20 Years On: “The Frighteners”

Ghost films can be many things. Scary, silly, romantic, or just plain stupid. With ghost films, like so many other sub genres, there’s not much you can truly do with them to make a film all that interesting. Sometimes though, you just need a whimsical and entertaining story. A lot can be done with an entertaining and silly story.

The Universal Pictures film “The Frighteners, is a silly ghost filled, mystery film, with laughs and scares that make for an entertaining film.

This horror comedy stars Michael J. Fox (“A.R.C.H.I.E.”, “The Good Wife”), Trini Alvarado (“Black Box”, “All Good Things”), Peter Dobson (upcoming “One Shot”, “Dice”), John Astin (“What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole”, “School of Life”), Jeffrey Combs (“Transformers: Robots in Disguise”, “Art School of Horrors”), Dee Wallace Stone (Supernatural”, “Just Add Magic”), Jake Busey (upcoming films “Swing State”, “Expendable Assets”), Chi McBride (upcoming season “Hawaii Five-0”, “Ultimate Spider-Man”), Jim Fyfe (“Album (Short 2012)”, “Time Machine: Rise of the Morlocks”) Troy Evans (“Dirty Lies”, “Veep”), Julianna McCarthy (“The Young and the Restless”, “NCIS: Los Angeles”), R. Lee Ermey (“The Simpsons”, “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness”), and Elizabeth Hawthorne (“Filthy Rich”, “800 Words”).

The film was directed by Peter Jackson (“The Hobbit”, trilogy, “The Lovely Bones”) and written by Fran Walsh (“The Hobbit” trilogy, “The Lovely Bones”) and Jackson (“The Hobbit” trilogy, “The Lovely Bones”).

The film originally opened on July 19, 1996.

As the saying goes, better late than never. That’s what I’m thinking here as I was supposed to give you this piece yesterday, but this thing called life got in the way. Oh well, what can you do? Fortunately I found the time today to watch this fun film and can now bring you my thoughts! It’s been some time since I saw this film, and when I was preparing this year’s list of anniversary film’s, I was pleasantly surprised! I enjoyed it the first time and couldn’t wait to see it again. So, since I’ve done that, let’s see what I thought, and why this is a film you should see.

Well, first off, it’s directed and co-written by Jackson! Yes, he helped show what filmmaking can achieve with his “Lord of the Rings” films, and really set a high bar, but he had to start somewhere. While this may not be his first or second film, it very well could be his second major one, I’m not sure, but it’s still worth checking out because it shows what he can do with a completely different genre and story idea. If it doesn’t appeal to you after you’ve seen it, fine, that’s one thing. Just know, you’ll definitely be missing out if you pass up this film.

There’s ghosts! Visual effects and some special effects bring all these ghosts, and the slight mayhem to full blown mayhem they cause, to life. While it may not hold up 100%, the majority is still incredible to see. You’re able to be there and stay the entire time. The fact that McBride, Dobson, Astin, and a few others are able to have performances, but not as solid people, is something I find surprising. I don’t know if this uses anything closely resembling what we now refer to as motion capture technology, but it’s impressive! Remember guys, this is 1996, and the animators were creating all of this in 1995 too, so it’s even more astonishing. So much was able to be done to these characters, well, because they’re dead. Walk through them, have them come through doors, get shot in the face or some other thing, really did offer up some pretty funny bits. Even the action scenes against the Grim Reaper were funny because of this. As far as the representation of how ghosts can move about and live, this may be my favorite! “Casper” may come next, but that’s an entirely different type of film.

Helping with these comedic bits, and some of the scares, are all the characters. I mentioned a few of the ghost characters, who really never cease to amuse me, but there’s also the living. Fox’s character, like with Alvarado’s are the most grounded, but that’s not to say that they don’t have their moments of comedy. They do and it works. That’s the interesting thing with all the comedy in this film, it’s not forced or too stupid. It just is, and works. Like this film, Walsh and Jackson clearly didn’t take this film too seriously and it shows in the final product as well as the comedy. It allows for you to not only find Fox and Alvarado likable, but it keeps you from going crazy later on.

That’s the biggest drawback. This film has a few glaringly bad moments, which are somewhat easy to overlook, but in the moment, it’s painful. These moments are when things are just so stupid and over the top, that it borders on idiocy. Also, lazy and cliché is a good way to describe this.

First up, is the portrayal of law enforcement. Here, interestingly because of the events going on in the U.S., the trigger happy cops are also quite stupid. Sure they have questions and want to know what’s going on, but they’re perfectly fine with just circumstantial evidence. They also don’t really ask any good questions, or remember widely reported serial murders. I guess at the same time, you could probably find something amusing about them, especially if McBride and his fellow ghosts are bringing things to life, but at the same time, it’s just aggravating to see such stupid people.

For me, the biggest one is Combs’ character. He’s an FBI agent, although I have no clue how, and he was brought in for some reason I can’t fully recall, but that’s probably because it sounded unbelievable. He’s really eccentric, and that’s not the problem at first. I like eccentric characters, and in a comedy film, if done well, you can have a lot of fun with them. Here, Combs’ character just became too much. He moved past eccentric and weird, really weird, to downright annoying. I get you’re also not supposed to like him, as he is trying to put Fox away for various murders, but somehow I don’t think I’m supposed to dislike him because of his level of annoyance. Well, sadly, I do. He had some good comedic moments, brought about because of his various eccentricities, but after awhile, even that didn’t do anything for me. A real shame in so many ways.

One thing I should point out, as it makes this film make a bit more sense, is that this is a film executive produced by Robert Zemeckis. Now, if you don’t fully recognize that name, let me really some titles to you, and hopefully you’ve seen them so you understand what I’m getting at. “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Death Becomes Her”, Forrest Gump (to some extent), and that’s just his directorial work. Some of his producing work fits this, but not all. If you need a better thought, think Tim Burton. While it’s of course not Burton, it’s reminiscent, and certainly could’ve been something he’d do.

The other reason I mention Zemeckis, is because of the composer. Danny Elfman (upcoming films “Before I Sleep”, “The Girl on the Train”), composed this film’s score and this is what helped to really keep this film going. The situations were there, comedic, scary, and otherwise, but I found that this score gave me more. It’s whimsical, fun, at times a bit darker, but always playful! This is even better, when you think about the fact that there’s ghosts, murders, a mysterious entity killing people, which needs to be solved and dealt with, and other aspects of life occurring. So much! You’re on a pretty crazy, nonstop journey, and can only have the best score accompanying you.

My first thought was of the film “Beetlejuice”. Just so much about the instrument arrangement conveyed the necessary fun and quirky of this film. So, I went and looked and guess who scored “Bettlejuice”? Elfman! That explained a lot. He got it all right. You could enjoy every moment and never take this film seriously. This is why, coupled with the situations, I had so much fun with this film. I find it rare that composers know how to deliver in this way.

I like ghost films of all sorts, but there are times when getting something refreshing is preferred to just more of the same. This film, a Jackson film, delivers that! When I first got the chance to watch this film, after learning who its director was, I had to see what he brought. This is a man known for bringing epic battles between elves, dwarves, men, and orcs to life, so what else could he do? Apparently, write a comedy film with Walsh. Because it is 20 years old, it may not be for everyone. I can accept that, but I certainly hope people give it a chance as it not only shows what Jackson was once making, but also speaks to the time period. Hollywood wasn’t just about outright scares and sequels. There was an actual original thought being had in the mid-‘90s. Will ever get back to that point?


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