The Frighteners came right after (well, two years) Heavenly Creatures, so I assume–and sort of remember from 1996–it was supposed to be Jackson’s big break. Instead, it bombed. So, obviously, it’s his best work. The Frighteners is a Universal Pictures Michael J. Fox star vehicle (following Greedy and For Love or Money and The Hard Way) and it’s Fox at his best, when he finally shrugged off the trying-to-hard attitude that ruined his 1980s work. The film plays to Fox’s comedic, self-referencing traits, but without forcing references to earlier work. The scenes where he’s not being funny, fail. It’s not all Fox’s fault, the script fails there too. The Frighteners is best when it’s being silly. (However, as “Boston Legal” further confirms, Fox does well as a romantic leading man).
I wasn’t expecting much from The Frighteners. I haven’t seen it since the late 1990s, probably when the laserdisc came out. I missed the much-eBayed director’s cut laserdisc and waited to watch the film again until it became available in whatever format. I remember Jackson once referred to the version as “The Director’s Fun Cut,” as opposed to anything else, and it is quite a bit of fun. The Frighteners is so well-cast, has so many good jokes and performances (Dee Wallace-Stone is particularly good), it’s rather disappointing when it falls apart. The added footage does the film no harm, it just has a bad third act….
Throughout the entire film, Jeffrey Combs irritates as a wacko FBI agent, but he once disappears only to reappear, it becomes obvious how little he brought to the film. When he returns, the heart sinks and the eyes roll… He’s actually doing a Jim Carrey impression in the role, stealing mannerisms and expressions from Carrey’s early work–most visibly Ace Ventura and Dumb & Dumber. I kept wondering if they’d wanted Carrey (he and Combs share a resemblance), but couldn’t afford him or something. Even the initials are the same. It’s not just Combs who ruins the third act, it’s just heavy-handed and poorly written… but not so much it spoils the film.
Oh, lastly, the awful CG special effects. They don’t really affect the film’s quality, but many of these shots could have been achieved without CG, just with a miniscule amount of imagination and they would have actually looked good.
Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh and Jackson; directors of photography, Alun Bollinger and John Blick; edited by Jamie Selkirk; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Grant Major; produced by Selkirk and Jackson; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Michael J. Fox (Frank Bannister), Trini Alvarado (Lucy Lynskey), Peter Dobson (Ray Lynskey), John Astin (the Judge), Jeffrey Combs (Milton Dammers), Dee Wallace-Stone (Patricia Ann Bradley), Jake Busey (Bartlett), Chi McBride (Cyrus), Jim Fyfe (Stuart), Troy Evans (Sheriff Perry), Julianna McCarthy (Old Lady Bradley) and R. Lee Ermey (Sgt. Hiles).