When a director becomes popular or a success (or both), there are typically two kinds of fans. There are those who have followed the filmmaker from the beginning of their career. Then, there are others who worked backwards once the director broke into the mainstream and discovered the early films from this creative person. (I'm sure that there are actually fans who discovered a director in the middle of their ascent to fame, but we're going to ignore those people in this discussion.) When Peter Jackson struck box-office and Oscar gold with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and became the darling of fantasy-film geeks everywhere, I'm sure that there were many curious parties who checked out Jackson's previous films to see where this man had come from. I wish that I could have seen the looks on their Hobbit faces as they experienced the bizarre goodness of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead/Alive. Jackson's two films made prior to his Tolkien odyssey, Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners may have caught the attention of Hollywood, but that doesn't mean that they were any more mainstream friendly. With the release of Jackson's latest film, King Kong, I'm sure that there are those who are continue to seek out the man's mid-career efforts. Luckily for them, The Frighteners is now available on DVD in a new Special Edition.
The Frighteners takes place in the small coastal town of Fairwater, which has been experiencing a rash of bizarre deaths. Local huckster Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is unconcerned with this trend, as he's too busy running his poltergeist scam on unsuspecting homeowners. Due to a trauma, Frank has the ability to see ghosts, and he uses his trio of phantom helpers, Cyrus (Chi McBride), Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and The Judge (John Astin) to frighten people. Frank then sweeps in and "exorcises" the home.
Frank's involvement in Fairwater's dilemma changes when he meets Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) and her husband, Ray (Peter Dobson). After "cleaning" the Lyskey's home, Frank sees a number carved into Ray's forehead. Soon after, Ray dies. After seeing another individual with a number on their head, Frank encounters a spectral, hooded figure who seemingly kills at random. With the help of his ghostly pals, Frank pursues this ghastly creature. Meanwhile, Lucy is investigating the Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace-Stone), a woman who was involved in a mass-murder as a teenager, and has been experiencing ghostly attacks. Despite the fact that the police, and FBI Agent Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) want to pin the murders on Frank, he and Lucy realize that something supernatural and sinister is happening in Fairwater and will stop at nothing to find the truth.
My wife and I saw The Frighteners in the theater in 1996, and have seen it at least once on home video since then. As we sat down to watch this new DVD, she asked, "Why wasn't this a bigger hit?" Several times throughout the film, I said, "That's why it wasn't a bigger hit." The Frighteners is a unique and original film that has a lot to offer audiences, but isn't necessarily the kind of film which would be embraced by the mainstream. And while Jackson's first big-budget movie is certainly ambitious, he also bites off more than he can chew.
For now, let's focus on the positive aspects of The Frighteners. In his early films, Jackson had exhibited a very creative and interesting visual style and he only builds on this in The Frighteners. The camera is rarely still in the film and the kinetic, seemingly anxious visual style adds some tension to the movie. The ghosts in the movie have a very unique look, most notably "The Reaper", whose cloaked appearance pre-figures the "wraiths" from Lord of the Rings. Jackson's genius really shines through in the film's finale, as the action is non-stop and the blending of flashbacks with the present is very well-done. At the time of its production, The Frighteners had the most special effects shots of any film in history and Jackson displays a confidence in using CGI to enhance the film. The use of the CG ghosts, most notably when "The Reaper" crawls under wallpaper and carpets, is very creative and unnerving. In addition, Jackson makes the most of his picturesque locations.
Jackson also gets a boost from his cast. Michael J. Fox definitely looks out of place at times, but he manages to balance the drama and comedy in the movie. The always entertaining Jeffrey Combs is great as the clearly insane Agent Dammers and he displays a character who is actually crazier than Herbert West. Peter Dobson adds humor as Ray, as do Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe as Bannister's ghostly side-kicks. Acting against type, Dee Wallace-Stone is good as the very troubled Patricia.
And while The Frighteners is certainly an entertaining film which is never dull, it's also a very uneven movie. In the commentary, Jackson reveals that the script was constantly being written and re-written during production and this process shows through in the finished film, as the movie changes in tone and adds more and more subplots. The movie could have easily been only about Frank and his business or it could have focused on just the murders and the history of the town. By combining both, Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh have made a multi-layered film which has too many layers. Just as we begin to ingest the fact that Frank has real supernatural abilities, but is actually a con-artist, the plot concerning the murders takes over, and when Agent Dammers is thrown into the mix, the movie teeters on collapsing under its own weight. Jackson and Walsh shouldn't be criticized for making a dense film, but the film has the feel of a novel which has been adapted into a movie, where many ideas are introduced, while details are sacrificed.
