The Frighteners

milton-dammers-the-frighteners-33887447-462-193Right at the beginning, when the camera dives through a hole in the floor and chases a woman down a flight of stairs, you know this isn’t the usual summer bash. The Frighteners, directed by the hyperactive New Zealander Peter Jackson (who also wrote it with longtime collaborator and companion Frances Walsh), is relentlessly hectic and shamelessly melodramatic. You either go along for the ride or get out and walk. In all, it’s the boldest ride of the summer so far — athletic, prankish, eye-popping. Every frame drips with Jackson’s moviemaking fever.

The script, which Jackson and Walsh initially sent to producer Robert Zemeckis as a Tales from the Crypt movie, occasionally betrays its derivative origins. The Frighteners is part Ghostbusters, part Beetlejuice, with sprinkles of Badlands and Poltergeist. Jackson never intended to direct it, but Zemeckis put him in charge anyway. Smart move. Like Brian De Palma, Sam Raimi, and Robert Rodriguez, Jackson pumps energy into cliches until they explode. We’ve seen some of the plot elements before, but never quite like this.

Michael J. Fox, sporting a hip new brush-cut, is Frank Bannister, a bogus “psychic investigator” with a clever racket: he works with three ghosts who haunt houses and conveniently leave Frank’s business card behind. Frank has been busy lately, because people are dropping like flies all around town, their hearts mysteriously “crushed.” The police suspect Frank (they’re on to his scam), but he’s the only one who can see the true killer: no less than Death itself, dressed in Grim Reaper robes.

What is this Death figure? Why do the victims have numbers carved into their foreheads? What does the plot have to do with the harsh old woman who won’t let her daughter (E.T.‘s Dee Wallace Stone) out of the house? Will Frank find love with a beautiful young doctor (Trini Alvarado), whose recently deceased yuppie husband (Peter Dobson) hangs around as a resentful ghost? Will I answer any of these questions? Nope.

Fox, whose comeback as a leading man deserves to begin here, smoothly handles both the slapstick and the poignant moments (Frank has a tragedy in his past). He works seamlessly with a variety of spectral CGI effects, and he’s generous enough to let Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) steal the movie. Playing an obsessed FBI agent driven around the bend by joining too many cults (to spy on them), Combs delivers his dialogue as if he’d just swallowed a live spider. He’s creepy even when he isn’t doing anything at all; he’s a frightener, all right.

The real star of the movie, though, is Peter Jackson. This is his fifth film, and his first for a major studio. Before he spruced up his resume with the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures, Jackson was notorious for Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive — three of the most hilariously disgusting movies ever made. Heavenly Creatures, brilliant though it was, worried me a bit: Had Jackson actually grown up? No, thank God. With The Frighteners, Jackson is batting five for five. The question now is whether America is ready for him.

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