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The Frighteners (1996)

by on 2010/10/12

 “Something’s put the fear of death in the living.”

* *

Another Halloween pick, another second chance.  I saw the original version of this movie in the mid-Nineties but remember little of the experience.  Was it forgettable?  Just average?  Or has my mind been protecting itself?  As its star Michael J. Fox explains, “Sometimes when you have a traumatic experience, it can alter your perception.”  He might have been describing his character or his own personal issues, but I regard that line as the reason I must have forgotten The Frighteners.  Despite any goodwill Fox’s presence may engender, this is the kind of piece which, if imposed upon me, would have me wondering what I’d done to offend.

Like a mutant hybrid of Ghostbusters and The Sixth Sense — two much better films — The Frighteners begins with the story of Frank Bannister (Fox), a low rent con man posing as a pest controller for poltergeists.  His trick is not the pretense of supernatural ability, but his responsibility for the very hauntings he dispels.  Years before, a catastrophic incident allowed him to commune with the afterlife.  Like the protagonist of Next, Frank uses his new powers (and some spiritual sidekicks) to eke out a miserable existence.

Before long, more serious threats emerge.  The restless ghost of a serial killer (Jake Busey) returns to continue his pre-execution spree.  Somewhat reminiscent of Marty McFly’s tormentor, Biff, he too makes life difficult for Fox’s protagonist.  Rounding out the Back to the Future flashback festival is a Crispin Glover doppelganger, Jeffrey Combs, as a meddling special agent.  Add in a cast of several souls, some sequestered spinsters, a jovial cop, and two love interests — one already dead, one at constant risk of it — and you have all the makings of a mess I’d rather forget.

To look at the assembled cast and crew you’d imagine all the right parts are in their place but somehow nothing gels.  This effort is notable for bridging director Peter Jackson’s earlier films (Heavenly Creatures) with later fare (Lord of the Rings), but in no way is this awkward middle child as competent as its sibs.  It has precious little indie artistry and just as little Hollywood craft.  This is no finely blended soup with hints of ginger, cream, and nutmeg, teasing at your palate.  It’s not even a rough stew with surprising bites of sweet among the savoury.  No, it’s a leaking plastic bag filled by someone with no idea of what to eat or how to chew.

My sense in the opening scenes was of watching an Army of Darkness, a supernatural slapstick with over-the-top horrifics.  The gothic-flavoured hamlet, the haunted theme park aesthetics, the harpsichording antics of composer Danny Elfman . . . I felt as if Tim Burton had wandered lost and fallen thrashing into an uninspired bog of his old creations.  This attempt to blend scary, dramatic, and funny simply does not work in any of its parts, let alone as a whole.  And when the tone darkens midway, it doesn’t so much change gears as strip them and jump the track, unable to recover.  The goofiness never lets up, no matter the balance of tone, and while merely unfunny early on, it’s distinctly unpleasant by the end.

Before I mercifully close I need to mention one of this misfire’s most ostentatious failings:  its effects.  Though it’s difficult — perhaps even unfair — to critique the overused and ironically underdone computer-generated imagery, there’s no avoiding its presence.  Effects telegraph their imminent arrival through patches which appear poorly lit, oddly molten, or fashioned from repurposed balloon animals.  For example, when walls buckle and floors undulate, they look less like plaster and carpeting than pregnant bubbling goo.  This kind of distraction makes immersion difficult, but CGI is not the only culprit.  Unmortared breakaway walls, bouncing floors, and obvious doubles all suggest a certain carelessness in the stunt department.  Overall things smack less of economy than cheapness . . . in the locations, the staging, effects and execution.  Nothing is convincing, as a result.

Frankly I fail to understand how the filmmakers behind this dud would have been entrusted with the (comparatively excellent) Lord of the Rings and King Kong properties.  The situation suggests two things to me:  a skilled interpreter is not necessarily a brilliant creator and, sometimes, a second chance pays off.  Speaking of which, my Frighteners DVD came bundled with a coupon to see King Kong in the theatre.  I can think of no better reason for Kong’s relative lack of success than its supporters having made the mistake to purchase this disappointing disc.

A certain someone once admitted she most enjoys my negative reviews best of all.  If only they were fun to write.  After a movie like this one, I feel a kind of sadness, a mourning for time I will soon lose, returning to its world, exploring it thoroughly, examining it critically, and generally squandering all of those things that could be better spent.  In this case I genuinely wanted to enjoy myself but, ultimately, I was faced with the most unpleasant piece to date in the history of this site.

Life is too short to waste on The Frighteners.  It’s frightening, yes, but in a bad way.  So don’t . . . just don’t.

* *

Rated R for violence

123 minutes (Peter Jackson’s Director’s Cut)

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