different narrative strands that it ends looking like a collection of cables gnarled and tangled in someone’s junk drawer. It’s a good 30-40 minutes in before you realize it’s actually about the heart attacks happening around Michael J. Fox and his flim-flam ghostbusting.

And yet, I have massive goodwill towards this quirky little studio oddity. It just has too much in its favor to disregard, whether the dark yet juvenile sense of humor, the CGI that had to have felt downright revelatory at the time, or the totally committed performances from all involved. It’s nowhere in the vicinity of a perfect film, but it’s completely worth watching. Speaking of which…

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

Tomorrow: Hands of the Ripper & The Perfume of the Lady in Black


  1. This film should have been brilliant. I blame marketing and miscast director and star. I cant tell whether it wants to be casper or the haunting or somewhere in between like beetlejuice. Its no secret micheal j fox was not in form. He was homesick and fluffed lines calling out Doc during some scenes. Peter Jackson is a great director but this isnt his forte. If someone tells me this was a step towards lord of the rings then they dont get how much pressure the movie business is to make money and this film should have been better. Im not sure michael j fox should have done this to be honest. It was a brave attempt but i think it hurt the film ultimately. The ghosts were good esp john astin and the guy from reanimator (where is he now?)

    1. This isn’t that far removed from Jacks n’s earlier films, a Jackson era I happened to really like. I also like Fox in this. Other opinions are available, of course. But I think the fact that the film has developed a bit of a cult following shows it’s a mild success. A mixed bag, certainly, but a totally watchable film.

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