The Frighteners (1996)

This movie was requested by Pete Stein, who I’ve been friends with for a long time. I’m glad he’s reading the site and hope he enjoys this article.

Peter Jackson and his partner/co-writer Fran Walsh conceived of the idea for this movie during the script-writing phase of Heavenly Creatures. Robert Zemeckis nearly directed it as a spin-off of the Tales from the Crypt TV series, but he was so impressed by Jackson and Walsh’s first script that he decided that Jackson should direct. Universal granted Jackson and Zemeckis total artistic control and the right of final cut privilege.

At the time this movie was shot, it had the most complex visual effects ever attempted. Jackson’s Weta Digital and Weta Workshop created computer-generated imagery, as well as scale models, prosthetic makeup and practical effects. The studio was inexperienced with computers, which led to an arduous eighteen-month process of creating the film.

The long shoot was also because there were several scenes where ghosts and humans interacted, which needed to be filmed twice: once with the alive humans on set and again with the ghosts on blue screen. This called for precise timing from the actors. To make sure the film could make it to the screen in time, $6 million more was given to add more animators to the team.

Sadly, The Frighteners wasn’t a success. It’s a hard movie to classify. It’s humorous and full of wonder in one scene, then completely terrifying in others.

It’s all about Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox in his last big movie role before he went back to TV for Spin City), an architect who loses his wife in a car accident and gains the power to see ghosts. He becomes friends with three of the: Cyrus (Chi McBride), a 1970’s gangster; Stuart, a geek from the 1950’s and The Judge (John Astin with 5 hours per day of makeup making him look like a zombie gunslinger).

The ghosts haunt houses until Frank ” exorcizes” them for a fee, fleecing people out of their money. After Frank cleanses the home of Ray Lynskey and his wife Lucy, an entity called the Grim Reaper (which looks like something out of Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man) marks Ray as his next victim. Only Frank can see it and he can’t save the man. He then realizes that his wife had a similar mark, a number, when she was found dead. Now, the police and FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs, who completely and utterly owns this role, a man driven insane by all his work with the occult) are after him, thinking he is a serial killer.

After the newspaper’s editor attacks Frank in an editorial, she’s killed despite Frank trying to save her. The Grim Reaper strikes again, but the police arrest our hero. Now, he’s targeted Lucy, who has fallen for Frank. Dammer then kidnaps Lucy, revealing that he was a victim of the Manson Family and we learn that the Grim Reaper is the ghost of Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), a hospital orderly who killed twelve people in 1964 before he was caught and killed. He always wanted to be the best serial killer ever — better than Charles Starkweather — and his girl Patricia (Dee Wallace Stone!) is still in love with him and helping him up his number from beyond the grave.

Can Frank save Lucy? Can anyone stop the Grim Reaper? The story will go beyond life and death to give you the answers. I really love this movie and watch it at least once every few months, then get sad that so few people dig it as much as I do. Come on, people!

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