The Frighteners (1996) ***½
I had no idea who Peter Jackson was in 1996. Sure, I’d seen Bad Taste— and loved the hell out of it— but I did so at a time when I paid little attention to the names in the credits, even of movies that strongly impressed me. So when The Frighteners showed up in the horror sections of my local video stores, I didn’t make the connection, perceiving only what looked and sounded like a cheap copy of Beetlejuice. Not that I have anything against Beetlejuice, you understand, but it never struck me as a movie that could be fruitfully ripped off. Consequently, I gave The Frighteners a pass, and by the time I grasped the significance of Jackson’s name, I was sufficiently set in my “That’s that Beetlejuice-looking movie, right?”-thinking ways that it took me another eight or nine years to decide that I wanted to see it after all. I really shouldn’t have waited so long. Although there certainly is some resemblance to the earlier Tim Burton film, The Frighteners is in no sense a rip-off, and so far as I’ve seen, it is the only one of Jackson’s horror comedies that makes any serious effort to be scary as well as funny.
In a shadowy old mansion that we will eventually learn is attached to the long-defunct Fairwater Sanatorium (having been built by the hospital’s founder and inhabited by his descendants ever since), a woman who, again, will be introduced to us later as Patricia Anne Bradley (Dee Wallace, from Abominable and The Plague) is being chased from room to room by what appears to be a man inside the walls of the house. You remember the bit in A Nightmare on Elm Street when Freddy looms down through the wall above the headboard of Nancy’s bed while she drifts off to sleep? Well, picture that, only crawling in pursuit of a fleeing victim. The man in the walls (technically the man in the floor at this point) catches up to Patricia at the second-floor landing of the main staircase, but then the woman’s aged mother (Julianna McCarthy, of Satan’s Princess and Bad Dreams) strides up, brandishing a shotgun and muttering something about carnal contact, and how Patricia is too young for that sort of thing. (Nevermind that Patricia looks to be pushing 50.) The old lady shoots the man-shaped bulge in the carpet through the head, disrupting the weird manifestation.
The next day, psychic investigator and world’s worst driver Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, from Class of 1984 and Mars Attacks!) plows his dilapidated old Volvo through the picket fence defining the front yard of Ray (Doppelganger’s Peter Dobson) and Lucy (The Chair’s Trini Alvarado) Lynskey, launching Ray into a transport of litigious fury. Frank says he’ll be happy to pay for the repairs, but far be it from Ray Lynskey to let something like a reasonable and conciliatory attitude come between him and picking a fight. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lynskey— excuse me, Dr. Lynskey— is up at the Bradley place, attending to the injuries Patricia sustained during the preceding night’s weirdness. Patricia has quite a deep cut on her hand, and Lucy’s opinion is that it will require stitches. Old Mrs. Bradley has a shit-fit when she hears that; Dr. Lynskey can’t sew up the injured woman’s hand there at the house, but Mom refuses to let anyone take her daughter off of the premises, and she demands to speak to Lucy’s boss (evidently the Bradleys’ regular doctor), with whom she supposedly has some sort of understanding. It’s an impasse that Lucy lacks the authority or the ability to break (the senior doctor being away on vacation), and Dr. Lynskey drives off, halfway suspecting Mrs. Bradley of abusing her daughter. She also has a vague feeling that she’s seen Patricia somewhere before.
Indeed she has— and the old sanatorium, too. Decades ago, the hospital attained a rare degree of infamy as the site of a shooting and stabbing rampage by orderly Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey, of Starship Troopers and The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting). No one knows quite what Bartlett’s deal was; all he’d say was that his tally of twelve victims gave him a higher score than Charles Starkweather. Patricia, fifteen years old at the time, was Bartlett’s girlfriend, and was also employed at the sanatorium. The scale of her involvement in the massacre was disputed, but the jury decided it was big enough to buy her life in prison as an accessory after the fact, while Johnny went to the chair. Her behavior in the lockup was sufficiently placid (and her mental problems were sufficiently beyond the capabilities of the prison staff) to get her sentence commuted to civil confinement some years down the line, and thus it is that Patricia is now effectively a prisoner in her family’s mansion.
