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8 Things You May Not Know About The Frighteners

The Frighteners mixes Peter Jackson craziness with Michael J. Fox charm with Jeffrey Combs being…well, Jeffrey Combs, God love him. It’s the last original Jackson and Fran Walsh movie. Tolkien adaptations, a King Kong remake, and the steadying pressure of being responsible for practically an entire country’s film industry still beckoned. As such, Frighteners crackles with an anything goes energy they’ve left long behind. Want to see a ghost bang a mummy? Why not. Sure. Throw it in there. It’s that kind of attitute which helps you look past the film’s flaws and enjoy its endearing quirks.

Not that 1996 audiences felt that way. Frighteners was an outright flop. It has since gained a cult following and is now the subject of a four and a half hour “Making of” documentary since Jackson had a video crew documenting every step of the production. I can’t pretend to be nearly that comprehensive here, but the following is a sampling of some trivia you may not know about a film fellow WMiFer Julianne recently described as being lovable “despite and maybe slightly because of its flaws and the strange tangents it adopts.”

1. It started as a three-page treatment written by Jackson and Fran Walsh during pre-production on Heavenly Creatures

Young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey

Jackson cut his teeth in low-budget splatter horror. He’s the guy who looked at standard zombies and decided “needs more lawnmower.” (You get it if you’ve seen his 1992 film Braindead aka Dead Alive). By the early 90s, he had met and begun collaborating with his eventual life partner, Fran Walsh. At her urging, Jackson departed from the horror genre for the first time with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, a psychological drama about New Zealand’s 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case which ended with Honorah Parker dead at the hands her teenage daughter and her daughter’s best friend. Jackson and Walsh’s dramatization of this event was so moving it earned them an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay as well as a spot on countless Best Film of the Year lists.

But it’s not like Jackson completely turned off the part of him that loved horror movies. So, while prepping Heavenly Creatures he and Walsh got an idea for a horror-comedy about a medium who actually conspires with ghosts to con people. They wrote it down in a treatment and sent it to their agent. Then…

2. Could have been a Tales from the Crypt movie

Jackson and Walsh’s treatment needed a home, and one potential destination was at Universal under the Tales from the Crypt banner. The TV series, adapted from old 1950s EC Comics, was still going strong on HBO, and there had even been an animated, kid-friendly spin-off on CBS. The next step in the Cryptkeeper’s mastery of all media was to host a series of feature-length films sold as Tales from the Crypt Presents. This…did not work out. Universal planned to do three of them, but the first two – 1995’s Demon Knight, 1996’s Bordello of Blood – flopped so hard the third one was never produced despite having a finished script ready to go.

Before things ever got that far, though, Back to the Future’s Robert Zemeckis, a producer on the HBO series as well as director of one of the show’s best episodes, was sifting through scripts and taking pitches to find stories which might fit the Tales from the Crypt mold. When the Frighteners treatment found its way to him he liked it so much he wanted to direct it himself as a Tales from the Crypt movie and hired Jackson and Walsh to write a full script. What they turned in changed his mind. It was their baby to direct, he decided. Plus, as Jackson later explained, “[Zemeckis didn’t want to use the story for Tales From the Crypt, because he thought it was unique and could stand on its own.”

3. If you’re about to do your first moderately big movie, it pays to have friends in high places as well as an Oscar nomination newly under your belt

Because of Zemeckis’ clout at Universal and Jackson and Walsh’s then-fresh Oscar nomination, The Frighteners production was largely free of studio influence. That’s how Jackson, only 33 at the time and making his Hollywood studio directorial debut, was able to have the following two demands met: 1) They shoot in New Zealand even though the story takes place in a fictional California town; 2) He get final cut on the film.

That last stipulation has been somewhat obscured over time by the existence of a 13-minute longer Director’s Cut released on home video, but Jackson has repeatedly explained the studio didn’t force him to cut anything from the movie. The version that was released in theaters was the version he wanted to put out at the time. He’s simply rethought some of his editing decisions in the years since then.

4. It was Weta Digital’s breakthrough film

Jackson co-founded Weta Digital to provide the special effects for Heavenly Creatures, but the future industry titan took its real steps with The Frighteners. As is so often the case with early special effects efforts, they were literally creating the technology needed to make the movie throughout the entire production. They were also doing it for around a quarter of the price of their Hollywood competitors. What started out as something they thought they could handle with a single computer ended with dozens of them in full-time use. So, like Industrial Light & Magic progressing from The Abyss to Terminator 2 to Jurassic Park at the start of the decade Weta would put everything it learned on The Frighteners to good use on Lord of the Rings.

