The Frighteners is one of those seemingly magical accidents that crawls its way out of the primordial soup and somehow manages to delightfully exist. However, like most beloved cinematic offerings, its journey to the screen was rather convoluted. In order to understand its genesis, you have to go back to a pre-Game of Thrones, pre-Sopranos HBO – when they brought forth the exquisite, superb series based on the EC comics of long before: Tales from the Crypt. At the height of its popularity, Tales was getting too big for the small screen; and so it’s genius creators decided to adapt it for the big screen to further maximise its audience.
One of its most prominent executive producers, Robert Zemeckis, had recently helmed the masterpiece that is Death Becomes Her, which drips Tales From The Crypt from every pore; so much so that you could interpret it as an unofficial a Tales movie in its own right. He hired Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh to write what was to be the first official Tales film: The Frighteners, which was originally intended for Zemeckis to direct himself. But Zemeckis was so taken with the idea that he felt that it transcended its intended purpose as a Tales From The Crypt vessel and should be its own thing entirely. With excellent instinct and little ego, Robert Zemeckis wisely handed over the director’s reins to Jackson and facilitated as the film’s producer.
It’s not so easy to put a finger on exactly what The Frighteners is. If I had to take a stab, I’d say it carries a framework reminiscent of Ghostbusters, starring in their own R-rated Scooby Doo adventure. But that’s not all: Michael J. Fox somehow manages to channel a grown up, edgier, life-weary Marty Mcfly in the character of Frank Bannister. The amalgamation not only injects the film with empathetic character pathos, it also manages to give it the tone and feel of a lost Back to The Future adventure – sans time travel, DeLorean’s, and Doc Browns (though Fox was known to have frequent trouble onset calling John Aston ‘Doc’) and instead impregnated it with the other worldly and paranormal. Perhaps this is another altered timeline or maybe even another dimension where Marty’s doppelganger self has caught up with the supernatural instead of the science fiction (time travel – at the current writing of this article). Whatever is going on, it works very well.
While it is prevalent that the film would be nothing without Michael J. Fox in the main role, it should also be noted just how integral the supporting cast and eerie setting are to proceedings. Jackson lobbied to shoot the film in his native New Zealand, to which the studio agreed on the condition that it look like the American Midwest as much as possible. The end result is a gloomy, atmospheric film which depicts an alternative Midwestern town haunted by spooks. Furthermore, diehard Jackson fans will appreciate the director paying homage to his earlier, gore-splattered, cult classic Dead Alive by using familiar locations, such as the cemetery.
Coming from a low budget horror pedigree left Peter Jackson enamoured with the perfection that is Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator – and by casting Jeffrey Combs as F.B.I Special Agent Dammers, he managed to secure one of the most memorable and enduring supporting characters in ANY film (at least in my personal opinion). That’s not to take away from anyone else’s brilliant contributions though. The film boasts spectacular performances all across the board: Dee Wallace is incredible, spinning on a dime as she transforms from innocent victim into shotgun wielding psycho. Frank’s trio of comedic ghostly sidekick foils – especially John Astin’s Judge – bring a lighthearted comedic tone in what would otherwise be a very grim movie. Jake Busey, on the other hand, laps it up as a psychotic spirit slasher on the loose, using the grim reaper guise as a gimmick to further feed his ritualistic obsession. And lest we forget R.L. Emery and the random – yet BRILLIANT – idea to have his character be the implied ghost of Drill Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket.
Combs, however, manages to take it to another level. He sculpts the character with his own ideas from an assortment of mutilation scars and tattoos, “My body is a roadmap of pain”, to appliances that made his ears stick out, to the Hitler haircut. Combs brought a painstakingly caring level of detail to Dammers, deliciously chewing the fat in every scene he’s in – and stealing the show. The result is the same feeling he gave to Herbert West in Re-Animator: an ominous, charming, memorable presence that always leaves you wanting more.
Besides having a great story, blessed with an excellent cast, The Frighteners also finds itself being noteworthy as a significant milestone in Peter Jackson’s filmmaking. It marks the transition, where given the proper resources like a $26 million studio budget, not to mention benevolent producing energy like Robert Zemeckis, Jackson is able to ascend to a new level of visual storytelling. Jackson’s Weta digital workshop, still in its infancy, takes on the massive task of handling all of the intensive VFX work needed to bring the film to life – and overnight, Weta goes from being a single computer facility to a 35 computer facility. In the end it still wouldn’t be enough. The story’s ghost elements also required a lot of actor interaction with VFX leading to Jackson’s immersion in working with green and blue screens.
In the end, it would be running the gauntlet of fire that was the production and post-production on The Frighteners – and subsequent mastery of skill sets which would prove to studios that Jackson was capable of helming King Kong (which initially didn’t pan out) – that led to Jackson conquering Lord of the Rings and establishing himself as a master filmmaker. From his humble beginnings making gore-soaked D.I.Y. indie fare, to grand scale magnum epics capable of sweeping the Oscars.
It’s incredible to think that Jackson went from projecting a miniature house on a turntable at the end of Bad Taste to eventually helming King Kong and coordinating three brontosauruses tumbling down a canyon. Was he trying to outdo Spielberg’s boulder run in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Who knows… One thing is for certain: reflecting back, it is easy to see how Jackson’s game was taken up a notch under the tutelage of Zemeckis on The Frighteners. And it is most noticeable on King Kong.
The Frighteners initial theatrical run was poor, barely making back its production budget. A far cry from what the studio initially anticipated, giving it a summer July blockbuster slot (ignoring protests from both Zemeckis and Jackson) up against the likes of the massive Independence Day. Had they had their druthers, Zemeckis & Jackson would have released the film in the fall on October 31st. It also didn’t help that the film was given an ‘R’ rating when it could have passed as a PG-13 release. When Jackson learned his protest would fall on deaf ears, he amped the gore back up – including changing Dammers death scene to the much gorier one seen in the film.
The film had come along at a time during the great industrial CGI revolution of the 90’s, when creating the incredible was as effortless as using programs on a computer. Sadly, this also led to the beginning of films being overly bloated by the convenient, fashionable time and money saving computer technology. Even sadder that the majority of these films and their digital VFX simply don’t age well. Unfortunately, some (but not all) of The Frighteners VFX fall into this camp. But all is not lost. A great solution to revisiting films with DDSFXS (Dated Digital Special Effects Syndrome) is to watch them in B&W. Use your TV settings to turn the saturation down to zero and suddenly the DDSFX are reinvigorated. Much like rehydrating a MRE. I first noticed the difference watching the B&W edition of The Mist. I was shocked and let down by Its seemingly lazy use of CGI, it would always remain a blemish on what was otherwise an excellent film – until I bought the DVD and watched as Frank explained his original choice to have the film in B&W (a choice he convinced the studio to put on as a supplemental feature).
In the two decades since its initial theatrical run (20 years this July), The Frighteners has been embraced by a loving cult audience throughout the horror sections of local video stores all over. In 2005, at the height of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit mania and following the success of the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we were blessed with an extended Director’s Cut with over 15 extra minutes of footage. Does the longer running time make it a better movie? No, not at all. But as a fan who always wants MORE – especially when we will never get a sequel (not that it needs one) – it is a welcome addition. The only crime is that is that we still don’t have re-releases or a box set of the first three gems in his filmography – particularly Meet The Feebles, despite the various rumblings in the rumor mill over the years.
Overall, if anything at all can be gleaned from watching The Frighteners, it would be “Don’t Fear the Reaper”.