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Friday, October 11, 2013

HubrisWeen Day 6: The Frighteners (1996)

Written by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson

Directed by Peter Jackson

Michael J. Fox:  Frank Bannister
Trini Alvorado:  Dr. Lucy Lynskey
Chi McBride:  Cyrus
Jim Fyfe:  Stuart
Jeffrey Combs:  Milton Dammers
Jake Busey:  Johnny Charles Bartlett

The early 2000s were really good time to be a director who made splatter movies in the 80s as a way to get your foot in the door. Sam Raimi went from being the guy who directed a tree-rape in The Evil Dead to helming the Spider-Man movies for Sony; I'm pretty sure he's permanently able to write his own ticket in Hollywood now and he can do whatever he wants for the rest of his life as a creative figure. If Raimi is the Three Stooges-influenced director in the Somewhat More Respectable Horror Nerd Filmmaker club, the designated Looney Tunes fan would have to be Peter Jackson, who is known to 99.999 percent of the movie-going world as the Lord of the Rings director. But to me he'll always be the character who accidentally steps on a piece of his own brain in his debut film, Bad Taste. I'm sure someone already coined the term "splatstick", but that's how I've always thought of Jackson's earlier movies.

It's possible to look at this movie as a feature-length demo reel for the Lord of the Rings movies; it's saturated with wall to wall computer and makeup effects, including brief stopovers in both Heaven and Hell in the third act. But it's also a weird comedy and a story about someone who starts to heal after a long time spent hurting himself and others. It's overstuffed in a good way, and with a twisty plot that I will now ruin the hell out of if you haven't seen the film yet.

Frank Bannister is a semi-impoverished bottom-feeding grifter who targets people that think they're under assault by ghostly forces. The scam isn't quite what you expect--Bannister is a genuine psychic and the people really are witnessing ghostly manifestations. Frank's the one who told the ghosts to go out scaring people so he can charge money to give the victim's house a quick spiritual wipedown. Since no other adults in town can see the spirits (there are dozens if not hundreds, but Bannister has three as his chief henchbeings) it's a pretty foolproof scam. It doesn't rake in all that much money but Bannister lives like a recluse when he's not out scamming people so he doesn't need much.

Bannister's suicidally bad driving skills lead to him driving through Ray Lynskey's white picket fence and gouging tire marks in his yard; he "cleans" the man's house after a late night poltergeist episode in exchange for not having to pay for any earlier damages. But during the exorcism he notices a glowing number 37 on the house owner's forehead. While chewing out his ghostly helpers Bannister points out the number; neither Stuart nor Cyrus (who appear to have died in the fifties and seventies, respectively) cop to putting it on the irate Mr. Lynskey's face. During the ensuing three-way gripe session, the film shows its rules for ghostly behavior--they ooze ectoplasmic slime constantly, are transparent even when shown in Bannister's psychic-enhanced vision, need to expend mental energy to affect objects in the real world, and put themselves back together if disrupted with sufficient time and effort. They also act like cartoon characters, squashing and deforming whenever they bash into something material that they aren't concentrating enough to pass through. The Judge (John Astin under pounds of makeup), a decaying-looking Wild West ghost, has a pair of hex pistols that can apparently kill a ghost--whatever that means to a "persistent residue of the departed". It's also an excuse for the first digital effects from WETA, the special effects house that made Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies look as great as they do and brought the motion-capture version of King Kong to life.

A chance encounter with a freshly ghostly Ray Lynskey--who dropped dead of a massive cardiac arrest while working out--lets Bannister explain a couple more of the rules for ghosts. When someone dies suddenly they don't always walk into the big glowing tunnel of light to The Other Side(tm). Once a year or so they'll get another chance to cross over, but until that they're stuck on Earth unable to sleep or eat, constantly observing a world they can't touch. Bannister gives Lynskey a ride to the cemetary so he's not late for his own funeral and encounters R. Lee Ermey playing the exact same character he was in Full Metal Jacket, in charge of keeping earthbound spirits in the cemetery through the powers of shapeshifting an bellowing angrily.

A quick graveside visit from the town sheriff lets Bannister know that there have been several suspicious and medically impossible cardiac arrests in the town recently; the FBI is officially concerned that there might be something suspicious, although they almost certainly wouldn't believe what was really happening even if their agent was capable of seeing it.

