The Film: The Frighteners (1996)

The Principals: Peter Jackson (co-writer/director), Robert Zemeckis (producer), Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Dee Wallace Stone, and R. Lee Ermey

The Premise: A discredited, bitter “ghostbuster” must stop an evil spirit dressed as the Grim Reaper.




Is it any good? The Frighteners is one of those movies I missed on initial release (too young), and had always eventually meant to see. I’d heard it was no classic … but I figured that with Zemeckis, Jackson, and Fox all on board, how bad could it be?

And then I fell asleep four times while watching it. So either I was really tired (always a possibility), or it’s just not that great of a movie.

The Frighteners only runs 110 minutes, but it feels so much longer. It is a weightless, plodding, and insubstantial movie trying very hard to hide behind eye candy, inconsistent attempts at humor and frenetic pacing (you know, like The Hobbit). All of Jackson’s worst tendencies are on display here, with none of the heart, grit or skill at world-building that represents him at his best.




This movie seems designed as a showpiece for WETA’s first foray into digital effects – at that, it succeeds. There’s some ground-breaking stuff here that I’m sure was very impressive in 1996, and much of it still holds up well today. If there’s any failing with the effects, it’s that the actors don’t seem truly comfortable with them.  The central relationship of the film is the relationship between Fox’s Frank Bannister and the friendly ghosts in his employ, but the scenes where Fox plays opposite the ghosts lack a sense of camaraderie, or a feeling that the actors are inhabiting the same space.

The biggest strength the movie has, of course, is Michael J. Fox, in his last live-action theatrical role – thankfully, he’s done a lot of TV since to cushion the blow. For him to go out with this would have been like Hackman leaving film after Welcome to Mooseport or Connery retiring after LXG. The problem with this casting is that it doesn’t allow Fox to play to his inherent likability – instead, he plays a cynical douchebag (revealed in a flashback to have always been a cynical douchebag, only with a bad Tommy Wiseau wig). In fact, the only reason we care about Frank Bannister at all is because he’s played by Michael J. Fox.

While Fox is easily the best thing about the movie, it still feels like he’s acting in a different movie. While he’s striving to invest his performance with emotion and nuance, he has to play against a sleepwalking love interest, cartoonish ghost sidekicks, and a villainous FBI guy who plays so broad he’s outside the frame.

Aside from Fox and the visual effects, I don’t honestly feel there’s a lot here to recommend, and that disappoints me. I laughed more during The Conjuring.

(SPOILER: The other thing that bugged me … how is Bannister free at the end? The guy evaded authorities repeatedly, everyone thinks he’s a fraud, and there’s a mountain of evidence implicating him in several deaths. Heaven seemed a lot better, honestly. And why didn’t John Astin’s old cowboy ghost make it to heaven at the end? That seems unfair.)




Random anecdotes: Fox repeatedly blew his lines by referring to John Astin’s character as “Doc”. Nostalgia’s a bitch.

Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet make a sly cameo as their Heavenly Creatures characters, on the cover of a video about notorious murderers.

In true Peter Jackson fashion, an extended, unnecessary cut of The Frighteners is floating around. I’ll never watch it.

Given R. Lee Ermey’s cameo, does this count as a sequel to Full Metal Jacket?

Cinematic Soulmates: The Lovely Bones. Beetlejuice. Ghostbusters. A Haunted House. Casper.