Frank Bannister enters the Lynskeys’ lives for real that night, when their house suffers a sudden poltergeist intrusion. Bannister left his card with Ray when he smashed up the front yard earlier, and Lucy insists upon calling him over Ray’s protests when their bed starts levitating and their dishes start flying around the kitchen like a squadron of Ed Wood UFOs. Frank’s whole demeanor at the scene screams “charlatan,” but the scam he’s running is more complicated than you might guess. He really is a psychic, you see, and there really are ghosts raising a ruckus in the Lynskey house, but the unquiet spirits— Cyrus (Chi McBride, of I, Robot) and Stuart (Jim Fyfe) are their names— are friends of his. They drop in to haunt a previously unhaunted residence, Frank shows up to play ghostbuster for a respectable fee, and the specters ride home in the trunk of the Volvo (getting ectoplasm out of tuck-and-roll upholstery is a nightmare, you know) after Bannister puts on a suitably impressive act with his homemade “ghost trap” and his squirt gun full of “holy water.” There’s a third ghost on the staff, too, a phantom cowboy (with a phantom hound dog who keeps trying to steal his jawbone) called the Judge (John Astin, from Harrison Bergeron and The Return of the Killer Tomatoes), but he doesn’t go a-haunting much anymore, as he’s getting rather too old for this gig. I’m not really sure what the ghosts get out of their association with Bannister, but I’m sure there must be something. Anyway, there are two little details this time that don’t fit with the usual routine. First, Frank (and only Frank) sees a glowing “37” on Ray’s forehead while the latter man is hustling him out the door, but neither Cyrus nor Stuart will admit to putting it there. And after Bannister leaves, we (and only we) see a big, man-like form skittering about inside the walls of the Lynskeys’ hallway. Ray dies of an inexplicable heart attack the following morning.
His isn’t the first bizarre fatal coronary in town, either. Since 1990, there have been 23 such deaths, and Sheriff Walt Perry (Troy Evans, from Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers and The Lawnmower Man) is starting to think they’re all connected. Perry also has an FBI man breathing down his neck, and Special Agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs, of House on Haunted Hill and Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy) began thinking that a long time ago. The two cops’ interest in the heart attacks becomes very bad news for Bannister, beginning when Ray’s ghost accosts him on the street and beseeches his help in disabusing Lucy of this absurd notion she has that he’s dead. He is dead, of course, so what really happens is that Frank takes Lucy out to dinner in order to act as a go-between for her and her deceased husband. The conversation doesn’t go at all the way Ray expects (as with most men of his type, it never dawned on him that he was a controlling, argumentative prick, leaving him stunned to learn what Lucy really thought of him), and he storms off in a rage. Frank excuses himself at that point for a trip to the men’s room, where he runs into a middle-aged man with a glowing “38” on his forehead. Moments later, something bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Grim Reaper swoops into the bathroom and tackles the unfortunate man. The cloaked and hooded apparition reaches into his chest, clutches his heart until it stops beating, and goes flapping away through the ceiling. Frank hurries in pursuit (now accompanied by his usual retinue of ghosts), but he catches up too late to save victim number 39. There’s a new exhibit being unveiled at the Fairwater Museum, and one of the attending dignitaries falls down dead during the dedication ceremony. Meanwhile, the commotion at the restaurant has attracted the police, and Milton Dammers quickly makes the connection that Bannister was the last non-relative to see both of the most recent heart attack victims alive. He, Perry, and a squad of cops rush off in the direction Frank was spotted leaving the restaurant, arriving at the museum with much better timing than Bannister had. They place him under arrest, but Cyrus, Stuart, and the Judge help their living friend give the authorities the slip. In making his escape, though, Frank spies the telltale “40” glowing from the forehead of the Fairwater Gazette’s editor-in-chief (Elizabeth Hawthorne, from 30 Days of Night and Exposure), and he hauls her off with him (starkly against her will, I might add) in the hope of protecting her from the Grim Reaper. What happens instead is a near-replay of the car crash that claimed the life of Frank’s wife six years ago, which claims the editor’s life now.