While passing messages from Ray to his wife Lucy over a dinner at a nice restaurant, Bannister excuses himself for a moment to clean up a ghost-provoked wine spill, and sees another diner in the men's room with a glowing "38" on his forehead. That poor sonofabitch gets his heart crushed by what appears to be the Grim Reaper jumping out from behind the sink mirror and his soul goes up into the heavenly Boom Tube that appears as he dies. Bannister takes off in high pursuit but neither he nor his rattletrap car can touch or hurt the spectral killer.

Back at the police station, FBI Special Agent Milton Dammers shows up to consult on the case. He's a twitchy, pale, sunken-eyed man with a Hitler haircut and a host of psychological tics--what you'd expect Agent Mulder to actually wind up looking like if he'd started out sane and wound up confronting the unknown for a decade or so. Dammer, in between fits of distracted mumbling and twitching, gives Bannister's back story:  His wife died in a drunk-driving accident with the number 13 carved in her forehead; the utility knife used to mark her was never found.

Meanwhile, Bannister sees another heavenly tunnel open over a natural history museum and gets there too late to help lucky number 39; number 40, a newspaper editor who ran an expose on his ghost scam is there and the reaper figure shows up again. As do a pair of police, so Bannister can't move or yell or do anything to try and help the journalist. Only the intervention of the Judge prevents the reaper from killing two people within the space of ten minutes. Bannister flees with the editor but fails to save her life, crashing off the same Holloway Road curve that killed his wife five years before. A traumatized Bannister turns himself in to the police after the accident.

Dammers tells the police that Bannister himself has to be the killer, using telekinetic abilities that are at best barely under his conscious control (and given the amount of weird shit that happened at the museum to delay the police, courtesy of the Judge, Stuart and Cyrus, it's an understandable mistake). But what nobody realizes is that the threat is weirder and meaner than anything even Frank Bannister has come across yet, and he knows enough about ectoplasm and ghost physics that he could fight the reaper on its own territory if he stops his heart long enough to leave his body and save everyone in town from a threat they can't even perceive. And that's actually just the start of his problems, because the threat is a supernatural shapeshifting entity capable of re-killing ghosts and murdering people without apparent effort and deeply concerned about setting a world record body count...

This movie still impresses the hell out of me, even after seventeen years of improved digital effects. In direct contradiction of Hollywood standards, the filmmakers were using the effects to serve the story rather than as a replacement for it. Additionally, it's got a screenplay that has some pretty pointed things to say about celebrity and notoriety when it's not trying to scare the viewers, and partly it's the performances (Michael J. Fox makes a great Everyman surrounded by chaos, while Jeffrey Combs is a fantastic collection of nervous tics and paranoid suspicions; the ghosts are broad Shakespearean sketches of frustration and supernatural ability).

It all comes to a head in the standout sequence at the end at an abandoned asylum--Frank Bannister stands alone against the supernatural threat and Agent Dammers at the same time, both menaces working to help each other even when Dammers literally can't see the effects his efforts are having. At the same time that the Reaper figure and an Uzi-toting paranoid maniac are hunting him, Bannister's psychic powers are showing him uncontrollable flashbacks to a spree killing thirty years in the past. Watching the gloomy, run-down asylum bleed into the sunlit flashbacks of a gun-toting madman combine a sense of insanity and doom with the previously established ghostly menaces. It's hard to raise the stakes when your protagonist is fighting Death itself, but somehow the movie manages. There's also a great sight gag--possible emphasis on "gag" here--with one character's head getting blown off by a shotgun blast and the instant appearance of his head as a ghost, with the same puzzled look on his face he had right before the gun went off. Remember that Looney Tunes remark from eleven paragraphs ago? This is my Exhibit A for it.

Because it opened as a big summer blockbuster instead of an October horror film, this one didn't make a hell of a lot of money (it made about half of its production cost back in the theaters, which is a damned shame). It was Fox's last film as well, with the actor deciding to spend more time with his family and less time on location on another continent before his Parkinson's Disease forced him into semi-retirement. Jackson, for his part, spent the next five years shepherding the Lord of the Rings trilogy to screens and became an international superstar seemingly out of nowhere. But for the B movie crowd, we knew that weird kid from New Zealand was going to go places.


  1. GOOD choice for F. I've watched this three times, it never fails to entertain.

  2. There is so much interplay between the past and present and the realms of the living and the dead. All that and Jeffrey Combs being as creepy and off-putting as he ever is.