Sunday, September 6, 2020

Random Movie: The Frighteners (1996)

Photo: Universal Pictures

In hindsight, it's surprising that it took this long for me to get around to The Frighteners. With Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson still in their prime, as well as Michael J. Fox who arguably never left his prime (seriously, check out his arcs on The Good Wife), I must have just presumed this movie was a stupid comedy with horror-like elements and moved on. Only now have I realized how great this movie actually is.

I've said before (and will likely say a few more times) that I don't gravitate toward horror-comedy hybrids if only that the track record of that genre is more miss than hit. This could also explain my proclivity toward avoiding this film as a teenager that informed my viewing habits as we have a bunch of random movies on the seventy various streaming services I have access to. But I needed an 'F' movie, I've always heard good things about The Frighteners, and it was readily accessible.

The story centers around the always charismatic Fox as a marginally convincible "paranormal investigator" Frank Bannister who preys upon a recently departed's grieving family to make a few bucks. It seems that after a traumatic incident in the past, Frank is now able to see and converse with the spirits of the dead but somehow convinces them to help him scam normal people to believe they are being haunted. All fun and games with a few hundred bucks at stake until a dark and shadowy figure comes to their town in New Zealand California and starts taking the lives of people with no discernible cause. Frank becomes the prime suspect (in the straight-forward cases of heart attack?) and must find the truth on his own! Well, and also with his ghostly friends and a local woman who looks a lot like Andie MacDowell but is actually not. 

Considering that paranormal stories and conman are intertwined means this film does not work at all without anyone but Michael J. Fox as the lead character. The IMDb indicates that other prominent actors like Tom Cruise or Matthew Broderick were considered if Fox had passed but there is a quality that Fox brings that would not be present in any other iteration. Perhaps it's his eternal youthful appearance or merely his generally wholesome film career, but Fox sells the character of Bannister more than anyone else could. He is begrudgingly a scam-artist but he derives no joy from it and his arc in this film proves he is merely looking for a legitimate way to use his newfound gift of seeing spirits.

The main reasons this film was groundbreaking at the time (and also cost $30 million in 1996 dollars for a horror film) was the CGI that was pretty unprecedented at the time. As I probably learned first from an HBO behind-the-scenes promo, a lot of new and enhanced technology was used on this film to portray the physical spirits that Michael J. can see, but also the moving ghosts protruding from walls and carpets to attack our protagonists. While these effects look okay but not that great in 2020, I'm sure the minimal audience back in the day was more taken-aback by it. At least we can say that the Nightmare on Elm Street remake from fourteen years after used similar processes but looked way worse so ... point, Peter Jackson.

Considering the film doesn't take itself too seriously, the story is pretty heavy with the death of several people, a wrongly accused man, and also a serial killer subplot that eventually collides with the main characters. If anything, the "deaths" of several of the main ghost characters do not carry much weight in favor of continuing the mysterious dark and shadowy figure saga, although that concludes satisfactorily as well. The Frighteners is constructed well enough to leave you hung up in Bannister's shenanigans enough to disregard the other bits of story floating around. It's a clever trick to keep the movie from becoming just another conman proves himself right storyline that we've all seen countless times before.

It would be years before I'd officially discover the greatness of Peter Jackson with Dead Alive but had I been smarter, I would have had a head start with this film.

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