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Reviews » HD DVD Reviews » The Frighteners (Director's Cut) (HD DVD)
The Frighteners (Director's Cut) (HD DVD)
Universal // Unrated // May 29, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 9, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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The Frighteners marked Peter Jackson's transition from a Kiwi indie filmmaker into the mainstream, marrying the macabre sense of humor of movies like Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice with his own early splatter-comedies on a glossy Hollywood budget. Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, a former architect who spends his days skulking around graveyards. A traumatic car crash several years earlier left Frank with the ability to see and commune with the dead, and he grabs a couple of spooks from the cemetery to help him play ghostbuster. His three undead partners in crime -- wormy Stuart (Jim Fyfe), soul-brother Cyrus (Chi McBride), and The Judge (John Astin) -- trash the marks' homes and make sure to leave Frank's business card in plain sight, helping him scare up enough cash to maybe one day finish the skeleton of a dream home he abandoned after his wife's untimely death.

Business is booming in the lazy little hamlet of Fairwater, California. Once infamous for a murder spree in the town's hospital decades ago, Fairwater has been plagued by an onslaught of dozens of mysterious deaths. Frank doesn't think of it as much more than a shot at easy money until he starts spotting glowing, ghostly numbers carved in people's heads. It's a sign that the Grim Reaper's about to strike, and these hints of death finally give Frank a sense of purpose he'd lacked since losing his wife, especially when the Reaper aims his scythe at the lovely, recently widowed Lucy (Trini Alvarado).

The Frighteners makes the same missteps as most horror-comedies, namely that it's not particularly scary and not particularly funny. The movie squanders most of its rambling first act trying to be zany-exclamation-point, with babies zipping around mid-air to Danny Elfman's whirling circus music and Frank's ghosts lobbing out a seemingly neverending barrage of eye-rollingly bad one-liners. With one devastatingly unfunny sequence trying to get laughs from an undead horny toad ravaging a mummy's corpse, it's loud and doesn't sparkle with the vulgar wit of Jackson's earlier movies. The storytelling is nimble but scattershot, and the way these characters interact never seems like much more than a plot contrivance.

It's a drag because the premise of a psychic con-man with a small army of ghosts to scare up business is incredibly clever, but The Frighteners doesn't seem all that interested in taking advantage, and that angle is abandoned surprisingly quickly. Jackson notes in the extras on this disc how fluid the screenplay was, diverting from a shooting script that was already unrecognizable from where it was a few drafts earlier. This uncertainty shows on-screen as The Frighteners doesn't have any clear direction where it wants to go, what it wants to do, or even what it wants to be. It's as if Jackson and his writing partner Fran Walsh brainstormed a long, long list of brilliant ideas, and unwilling to abandon any of them, each and every one was shoehorned into an unfocused script.

Jackson has been an ambitious filmmaker from the first time he stepped behind the camera, and The Frighteners featured some 500 digital effects shots when that industry was still in its infancy. Floors and walls buckle as a cloaked spirit sloughs through them. Characters careen through mirrors, square off against a painting, and leap through and squeeze out of anything and everything. Faces are sliced off, the Reaper reaches into his victims' chests and crushes their hearts until their arteries explode, and John Astin's decomposing Judge shuffles around with almost all of his skin and organs long since rotted off. The effects aren't there to just enhance the story, though. It almost seems as if the unfocused plot is there to give Jackson an excuse to build a digital effects house and revel in computer generated imagery, and this is especially disappointing since its effects haven't aged well in the decade and change since The Frighteners was first released.

Jackson does pull off some tremendous work, though, and the film improves immensely once it ditches the overpriced slapstick and really gets underway. The climax is set in an abandoned hospital, and the way Frank flashes back and forth between the dark, dank wards in search of consecrated ground and a sunny murder spree in the '60s is exceptionally well-staged. Jackson also deserves credit for not pandering to a mainstream audience; not too many filmmakers could pull off a movie that starts off as a light, goofy comedy and builds up to serial killers skulking around a decrepit hospital. A number of moments throughout The Frighteners are remarkably intense, and although much of the splatter is computer-generated and has more of a Termite Terrace cartooniness to it, there are some fairly gruesome moments as well. The kinetic visual flair of Jackson's earlier films remains intact, with the cameras flung wildly around the set, tilted at off-kilter angles and almost violently zooming in on the actors.

The Frighteners is bolstered by a fairly strong cast, headed by Michael J. Fox in his last lead role in a live-action film. Fox occasionally seems out of his depth -- probably just a side effect of having to act against nothing so much of the time -- but he juggles the mix of comedy and drama rather well. Trini Alvarado anchors the film as the hauntingly beautiful Lucy, and Jeffrey Combs steals every scene he's in as a deranged FBI agent whose decades infiltrating cults and religious sects have left him with a shattered mind and, um, hemorrhoids. No one excudes psychosis at a glance like Jake Busey, and the young Patricia Bradley is equally unsettling in the role of his Caril Ann Fugate.

The Frighteners follows the intimacy, emotional depth, and skilled craftsmanship of Heavenly Creatures -- a film worlds removed from the splatter-comedies he'd helmed almost exclusively up to that point -- and the epic grandeur of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that would follow. To fall between two such unusually memorable films, it's odd that The Frighteners would be so forgettable. I don't dislike the movie, but compared to everything else in his filmography, The Frighteners is a disappointment. Universal has opted to include the director's cut of The Frighteners on HD DVD, packing on 14 minutes of additional footage over the theatrical version that spends much more time with Frank's three ghosts and offers more of a glimpse into Agent Dammers' twisted backstory.

