Thanks to WonderWoman 84, HBOMax has seen a dramatic rise in subscriptions. But once a viewer has seen DC’s latest offering, what else can they find on the app? Fortunately, HBOMax has a much greater selection of films and television programs than subscribers may realize. In this series of articles, Combat Republic will take a deep dive into the HBOMax film library and review some of the site’s more obscure selections.
The Frighteners (1996)
Before he successfully turned his home country of New Zealand into Middle Earth for The Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson was a much different filmmaker. Coming off his quirky zombie horror-comedy Dead Alive (1992) (aka Brain Dead), Peter Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, made the critically acclaimed movie Beautiful Creatures (1994). During the production, the team conceived a film meant to be a spinoff feature film for Robert Zemeckis’s wildly popular HBO program Tales From The Crypt. Zemeckis loved their script so much that he separated the story from Tales and decided to produce the film as Jackson’s big-budget American debut. The Tales From The Crypt spinoff series would see life in 1995 as Demon Knight. The movie opens with a long single-take tracking shot through an old spooky house that more than calls back to the film’s Tales From The Crypt roots.
The Frighteners is the story of Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), an architect-turned-psychic con artist. Frank hangs out in cemeteries passing his business card to widows, claiming he can talk to and even take out the dead. When Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) and her husband, Ray, are haunted by an aggressive poltergeist, they call Frank, who deals with the specter. The viewer is immediately convinced the whole thing is a scam. But when Frank leaves the Lynskey home, we learn that ghosts are not only real; they’re in on the scam. Frank teams with three ghosts, Cyrus (Chi McBride), Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and the Judge (John Astin), to bilk suckers, in this case, the Lynskey’s, out their money. But as Frank leaves, he sees a spectral number in the middle of Ray’s forehead. Later that evening, Ray dies of a heart attack, and his spirit seeks out Frank.
Lucy is a doctor working with Patricia Bradley (horror veteran Dee Wallace Stone). At fifteen, Bradley aided serial killer Johnny Bartlett as he killed twelve people in her parent’s hospital. Bartlett was executed, but Bradley, a minor, was sentenced to a mental hospital. Twenty-five years later, she was released to her mother’s care.
After Ray’s death, Frank begins seeing the phantom numbers in the foreheads of more people who are then attacked by the Grim Reaper himself. Only Frank can see the demonic killer. As the only suspect in the deaths, Frank becomes the target of a local police investigation and bizarre FBI Agent (Jeffery Coombs). We learn that Frank survived a car accident that killed his wife five years earlier, but after the wreck, she was left with the number thirteen carved into her forehead.
Frank and Lucy team with his ghost friend to face the Reaper, who is revealed to be the evil specter of Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey). Bartlett is determined to continue his killing streak from beyond the grave. Once again, Bartlett teams with lover Bradley and together, the two try to add Frank and Lucy to their score of forty kills.
The Frighteners is a unique film for an American blockbuster of the mid-90s. As a filmmaker, Jackson is clearly between phases of his career. The tone and shooting style is in line with his bizarre independent work. Much of the camera movements and editing are very similar to Sam Raimi’s early work, as is the tone. However, the Weta-led special effects are remarkable, especially for the era. Most computer effects-driven films of the 90s look very antiquated with 2021 eyes. The pioneering work of The Frighteners holds up. The ghost effects look great, and the Reaper is particularly horrifying.
The story, however, is uneven. The idea of a con man working with ghosts is a unique turn on Ghostbusters and is a smart set up. Unfortunately, the story devolves into many of the troupes that plagued films of the time. The paranormal rules for the world are not clearly defined, leading to confusion. The narrative hangs on a lot of unexplained coincidences. The film opens as a spooky comedy but turns into pure horror by the climax. The movie moves at a high pace, which works well. But because of the pace, the love story between Frank and Lucy never feels real or earned. Instead, it comes off like a studio executive needed to check the romantic subplot box. It’s unneeded and illogical in a movie that starts with Lucy’s husband’s death, two days before.
The performances are good. Michael J. Fox’s likability helps give needed sympathy to a con artist. The ghosts, including R. Lee Emery, are all fun, if not a tad underutilized. Busey and Wallace Stone have a maniacal chemistry that works.
There are a lot of ideas in The Frighteners. Unfortunately, there are almost too many. A lot of what’s thrown out there is either unnecessary (everything with Coombs FBI character) or underdeveloped. It’s a fun movie that has humor and legitimately terrifying moments. Seeing what Jackson did later in his career, it seems there could have been a better version of the film. However, The Frighteners is worth a reinvestigation if for nothing else than to see Michael J. Fox’s last leading performance in a film.
J.D. Oliva is an Amazon best-selling author. His books, HARVEST MOON and THE BOOKS OF JERICHO series are available at retailers everywhere.