The Frighteners

The Frighteners (1996)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Jeffrey Combs

Ever since the release of "Brain Dead" in 1992, known as "Dead Alive" here in the US, Peter Jackson has become synonymous with off-beat macabre humor in the nineties. Universal Home Video has now released Jackson’s latest film, "The Frighteners" on DVD. Shot entirely in the director’s home country New Zealand, it is one of those rare films that successfully blend humor and horror.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is a hopeless low life, living in a house he never managed to finish. He is making a living off death, ridding other people’s houses of ghosts. Strangely enough, whenever these ghosts appear in the small town of Fairwater, Frank is never too far away. In fact, Frank is teaming up with the ghosts in a scam no one can trace. After a traumatic near-death experience, Frank has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts, and by giving them support and "something to do", they are willing to help him out in return. However, something starts to go wrong a series of tragic deaths leads directly to Frank. Although he is not involved in these mysterious fatalities, it is impossible for him to prove his innocence and the whole town believes he’s behind it. With the help of his ghostly friends, Frank decides to find out what exactly is going on and tries to track down this grim reaper. Unfortunately, the police and one of their special agents (Jeffrey Combs) have taken a keen interest in Frank, observing his every step in their minds, they’ve already found him guilty. They don’t believe Frank’s innocence even when they finally face the real killer, who appears to be in league with humans himself.

"The Frighteners" is a refreshingly tight and funny horror comedy without being too washed out. It is not really a spoof, but it contains a vast number of tongue-in-cheek jokes and black off-the-wall humor that create a nice mix with the film’s dark atmosphere. The film also delivers a good number of scares and builds some very effective tension, especially towards the end. This delicate mix and the film’s excellent production design give it a very unique feel and look, something that can already be referred to as Jackson’s trademark. This impression is amplified by several themes throughout the film that purposefully allude to scenes and motifs from his earlier films. The interior of th film’s "haunted house" looks awfully familiar and immediately brings memories of Jackson’s "Brain Dead" to mind.

The film also makes extensive use of computer graphics. Since the ghosts are some of the film’s main characters, they became a focal point in the film’s production, resulting in over 400 computer enhanced shots. Special makeup veteran Rick Baker was responsible for the interesting look of some of the complaining ghosts, ghosts who are slowly falling apart. Not unlike George Lucas and James Cameron before, Peter Jackson had set up his very own special effects company a few years ago, in order to be able to work completely detached from Hollywood in New Zealand. After upgrading the company substantially for this project, his effects unit was eventually able to handle all of the 570 effects shot of the film without having to use outside sources. By hiring former ILM artists and supervisors, Jackson also made sure the quality of these effects shots were up to current standards. The amount of work and thought he and the rest of the effects team put in the job clearly pay off. The film masterfully combines blue screen live action sequences with superimposed ghosts, creating a feel that is never artificial.

Michael J. Fox is good as the main character Frank Bannister. In fact, he is the ideal choice for the character. Known as the eternal teenage comedian, Michael hardly has the chance to play serious parts, and although his part as Frank is not exactly a dramatic part by the book, he brings an astonishing seriousness to the screen that goes extremely well with the film’s more light-hearted scenes. His agile acting and the way he delivers his lines is completely in sync with Jackson’s intentions for this film, I would assume. It almost seems as if the part of Frank Bannister were written with Michael in mind.

Michael has to share the spotlight with another actor, however. Jeffrey Combs, perhaps best known in horror circles for his crazed portrayal as Herbert West in "Re-Animator", or his appearance in "Castle Freak", puts in an excellent performance here, and he oftentimes steals the show. A versatile actor, Combs plays the part of a psychotic, freaked-out and overly eccentric FBI special agent with a NAZI crewcut. The character is cleverly written and clearly a very sick guy, who is taking nationalism and patriotism a little to far, making him a complete fanatic. Combs puts such energy into the part of Milton Dammers, and plays him with such conviction and seriousness, that every single of his on-screen seconds creates a cartoony character that easily garners all the laughs. His presence is captivating and lets you forget about anything else the moment he enters the screen. It clearly is Combs’ best performance. Universal have released "The Frighteners" in its original theatrical 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. The disc’s <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer is stunning and beautifully rendered. It creates a sharp image with a huge amount of detail. Since most of the film takes place at night or in atmospherically lit dark interiors, it is a notable transfer, because it never loses any of the intricate shadow details, establishing a very real, captivating setting for the film. There are no signs of <$pixelation,pixelation> or <$chroma,chroma noise> anywhere.

An offbeat film like this also asks for a twisted musical score and no one is as qualified in this area as Danny Elfman. Having created numerous scores for Tim Burton, Elfman was the obvious choice to score this film. The effort has paid off. His score goes hand in hand with the film and adds a lot of subliminal atmosphere to the well-designed and -staged shots. It makes the film more enjoyable and adds substantially to the film’s visceral impact, as well as to its fiendish entertainment value. His bombastic orchestral score and the well produced sounds have found their way to this disc as a very good <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack. It is nicely spatialized creating an active and vivid surround environment. The film comes fully dubbed in English and French. It is also <$CC,closed captioned> and contains Spanish subtitles.

"The Frighteners" is a release that hardly leaves anything to be desired. Universal once again prove their superiority when it comes to creating top notch DVD releases. From the stylish menu screens to the multiple soundtracks and subtitles, this disc is a fine addition to anyone’s collection. If you like scary, funny movies, "The Frighteners" is definitely a film you should give a try. I had a great time watching this supernaturally-charged, chilling comedy, and I am sure you will, too.