“When a man's jawbone drops off it's time to reassess the situation.” – The Judge
Here’s a movie I think you’ll like. Before Peter Jackson became known for his Tolkien epics, he was by and large a horror director, and one of his best films was this supernatural comedy. It’s not quite as in your face funny as Ghostbusters, but it’s an effective film that has some decently disturbing images, some great scares, an engaging cast and a score by Danny Elfman and some stunning effects by Weta Digital. What’s not to like?
The Frighteners was filmed on location in New Zealand, cunningly passed off as small-town America, and it’s pretty convincing. The town of Fairwater has a troubled past, and to be honest – the present doesn’t look too inviting either. People are dropping dead of a mysterious heart ailment. There’s a mysterious house, which seems to be plagued by a demonic entity that appears out of the walls and the floors, tormenting the weirdly severe old woman who lives there and her middle-aged daughter, who seems cowed and practically a prisoner. And there’s a guy who appears to be a con-man, claiming to be a psychic investigator.
Well, the psychic investigator is Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), whose scam, although a scam, isn’t a total scam. He really CAN see the dead and communicate with them. He has the help of two accomplices, dead of course, the ghostly Cyrus (Chi McBride) and Stuart (Jim Fyfe). They pretend to be poltergeists, throwing stuff around their target’s house, and when the victims call Frank for help, he charges an extortionate amount to “clean” the house of the “poltergeist”. He also has an old western-style friend, The Judge (John Astin)
This works well, until Frank starts seeing glowing numbers carved into certain people’s foreheads. Then, they die shortly afterward of a mysterious heart failure. As he’s considered a local con-man and he’s had dealings with a couple where the husband ended up dead – he’s a suspect as far as FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) is concerned. However, the victim’s widow, Doctor Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvardo) is convinced Frank is innocent, after a close call with the Grim Reaper apparition who’s actually causing the deaths.
Frank can see the dead, because of the trauma of losing his wife in a car accident, caused by the Grim Reaper five years earlier. As he lost his wife, he lost also his ambition and his drive. He was a successful architect and was building their dream home – which is still uncompleted. And it all ties in with the mysterious house and its occupants, the mother (Julianna McCarthy) and her daughter Patricia (Dee Wallace).
In 1964, as an impressionable teen, Patricia was under the spell of Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey) who was determined to break the record number of killings committed on a spree by Charles Starkweather in the fifties. Her mother was the director of the psychiatric hospital where Bartlett started his spree, and to which Patricia was committed after Bartlett’s execution by the state. With the hospital now closed, Patricia is under the strict care of her mother, who reminds everybody that she can have her daughter locked away any time she likes.
Although a prisoner, it doesn’t mean that Patricia couldn’t bring Bartlett’s soul back from hell with a Ouija board – and guess who’s the Grim Reaper, and he’s still carving his tally number on his victim’s foreheads, only now, BEFORE killing them.
Not only that, but nervous wreck and socially inept Agent Dammers has his own issues – he was victimised years ago by none other than Charles Manson and his family.
There’s an awful lot of plot and twists to get through is this woefully underappreciated masterpiece of a film that is at once hilarious and horrifying. The Blu-ray version contains a director’s cut by Peter Jackson which runs 14 minutes longer than the theatrical version but is paced so well, that it actually seems shorter and contains a few more of John Astin’s scenes as The Judge.
If you’re looking for an alternative to Ghostbusters this Halloween for a viewing, I’d urge you to look in this direction and treat yourself to a viewing of The Frighteners.
Tomorrow, to draw Shocktober 2021 to an appropriate close, we have an understated seasonal classic. See you then, as the Halloween Freakend continues.
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