What, did I forget to mention that before? Yes, Frank used to be married, and his wife died in a wreck in 1990. In fact, Bannister credits that trauma with triggering the onset of his paranormal abilities, for it was only after it happened that he started seeing ghosts. It’s also the event that accounts for the intense interest Dammers now takes in Frank, for there are curious circumstances surrounding the accident. First, Frank and his wife were observed quarrelling immediately before getting into the car that day. Second, the dead woman’s body was not in the car when it was collected by the paramedics, and Frank claimed to remember nothing about the crash itself or its aftermath. Third and most significant, the number 13 was carved into Mrs. Bannister’s forehad, and the utility knife that Frank normally kept in a toolbox in the trunk of his car was missing at the scene. Dammers has spent most of his career investigating what he calls the “fruity cases,” and he has come to accept the reality of a lot of things that the average G-man might reject. He believes that Frank Bannister is a psychic serial killer, using the power of his mind to induce heart attacks in his enemies, and that Mrs. Bannister was his first victim. There’s one obvious hole in that theory, though. Frank’s wife’s corpse was numbered “13,” not “1,” and those numbers Frank keeps seeing on the soon-to-be victims have been counting up to 40, not 28. Clearly, there must be twelve victims Dammers doesn’t know about. So let’s think, now— where in this movie have we heard about somebody killing twelve people? It was in the story of the sanatorium massacre, wasn’t it? Meanwhile, that thing with the cloak and the scythe seems to be invisible to everyone but Frank, just like his spectral friends. Sound to you like Johnny Bartlett is up to his old tricks again somehow? And if Johnny’s back from the dead, what might that mean for Patricia Bradley— or for Lucy Lynskey, whose concern for the troubled shut-in has continued unabated since their first meeting?
The best thing about The Frighteners is its extraordinary sense of escalation. It begins as nearly pure comedy, but becomes steadily more dominated by horror as the story progresses, until by the final act, the only humor remaining is of the very blackest sort. The first half-hour or so could plausibly be mistaken for a children’s movie. Michael J. Fox plays Frank Bannister as a charming rogue with all manner of zany eccentricies, such as might have turned up in a Disney Channel Halloween special of the era, and his ghost buddies at first serve primarily as agents of cartoony slapstick. (Of course, when I say “cartoony” here, I mean it roughly in the “Chilly Willy with a circular saw” sense. The spooks seem to get run over by cars an awful lot.) The human villain, Milton Dammers, is an outlandishly caricatured loony, with his Hitler hair and his propensity for having emotional breakdowns whenever a woman raises her voice to him, and he’s even the focus of a subtle bit of toilet humor. (At one point, we think he’s about to pull a gun on Lucy [who is sitting in the back of his car at the time], but instead he produces from his trenchcoat one of those toroidal foam cushions that hemorrhoid sufferers use to prevent chairs and car seats from irritating their piles.) Ray Lynskey’s jackassery is similarly so exaggerated that you know it’s all in good fun, even though in the real world, his behavior would be offensive and creepy. The principle even applies to Frank’s driving, which (at least at first) is played exclusively for laughs despite its making him a menace to society. Notice, however, that I said “at first.” The subsequent revelation that Bannister’s awe-inspiring incompetence behind the wheel killed (or at any rate contributed to killing) his wife marks the tipping point of the film, beyond which it ceases to be a kid-friendly spook-show and starts threatening real consequences for its characters’ actions and real danger to life and limb. In the end, it even does a couple of things to earn its R-rating, although that wasn’t originally the aim. (Jackson had been shooting for a PG-13 all along, but the MPAA were so vindictively disinclined to grant him one that he eventually decided to give the ratings board the finger by cranking up the intensity of the climax. A soft version commensurate with Plan A had already been shot, though, and prints destined for television broadcast had that footage substituted for the gorier, more violent revisions. Thus a curious state of affairs exists in which the censored TV prints are actually closer to what was originally intended than the theatrical or home video versions.) It takes a lot of agility for a director to carry off such a transformation, yet Jackson makes it look effortless. What’s more, he does it so gradually and with such stealth that you don’t even notice the change until the coda, when the original jokey tone returns. Dead Alive is probably still Jackson’s magnum opus in the horror-comedy field, but The Frighteners posed the bigger challenge, and he mostly rose to it. You’re going to hurt your brain trying to make sense of the intro after the revelations of the final act, though…