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The Frighteners

My first introduction to Peter Jackson came in the form of the The Frighteners, the 1996 story of a psychic con artist. Because I took to the movie so well, one of my friends showed me a couple of Jackson’s previous films, most notably Dead Alive, causing a great concern for me when Jackson was finally named as the director of the Lord of the Rings franchise. Fortunately for fans everywhere, The Frighteners wound up being more indicative of what lay in store for Jackson’s future. The basic concept of what Jackson was trying to do with The Frighteners is what originally drew me to the movie (remember, this was back in the day when Jackson himself was relatively unknown). Unlike the Ghostbusters Peter Venkman, who was more than content to dupe people into believing in supernatural, the lead character in The Frighteners fully believes in the existence of the supernatural, even using his own connections with the supernatural world to help convince people they are being haunted. He then goes in and cleans up the haunting, charging exorbitant fees for his services. That subtle difference in a character’s motivations really made me interested, especially knowing the lead was being played by Michael J. Fox, one of my favorite actors.

The problem for Fox’s Frank Bannister comes when his own con-job comes true, a real haunting is going on by an extremely nasty ghost who’s not just haunting, but killing people. Due to his own supernatural powers, Bannister can see who the evil spirit has slated for death, putting him in the awkward position of stopping the spirit and saving the doomed people, even those who have attempted to debunk Bannister’s abilities.

Michael J. Fox is brilliant in the leading role. Until this point, most of the characters Fox had played were really goody-two-shoes types, from Back to the Future’s to “Family Ties”. Frank Bannister is a person who is uncomfortable around people due to his supernatural connections. There is nothing overt about Fox’s performance that communicates this, it’s in the little things: the way he conducts himself around people to his clothes and haircut. At the same time, Bannister isn’t quite at home with the ghosts that surround him. Honestly, how comfortable could it be to have a ghostly old-west Judge chasing a ghost dog who’s carrying his jawbone around your house? Considering how many of the scenes involved Fox filming to nothing but air (and adding the ghosts in later), his performance is quite amazing. Giving virtual performances is often a trying experience and not everyone can pull it off, but there’s no doubt in Fox’s performance that the ghost world he can see exists as strongly as the physical world.

Fox isn’t alone in the performance department though. Jackson filled his spirit world with some spectacular actors, from Fox’s “business partners”, ‘70s afroed Chi McBride and geeky Jim Fyfe, to the more characterized performances of The Judge (John Astin), the drill sergeant guardian of the graveyard (R. Lee Ermey) and the evil spirit himself, played by Jake Busey in a role that makes him seem a little too much like his old man. Jackson’s selections are a far cry from his prior independent film, mostly gained through the advantage of having Robert Zemeckis as the Executive Producer.

The Frighteners marks that in-between period of Jackson’s career, as he transitioned from a small-time independent horror director to the big budget filmmaker he’d become. This transition means there are some aspects of Jackson’s less polished filmmaking involved. Most notably is something that hasn’t gone away yet in Jackson’s career: his insistence on filming in New Zealand. Although the land of the Kiwis worked well as Middle Earth, it doesn’t pass as well as a Californian town. My wife, who is from Northern California (where the movie is supposed to be set) instantly knew the atmosphere of the movie just wasn’t right for that setting. Some of the ghost effects get the advantage of Jackson’s naiveté however. I’ve always found directors manage to accomplish greater accomplishments earlier in their careers before they know better what their limitations are supposed to be. That’s not to say The Frighteners even comes close to Jackson’s films after this film, but it sets a good precedence for the amazing things to come. The DVD Slipcase is a semi-three dimensional replica of the poster of The Frighteners, a white base with the skeleton face of the evil spirit sticking out. On top of that an ugly sticker has been attached, boasting the movie is “from Peter Jackson, the director of King Kong and The Lord of the Rings” (in case you didn’t know who Jackson was). The sticker also boasts the DVD holds “over 4 hours of bonus material” which I didn’t think was much of an accomplishment. If you think about it, the film is over two hours long with a commentary track, leaving only two hours for other material. No. That’s wrong. There is almost four hours of documentary material alone included on the disc, plus the commentary track, storyboards, and the theatrical trailer for the film. In short, this is a loaded DVD, especially considering The Frighteners was never a huge success. Thank the producers for directors who hit it big eventually.

The four hour documentary is material that was previously released, originally produced for the laserdisc edition of The Frighteners almost ten years ago. This is a phenomenal documentary though. Included within are deleted scenes, outtakes, glimpses behind the special effects, and even personal ghost stories from Jackson and Jim Fyfe. Want to see what Weta Workship looked like ten years ago? It’s in there, along with an admission that part of the reason Jackson wanted to tackle Lord of the Rings was because he had to do something with the computers he bought for Weta to do the effects for The Frighteners. Want to see Richard Taylor ten years ago with a skater haircut? It’s in there, as Taylor was just as involved in the making of The Frighteners as he has been in most of Jackson’s films (although that doesn’t explain his attire or hairstyle at the time).

Best of all is a section of the documentary that offers a “fly on the wall” look at several scenes. Essentially they placed a camera on set and let it roll. It’s not edited, it’s not narrated, it’s just what you would see if you were on the set. I love it when movies take these chances with behind the scenes material: letting the audience get a true look at what goes on making the movie. Jackson shows great passion and fun directing the movie, and this part of the documentary is a true predecessor to Jackson’s production diaries for King Kong.

As if the documentary isn’t enough, Jackson then adds a commentary to the entire movie, pointing out the parts that make this a “director’s cut” and differ from the original theatrical cut. He also offers lots of anecdotes about making the movie although he’s extremely careful not to repeat material that is on the documentary. That’s quite an accomplishment considering he recorded the commentary in the last year, while the documentary was made almost a decade ago. Jackson is one of those directors who makes commentaries worthwhile and, for fans of the movie, watching the whole film again with the commentary on is worth their time.

The Frighteners probably won’t appeal to everyone out there. It’s not the scary ghost story it was made out to be from the trailers however. It is a twisted comedy that deserves its “R” rating, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. For those who love Jackson’s better known films, The Frighteners is worth a look, more so then most of his other earlier movies.