Video: The Frighteners fares alright on HD DVD, but it's not one of Universal's more impressive catalog titles, sporting a 2.39:1 high-def presentation that looks like it's been warmed over from an older transfer that had barely had the cobwebs swiped off it. Sharpness and definition are erratic; many shots -- particularly tight close-ups -- at least to some extent boast the clarity and detail generally associated with high-def, but fine object detail is mediocre from any sort of distance. A decent number of shots have a tinge of softness to them, and the worst of them look as if they'd been digitally oversharpened to try to compensate. Contrast tends to be flat, devoid of that depth and almost tactile pop that most home theater nuts are so keen on in their HD DVDs. A handful of specks and assorted signs of wear creep in as well, even if there aren't nearly enough to be all that distracting. Okay, but not great.

Audio: The disc's Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix shows its age as well. I've been spoiled by so many HD DVDs where I can clearly, distinctly discern each and every sound in the mix, but The Frighteners is more muddled by comparison with none of its effects emerging all that crisply or clearly. The sound design coaxes a healthy rumble from the subwoofer, but the bass tends to sound boomy rather than tight and punchy. As admirable a job as the mix does in filling out the surrounds, even managing to squeeze in a couple of 360° pans, several of those attempts sound somewhat forced and gimmicky. On the upside, stereo separation across the front channels is strong and far more convincing. Like the visual end of this disc, the six channel remix is okay but nothing particularly impressive.

The Frighteners doesn't include any dubs, although subtitles in English and French have been provided.

Extras: There aren't any newly created extras on this HD DVD, and none of the material is offered in high definition. The brief introduction by Peter Jackson from the most recent DVD release is presented here in anamorphic widescreen, noting how The Frighteners is the connective thread between Heavenly Creatures and Lord of the Rings.

Jackson also provides another short introduction to "The Making of The Frighteners", the sprawling 3 hour and 45 minute documentary produced for the film's Laserdisc release. This comprehensive look at the making of the movie was hammered out back in the days when the phrase "special edition" still meant something, and what's truly remarkable about it is how a making-of piece that's nearly twice as long as the film itself can be so consistently and tremendously entertaining throughout, even to someone like me who's never been able to warm up all that much to The Frighteners. It's hard to imagine much of anything that isn't covered in detail here: the development of the script, scouring New Zealand for a spot that could stand in the the sleepy northern California town of Fairwater, assembling a cast with an emphasis on actors who could contribute to a continually evolving script, a trip to Weta for a detailed run through the digital effects process, visualizing the Reaper and the ghostly hound dog and touching on the various practical and digital methods attempted to bring them to life, the use of miniatures as the camera careens through Fairwater, struggling with 120 hour work weeks as the studio pushed up the release date, the challenge the score presented for composer Danny Elfman, squabbles over ratings and release dates, and even touching on the mixed critical reception to the film.

The documentary is anchored around Peter Jackson, but producer Robert Zemeckis, all of the key cast members, Danny Elfman, and a gaggle of techies from Weta contribute their thoughts as well. The documentary goes on to include a reel of deleted and extended scenes -- including a mammoth, winged, foam-rubber baby named the Gatekeeper who was completely trimmed out of the movie along with much more of John Astin's The Judge, a lengthy gag reel which includes Michael J. Fox forgetting that he's not shooting Back to the Future, footage of Chi McBride improvising in rehearsals and on the blue screen stage, tons of test renders and effects shots, comparisons of the prologue with and without sound effects and with and without the score, an early conversation with the actors that Jackson recorded with a camcorder on the floor, and fly-on-the-wall behind the scenes footage of several sequences that are free of any narration or interviews interspersed throughout. Even though it was produced over a decade ago, this remains one of the definitive making-of documents of a film, and it's absolutely essential viewing for anyone buying or renting this HD DVD.

Also lifted from the Laserdisc is a commentary track with Peter Jackson, who makes a deliberate effort to avoid duplicating material from the documentary but still has another two hours' worth of non-stop discussion left in him. Some of the highlights include an explanation of a prologue that's generally seen as a cheat, changing a key murder weapon, Jackson's tendency to shoot the endings to his films early on in the process, his preference for The Frighteners' third act, and how he capitalized on the film's R-rating after struggling with the MPAA. Jackson's candid about what he doesn't think works so well, and he takes care to point out which scenes and individual shots are unique to this director's cut of the film, including reinstating Danny Elfman's single favorite moment. Again, I'll admit to not being the biggest fan of The Frighteners, but I really enjoyed this audio commentary, and it's well worth a listen even for those who've already waded through the nearly four hour documentary.

A theatrical trailer sounds out the extras.

Conclusion: Ambitious, offbeat, but wildly uneven, The Frighteners is a dated visual effects spectacle and Peter Jackson's most disappointing film to date. It's appreciated that Universal would release The Frighteners in its director's preferred cut with a comprehensive set of extras, but much like the movie itself, the disc's high-definition visuals and multichannel remix are fairly mediocre. Recommended for fans of the movie, especially those who haven't already picked up the director's cut on DVD, but otherwise, I'd suggest giving this HD DVD a rental first. Rent It.
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