Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.
Evidently, I love horror comedies, because I appear to have a lot of them in my personal collection. Of them, The Frighteners is one of my favorites. It does just about everything right. Additionally, aside from a making-of documentary, The Frighteners stands in the unique position of being the movie that Peter Jackson made immediately before he made the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sure, there’s a world of difference here, but there are a few spots of similarity, even if the effects aren’t that great in places.
The Frighteners starts with the premise that ghosts are real and can be seen by people who have had a traumatic experience. In this case, our ghost seer is Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), a former architect who now runs a paranormal investigation company. This company consists really of just himself essentially scamming the people in his area. However, Frank really can see ghosts. His scam requires the assistance of actual ghosts who invade people’s houses, cause some paranormal activity, and, when Frank is called in, disappear so that Frank can “clean” the house. Frank’s first assistant is known as The Judge (John Astin), but the two handling most of the work as the film beings are Cyrus (Chi McBride) and Stu (Jim Fyfe).
Frank’s town has been undergoing a strange epidemic of heart attacks. Dozens of people have died of what appear to be no real causes, but autopsies reveal crushed hearts. We also learn that the town has a dark past. Years earlier, a mass murderer named Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey) killed a dozen people in a local insane asylum, assisted by his girlfriend, Patricia Ann Bradley (Dee Wallace). Johnny got the chair while Patricia was eventually released to her mother’s (Julianna McCarthy) recognizance. We also eventually learn of Frank’s dark past; his wife was killed in a car accident, and when she was found, she had the number 13 carved in her forehead.
Here’s what we need to pull all of this together. After an altercation with Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobson), Frank “cleans” the Lynskey house. Later that night, Ray becomes the latest victim of the mystery heart attacks. Despite his reputation as a conman, Ray’s widow Lucy (Trini Alvarado) contacts Frank, and the two start piecing together what has happened in the town, something made easier because of Lucy’s role as a doctor and her recent visits to the Bradley house. Ray Lynskey’s death triggers a larger investigation with Frank Bannister at the center. The FBI agent, Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) has a long history of what he calls “fruity” cases, a history that has convinced him of certain psychic powers as well as Frank Bannister’s guilt.
Of course, the truth is that there’s something much more nefarious happening. Frank, with the real-world assistance of Lucy Lynskey and the otherworldly assistance of his trio of ghost assistants, needs to get to the bottom of it before it gets more and more out of hand.
I like this movie a lot. One of the reasons I like it as much as I do is that it makes the difficult third-act switch almost perfectly. The Frighteners is a comedy for most of its first two acts, although there are a few scare moments here. Once Frank decides he needs to have an “out of body” experience, the ration of comedy moments to horror moments flips, and the final third of the film is almost purely horror with a few comedy moments, most of these focusing on Milton Dammers. This is a hard turn to make and The Frighteners does it just about perfectly.
Here’s the thing: I really like The Frighteners a great deal. I think it’s a movie that was unfairly ignored when it was released in theaters and has languished as a cult film rather than the film it deserves to be known as. Much of this comes from a stellar cast, many of whom I have already mentioned above. Also playing important roles here are that-guy Troy Evans as the local sheriff and the incomparable R. Lee Ermey as the ghost of a drill sergeant living in the local cemetery and keeping the other spirits in line.
In fact, the only real downside of The Frighteners is that the effects don’t really hold up. Jackson went for some digital effects on the “Grim Reaper” spirit that Frank and his ghosts see plaguing the town. It’s very clearly computer generated and doesn’t look good or clean. On the other hand, the ghosts look great was transparent blue spirits. It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
If you haven’t seen The Frighteners, it’s one to track down. This is how horror comedy should be done—it legitimately contains very funny moments and also some genuine scares. It doesn’t sell out one genre for the sake of the other, and that’s rare enough to be noteworthy.
Why to watch The Frighteners: It’s funny and then it’s really not.
Why not to watch: The effects don’t all hold up.