The Frighteners

The Frighteners (1996)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarez, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey
Extras: Introduction, Commentary Track, Documentary

What a difference 10 years make. When "The Frighteners" first appeared in 1992, few people had heard of the name Peter Jackson, an independent filmmaker from New Zealand with a knack for dark horror comedies, such as "Dead Alive (aka Braindead)" and other grotesquely funny films. Today, of course, Peter Jackson is a household name, the creator of record-smashing Hollywood blockbusters like "The Lord Of The Rings" and "King Kong" he has become one of Tinseltown's most influential filmmakers and here now on HD-DVD we have the movie that bridged the two worlds. The black-humored horror comedy "The Frighteners" which paved the way for "the Lord Of The Rings."

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 one day and a series of tragic deaths lead 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 begins to suspect he's behind the murders. 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 and 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 that clearly show Jackson's signature. This impression is amplified by several themes throughout the film that purposefully allude to scenes and motifs from his earlier films. The interior of the film's "haunted house" looks awfully familiar and immediately brings memories of his own "Braindead" to mind.

The film also makes extensive use of computer graphics, something Jackson would build upon in his later films, of course. Since the ghosts are some of the film's main characters, they became a focal point in the film's production, resulting in over 500 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, 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 the standards of the time. 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. Even looking back now, over 10 years later these shots hold up very well and it is not too surprising that Jackson and WETA were able to awe the world with their computer and special effects imagery in their next project, "The Lord Of The Rings."

Michael J. Fox is a great fit for the main character Frank Bannister. In fact, he is the ideal choice for the part. Known as the eternal teenage comedian, Michael hardly had 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 on "Star Trek: Enterprise", puts in another remarkable 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 crew cut. The character is cleverly written and clearly a very sick guy, who is taking nationalism and patriotism a little too far, making him a complete fanatic – lunatic almost. 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, clearly making it one of Combs' best performances to date.

Universal Home Entertainment is serving up a 1080p high definition transfer of the Director's Cut of "The Frighteners" on this HD-DVD disc. Correctly presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio the transfer is absolutely clean and clear and makes for a fantastic viewing. Beautifully rendered the picture holds an immense level of detail and sharpness that is wonderful to behold. "The Frighteners" is a very atmospheric film and as such the vibrant color reproduction of this transfer adds to the attraction. The reds and blues in this transfer are wonderfully rich and have incredibly subtle fall-offs. Blacks are absolutely solid rendering an image that has an almost expressionistic, gothic-looking visual depth at times. It also firmly roots the more natural daytime scenes as well as the interior shots with its great shadow delineation. Overall the transfer has a level of detail and richness that far exceeds that of the DVD version, making this high definition transfer a worthy upgrade.

An offbeat film like this also asks for a twisted musical score and no one is more qualified in this area than Danny Elfman. Having created numerous scores for Tim Burton, Elfman was the obvious choice to score this film – and 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 well-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 pounding 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack with an increased bitrate. The result is a tremendously spatial audio experience with an active and vivid surround environment. Great bass extension and crystal clear high ends, complement the mix and also make sure the track's clarity remains intact at all times.

Apart from 14-minutes of additional footage inserted back into the film as part of this "Director's Cut" the HD-DVD version also contains an introduction by Peter Jackson. Lifted straight from the DVD version it is a bit awkward to hear him referencing the DVD version repeatedly, but hey, there will be a time in the future when they will create supplements specifically for high def versions.

To add to the release you will also find the commentary track by Peter Jackson on the release that was previously found on the DVD only. It is unchanged and still a wonderful addition that holds a wealth of information and puts the film in context to Peter Jackson's overall body of work.

A full length "Making Of" Documentary is also included on the disc giving you a look behind the scenes but also offering up great interviews with cast and crew members, such as Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Dee Wallace Stone and others.

"The Frighteners" is a very cool experience on HD-DVD once again. It hasn't lost any of its luster and is still as funny and scary as ever. The high definition transfer is leaps and bounds above the DVD version, so make sure to upgrade your copy now. 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.