Throughout the mid-section of the film, The Frighteners attempts to walk the fine-line of mixing horror and comedy. Jackson had made laugh-filled horror films with Bad Taste and Dead/Alive, but those films were high-camp. With The Frighteners, Jackson stumbles as the comedic elements of Frank's dubious business and his chatty ghosts, doesn't quite gel with the creepy "Reaper" who is killing the residents of Fairwater. It's during these scenes that The Frighteners would most likely lose a mainstream audience, especially the scene where it's implied that The Judge is having sex with a mummy. If Jackson would've reined in the comedic side of The Frighteners, the film could have been more even-keeled, and thus more enjoyable.
The Frighteners haunts DVD courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer looks very good, as the image is very sharp and clear. The picture shows no defects from the source material and virtually no grain. Despite the dark subject matter in the film, Jackson hasn't shied away from the use of bold colors in the film, and the reds and greens look very good here. Speaking of dark, the action is always visible during the night-time scenes. The transfer does show some mild artifacting, but it is free from defects caused by edge-enhancements.
The Frighteners DVD contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Some of you may be disappointed that the DVD doesn't sport a DTS track as many of Universal's DVDs do, but the Dolby track does just fine. The dialogue is always audible and clear, as are the sound effects and musical score. The stereo effects are noticeable, and the surround sound effects work quite well. (When a loud "thump" came from the left rear speaker, I thought that one of my kids was wandering the house!) The only problem with the audio is an issue with the LFE channel. I found the bass to be overwhelming at times, often drowning out the dialogue, so I had to make adjustments to correct this.
Many DVDs today make promises such as "Over 2 hours of Extra Features!" and upon watching the disc you find that this 2 hours is comprised of the audio commentary for the 100-minute film and then a few deleted scenes and a featurette. The Frighteners DVD promises over 4 hours of bonus material and it delivers, with the extras, when the commentary is included, clocking in at closer to 6 hours. The DVD in this release of The Frighteners is a two-sided "flipper". While this is a new DVD release, it contains many of the extra features which were included in the laserdisc release which appeared in the late 90s. Side A contains the film, which is an extended Director's Cut, running some 14-minutes longer than the theatrical cut. The additional scenes don't add anything new to the plot, but simply flesh out some of the more subtle qualities of the film, adding some new scenes with The Judge, and additional interaction between Frank and his ghosts. Side A also features an audio commentary from Peter Jackson (taken from the laserdisc, so it's pre-Lord of the Rings). Jackson speaks at length throughout the film, giving a very detailed account of the making of The Frighteners. He talks about locations, special effects, the actors, and the story. He's very frank in his admission that he and Walsh should have spent more time planning the script before the film went into production. A 45-minute "Storyboards" segment is also included on Side A, which features an introduction by Jackson. We are then treated to what is essentially the entire film in storyboard form, with Jackson adding occasional comments. Side A also features the theatrical trailer for The Frighteners, presented full-frame.
Side B features the massive 3 hour and 43 minute documentary "The Making of The Frighteners" which was taken from the laserdisc. (As I haven't seen the laserdisc, I don't know if the entire doc is included here, but judging by the length, I would have to guess that it is.) This documentary is an incredibly detailed overview of the making of The Frighteners, and was the brainchild of Jackson. The amazing thing about this feature is that it feels like many of the 30-minute behind-the-scenes specials that we get on other DVDs, only expanded to give much more information. In that sense, it's a chore to watch the whole thing, but it never gets boring, save for the 26-minutes of "On Set" footage which is meant to show what it's like to be on-set, but gets tiresome after a while. "The Making of The Frighteners" tackles every aspect of the film's production, including the origins of the script, developing the film with Robert Zemeckis, casting, locations, visual FX, make-up effects, character design, miniatures, music and fighting the ratings board. Some highlights of the doc deal with the design of The Reaper, the actual rehearsal footage from Peter Jackson's house, the profiles of the actors. The most interesting aspects focus on the "Deleted Scenes", which include 6 additional scenes involving The Judge and 1 Lucy, but the one must see the deleted scenes with "The Gatekeeper", a giant cherub who protected the cemetery in the film. I've got a pretty good idea why this was cut. The documentary features a ton of behind-the-scenes footage and comments from the principal cast and crew (see Jeffrey Combs be normal!) as well as quotes from many of the special effects artists. Some may be intimidated by the running time of this special, but it's certainly informative.
I definitely consider myself a fan of Peter Jackson's early films, but I can see The Frighteners for what it is: a semi-successful attempt to take Jackson's somewhat skewed ideas and process them into a Hollywood film. The end-result is uneven and won't appeal to everyone, but it does contain some great visuals and it's hard to beat the action in the film's final reel.