5. Michael J. Fox was the only actor they ever really had in mind for the lead

“There isn’t a long list of actors that can play comedy and drama,” Jackson later said of his insistence on casting Fox as the lead. Zemeckis set up a between the two at Heavenly Creatures’ Toronto premiere. Fox signed on immediately

6. Twas Sylvester Stallone that Killed The Frighteners’ Box Office

Initially scheduled for a Halloween season release, The Frighteners was pushed up to July where it belly-flopped on opening weekend and nose-dived afterward, ultimately grossing $16m domestic/$29m worldwide. It certainly didn’t help that its debut weekend coincided with the opening of the summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Beyond that, Universal trying to turn it into a summer movie always seemed like a bad idea. There’s a reason they did that, though, and it’s kind of a classic Hollywood story of unintended consequences.

Universal already had a movie, Sylvester Stallone’s disaster survival-action pic Daylight, it wanted to put out in July, but that film ran overschedule and to be pushed back to December. I’ll let Jeffrey Combs take it from here, quoted from an Icons of Fright interview:

So the studio thought we need to find something that can fill that slot. They were looking at these terrific dailies from New Zealand. Let’s just move this movie forward! And we all thought “Great, man! We’re a summer release!” (Laughs) “We’re going out in the summer!” But it’s not a summer movie per say. It’s very epitomical of Halloween. It’s a perfect Halloween movie! And then whatever ad campaign they put together for it was goofy. I always say that they promoted it as a live action Casper movie with Michael J. Fox being funny. Well, that may be true for the first half of the movie.

But then it corkscrews down and then you’re splitting your audience. Because the hardcore horror fans are going to stay away in droves, because it’s “light”, right? Besides, they’re going to the beach or the lake or something. It’s July, dude! So then the other half, the “date” movie people say “Let’s go see that!” They enjoy it for about 45 minutes and then it goes some place that they didn’t expect. So, you’re not pleasing anyone. Peter doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter genre of things.

7. Also not helping at the Box Office: the MPAA’s insistence on giving them an R rating

The MPAA was familiar with Jackson thanks to Braindead aka Dead Alive, which was only granted an R after Jackson agreed to remove nearly 20 minutes of footage. With The Frighteners, he sought to avoid a repeat fight with the MPAA and deliver something he viewed more as a PG-13 movie.

No dice.

From Blu-Ray.com’s review: “The MPAA slapped it with an R rating, even though Jackson had studiously avoided explicit gore and direct violence, and no amount of trimming would persuade the ratings board to change their decision. (Annoyed that he’d restrained himself for nothing, Jackson did go back and add a single exploding head.) The summer release geared toward teens collided with an R rating that kept them out, and the box office fizzled.”

8. It’s the movie that convinced Michael J. Fox to give up trying to be a movie star

Filming in New Zealand was a godsend for Jackson and his team, but it pulled Fox far away from home for almost exactly six months, one of the longest shoots in Universal Studios. This all happened at a particularly traumatic time in his life. We didn’t know it yet, but he’d just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s while making The Frighteners. The diagnosis is generally pointed to as cause for his subsequent retirement from leading man roles in favor of TV and voice acting work. As he told Empire Magazine, however, while looking back on it in 2015, “It was the last feature I starred in mainly because I realized that I really couldn’t be away from home for that long again. It was a really cathartic and seminal experience for me.”

Spin City, Fox’s triumphant return to TV, debuted two months after The Frighteners.

For more Frighteners trivia, you might consider buying the 15th Anniversary Blu-Ray which comes with the “Making Of” documentary. It’s going for ten bucks on right now. To read Julianne’s review of the film, head here.

Sources: Empire, Icons of Fright, Blu-Ray, Yahoo

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2 comments

  1. I know Frighteners gets a mixed bag of reviews. I have to admit when I first saw it, I thought it was too cheesy. But I really grew to like it the more I saw it. I loves it’s connections to Dead Alive which is Jacksons greatest horror film and probably one of the best campy horror movies ever made.

    1. Frighteners is so weird. It’s an R-Rated movie that wants to be PG-13, and it stars an actor who was on his way out of the game and sometimes shows it. It looks like a better Casper but is so much meaner. Jackson was just about on his way to a mainstream career and is trying the entire time to figure out how to not be Dead Alive but also not forget the spirit of Dead Alive.

      All of that, however, adds to Frighteners weirdo charm for me. It’s definitely better than cheesy. Also, I didn’t emphasize this enough in the list but Jeffrey Combs is just the best in this.

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