Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace Stone, Troy Evans, Chi McBride, Jim Fyle, John Astin, Jake Busey
The version being reviewed is unrated. For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Terror/Violence
Peter Jackson's ghost story "The Frighteners" is so full of ideas, genre twists and weirdo characters that I stand back in awe. Let's see. You've got: a paranormal con man, a trio of ghosts (each with their own personality), the Grim Reaper, a serial killer, a sniveling reporter, a creepy FBI agent, a grieving widow, a woman with a secret, and a hero with a personal tragedy. And that's just the start. While Jackson doesn't exactly know what to do with all of these characters, trying to do too much is always preferable to the alternative.
Frank Bannister (Fox) is a paranormal con man. Oh, he can see ghosts (a side effect of the car accident that killed his wife), it's just that the ghosts he catches for a hefty fee are his three ghost buddies that he hires to do the job. They're a diverse lot: Stuart (Fyle) is Frank's assistant that bears a striking similarity to Andy Dick, Cyrus (McBride) is a ghost straight out of a 70's Blaxploitation movie, and The Judge (Astin) is a gunslinger from the Old West who is literally falling apart. When Frank cons Ray (Dobson) and Lucy (Alvarado) Lynskey, things start getting strange. People have been suddenly dying of heart attacks lately, and Ray is the latest victim. The Grim Reaper himself is in town, and only Frank and his buddies can stop him...if the skeptical townsfolk don't arrest him first.
This is only scratching the surface of the movie. I've neglected to mention the town's darkest secret, a mass murder at a hospital carried out by Johnny Bartlett (Busey), who was later executed, and Patricia Bradley (Stone), his brainwashed accomplice. Or the snooty reporter (Elizabeth Hawthorne) intent on exposing Frank as a funeral-chasing fraud. Or the ghost of a marine played, of course, by R. Lee Ermey. Like I said, there's a lot going on here. Jackson has trouble juggling it all into a cohesive whole, but it's interesting enough to be worth it.
For the most part, only the two leads impress. Michael J. Fox has little trouble playing a nice guy who does some unsavory things. He drives an old beater really fast, runs around and lets out a few words you couldn't hear him say in the "Back to the Future" movies. Trini Alvarado is cute as the love interest and has the acting chops to back it up. There's a scene between Frank, Lucy, and Ray's ghost that's both touching and hilarious. Jake Busey shows up for a few scenes as a creepy mass murderer that probably spends most of his time in hell with Mickey and Mallory Knox. Everyone else is okay at best, boring at worst. The only other performance worth mentioning is the FBI agent played by character actor Jeffrey Combs. Combs takes a lot of daring risks with his performance, and boy, do they not work. This is a role for Christopher Walken or Crispin Glover. As played by Combs, Agent Milton Dammers comes across less like an entertaining weirdo like Jack Sparrow and more like Fearless Leader from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." Annoying doesn't do the character justice. Worse, he has far too much screen time.
While dated, the special effects are inventive enough to still have the "cool" factor. Especially the Grim Reaper, who is actually chilling. Think the Nazgul from Jackson's claim to fame, "The Lord of the Rings." Actually, it was during post-production of this film that he decided to make the epic saga. In his words, he was going to be stuck with more than a dozen computers after the film was completed, so he looked for a new project to use them on. The rest, as they say, is history.
"The Frighteners" isn't any kind of a masterpiece. It's too busy and too goofy to ever be scary; the only thing keeping it from a PG-13 is where a character gets his head blown off by a shotgun, but like everything else in this movie, it's too intentionally silly to be taken seriously. This is the kind of movie you watch with your friends late at night. Grab some beer and have a great time.