Before I was a fan of Peter Jackson, I was a fan of Peter Jackson. WOLFMAN, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?! What I’m trying to get at is that most people int he horror genre know about Peter Jackson from his earlier films like Bad Taste, Braindead, or Meet the Feebles. People outside of the horror community didn’t really know who this Peter Jackson fellow was until he made a little movie called The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and people loved it. Although The Lord of the Rings was the first Peter Jackson movie I saw theatrically, I remember watching The Frighteners on VHS over and over and over again. This was due in part to my brother who either made his own illegal copy of the movie or bought an illegal copy from someone else, I can’t remember exactly, because he is in jail for his crimes. My point is that I loved watching this movie when I was younger and had no idea it was made by someone who I would come to recognize as an icon in both horror and non-horror filmmaking, and with it being October, thought it was worth revisiting.
Pretty sure I had this picture taped up in my room when it came out because I’m pretty sure this is the only image from the movie that ever appeared in any magazine.
It should come as no surprise that a movie about ghosts opens with a scene where Patricia (Dee Wallace) is being terrorized by a ghostly entity coming out of the walls and picture frames until her mom shoots the carpet and the ghost flies out and towards the camera. We shift our focus to Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), who has a special connection with the dead. Ever since a car accident that resulted in Frank’s wife’s death, Frank has been able to see and communicate with spirits. Frank exploits these unique abilities by asking some ghost friends of his to make houses appear haunted so that Frank can come in and charge these people money to clear their homes of these spirits. Sounds like a pretty good scheme, doesn’t it? Well, you’d think that, but some strange “disease” has been passing through town that makes its victims look like they’re having heart attacks, but rather than a traditional heart attack, it looks almost as if the victims are having their hearts squeezed until they explode, and since Frank Bannister seems to have either a personal connection to the victims or can be found at the scene of the crime, he is being blamed for this. This is when we learn that the ghost that was chasing Patricia in the beginning of the film is her dead boyfriend who she went on a murdering rampage with a few decades earlier. Apparently, they were trying to set the record for a killing spree and when her boyfriend Johnny (Jake Busey) was executed for his crimes, it was his ghost that’s been taking up the reins. Will Johnny be able to continue his murderous streak even into the afterlife or will Frank be able to use his connections with the dead to be able to stop him? Watch the movie and find out! Or I guess you could go on Wikipedia because that probably tells you the whole thing.
So then she stabbed him the face and yelled, “I AM NO MAN!!!” and then everybody booed.
While watching this movie, I took to Twitter to see what other people thought about it. Everyone seemed to agree that it was an awesome movie, yet I feel like because it came out in a time where computer effects were being explored in the horror world that it gets lumped together with garbage. That’s a shame, because this movie is a lot of fun. Despite being heavier on computer effects than most other horror films at the time, I think those effects work because most of the effects are just performances by real actors turned blue. Also, the computer effects are where the brunt of the gore is happening, but since that “gore” is happening to computer generated characters, it’s funnier than it is gross. Were Peter Jackson to have done these effects in his more familiar way, it would have been a little bit grosser but a little less unique. Also, in true Peter Jackson style, things start as a comedic film that takes place in a horror storyline, but the further into it you get, the scarier things actually get. The image of the shrouded ghost (that was the entire inspiration for the Ringwraiths in The Lord of the Rings) was pretty creepy, and the idea of this one asshole ghost that was swooping all around the afterlife and killing other ghosts was interesting and seemed an easy way to heighten the amount of deaths in the film without having to take life away from the living. Although, there are definitely some disturbing ideas put in place by the end of the movie. To try to put to rest the vengeful spirits, Frank leads them back to the hospital where Johnny and Patricia originally carried out their murderous spree, and in doing so, the movie switches back and forth between past and present, and in segment in particular shows Patricia walking down a row of beds, shooting each one as she goes by with a shotgun. Even though you don’t see a massive explosion of gore, the implied violence is still pretty brutal.
That haircut makes a little more sense now.
What really sells this movie and makes it so enjoyable is the talents of the ensemble cast. Seeing Michael J. Fox as a darker character who is a recovering alcoholic and clearly battling his inner demons is a fun role for him, and he brings that charm that we come to expect from him. Considering this was 1996, Jake Busey hadn’t done that many big films, so seeing him do his best Gary Busey impression was pretty entertaining, especially being accompanied by everyone’s favorite mom that was oblivious to E.T., Dee Wallace. The supporting ghosts were all pretty entertaining, from the nerdy ghost assistant (Jim Fyfe), to the ghost threatening to bring in Reverend Jesse Jackson against Frank (played by Chi McBride), or the old cowboy known as “Judge” (John Astin), but the ghost that stole the show was definitely the sergeant of the whole graveyard, R. Lee Ermey, who seemingly was just recreating his character from Full Metal Jacket. I think my favorite performance in the film, which it seems is some people’s least favorite, would be Jeffrey Combs as the eccentric Dammers, the one responsible for interrogating Frank. I think that some people don’t care for Dammers is because it seems he was arbitrarily thrown in there, as he didn’t really fit in with the rest of the movie. He had this slicked back Hitler Youth haircut, the sounds of women being angry with him made him physically ill, and he wore a lead breastplate to protect his heart from Frank. It felt like maybe Peter Jackson had the resources and the budget to bring in almost anyone he wanted, so the role of Dammers was written exclusively to showcase the talents of genre actor Combs. Although some of the CGI looks a little dated and the comedy/horror isn’t pulled off quite as well as some of Peter Jackson’s other films, this movie is still a lot of fun and I hope it one day gets the appreciation it deserves.
Wolfman Moon Scale