February 19, 2014

The Frighteners (1996)
Starring Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Dee Wallace, and Jake Busey

"Noooooooo!  Bastards!"

Comments:   The Frighteners is one of the strangest movies I am going to write about on this countdown.  And I know, considering I already wrote about "Amazon Women on the Moon", that is already saying something.  But this quirky little horror/comedy is a movie that was a huge flop when it originally came out (1996), it starred an actor (Michael J. Fox) who never starred in another movie again, and it is one of those forgotten little films of the 90's that just sort of disappeared into the ether after it was released on video.  I mean, let me put it this way for you.  I know a lot of movies.  I am familiar with a -buttload- of movies.  I have a good memory for just about any movie that was made in the 80's and 90's.  Especially any horror or comedy movie.  But even -I- barely remember the Frighteners.  I had to rent it on Netflix a couple of weeks ago just so I could remind myself what it was about.

I blame Mallory for this

First off, let me address the elephant in the room when it comes to The Frighteners.  Yes, this is a Michael J. Fox movie.  It is one of the rare Michael J. Fox movies.  In fact, this was the -last- Michael J. Fox movie.  This was the last movie Michael J. Fox made before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's in the late 90's, at which point he decided that he didn't want to do movies anymore, he only wanted to work on TV shows.   And it is a shame when you watch this movie now with that backstory in mind.  Because the two things that jumped out at me when I watched The Frighteners last week were the facts that Michael J. Fox was a really good actor and he never really got credit for it when he was in his prime.  I mean, this guy was not just some one trick pony sitcom star from the 1980's.  He -totally- could have made it as a serious actor if he had really wanted to.  The Frighteners proves it.  This was the big breakout movie where the world would finally start to take him seriously as an actor, and he was really good in it

But then, you know how it works.  Shit happened.   He was diagnosed with Parkinson's.  So that was the end of his movie career, and he ended it with a great performance in a great movie that nobody even remembers.

I don't know about you, but I think that sucks.

Sorry Teen Wolf, you deserved better

Okay, so what is The Frighteners about?   Well basically, think Ghostbusters.  Just take the premise of Ghostbusters, and imagine if they made a horror movie out of it instead of a comedy.  

Because yes, that is what this is.  The Frighteners is a horror movie.

Don't be fooled by the fact that it stars Marty McFly.  Don't be fooled by the fact that it was produced by Robert Zemeckis.  Or the fact that Danny Elfman did all the music.  This isn't a light hearted little family movie at all.

While The Frighteners is routinely labeled as a "horror/comedy", it is much closer to the horror side of that equation than it is to the comedy side.

Don't believe me?  Well let me just point out that The Frighteners stars Gary Busey's son Jake Busy as a serial killer.  And Jake Busey is one scary looking motherfucker.

The creepier Busey

Ghostbusters The Frighteners is the story of a little asshole of a con artist by the name of Peter Venkman Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox).  

Wait, did I just say that Michael J. Fox plays an asshole in this movie?  The beloved Michael J. Fox?   He actually plays a bad guy?  Well yes, actually I did.  In fact, that is one of the most amazing things that I can tell you about The Frighteners.  Michael J. Fox doesn't just play some variant of Michael J. Fox, like he plays in pretty much everything else he ever did in TV or movies.  No, in The Frighteners he actually got to be a bit of an asshole.

Frank Bannister saying asshole things

Frank Bannister is what some people would refer to as "a medium."  He is a man who, thanks to a freak car accident he was involved in many years ago, now has the ability to see ghosts.  He just basically walks around all day, and everywhere he looks all around him are the ghosts of people who have recently died.  Most of whom, of course, are frightened and confused because they are ghosts now, and they have no idea why they died, or what they are supposed to do.  Or where they are supposed to go.

Naturally, Frank is the only person in town who can see all of these ghosts.  

Nobody else can see them.

Nobody else has the gift that he does.

Frank interacting with some of his ghost buddies

Now, naturally, because this is a Michael J. Fox movie, you would assume that Frank would use this paranormal gift for good.   Right?   I mean, you would assume that Marty McFly would just walk around all day and help all these nice people who are now freshly deceased.  And that he would do his best to guide them on their way into the afterlife.  You would assume that nice guy Michael J. Fox's sole purpose in this movie is to perform lots of do-goodery and to always be nice.

You would assume that, of course.  Because we are talking about Marty McFly.

You would assume that.  

But that assumption would be wrong.

Frank running his ghost cleaning scam

Yes, Frank Bannister decides not to use his gifts for good, he decides to use them for evil.  He decides to set up a ghost cleaning business.

He sets up a con where his ghost friends will come to a house and they will "haunt" it for a while.  And then, when the owners become sufficiently terrified by the fact that they have a poltergeist throwing shit around and ruining their lives, they will call in Frank and they will pay his ridiculous fees.  And then Frank becomes rich, the house becomes "clean", and everyone involved in the game winds up happy.

On paper, Frank could theoretically do this forever.   It is the perfect little con game.

Frank and his buddies working on their haunting scam

Now at this point, this is all well and good.   On paper, this could just be your typical ghost cleaning con artist movie.  At this point this would very much wind up as a comedy.

However, it is about to take a very dark turn.

This is where The Frighteners sort of lapses into being a horror movie.

The forehead numbers

One day, Frank is running around, doing his little ghost cleaning scam, and he sees a mysterious number pop up on one of his customers' foreheads.   It just randomly appears there, in glowing numerals, and he doesn't know what it means.

And then, two days later, the guy who had the numbers on his dead suddenly dies of a heart attack.

Frank encountering the newest ghost guy who just died

Then, over the next few days, a few more people randomly get numbers on their foreheads.  Frank sees every one of them.  

And then they, too, all die from a mysterious unexpected heart attack.

Oh poopy

Now, I'm not going to tell you who is putting the numbers there on their heads, or what they signify, or why and how the people are dying.  

But let me just say this.


That's all I will say.  This isn't a family movie.  There are lots of big scary monsters flying around.

Don't say I didn't warn you.   :)

And that's really all I am planning to tell you about The Frighteners.  

It is the story of Michael J. Fox playing the one asshole he ever played in a movie.   He is the guy who sees ghosts.  And after a while, he starts to see a little -too- many ghosts.  And then he realizes that there is something really, really sinister going on in town, and he doesn't know how (or if) he is going to stop it.

Also, I should point out that this movie was directed by Peter Jackson, and Peter Jackson made some really, really bizarre movies.

Like I said at the start of my review, The Frighteners is one of those movies that, up until a week ago, I had almost no memory of whatsoever.  All I know is that I saw in the theater.  And I know that it came out in the summer of 1996, which is the summer that had like a hundred different blockbusters, all coming out within a few weeks of one another.  And I remember that I liked it a lot.  But that was pretty much it as far as my memory of it went.  Like I said, it is one of those movies that was a fairly big deal for a couple of weeks, and then everyone just sort of forgot about it.  In fact, if Michael J. Fox hadn't been it, I doubt I would have even remembered it at all.

But I did remember it.  Vaguely.  So I decided to rent it from Netflix.   And I was surprised to see how fun it was, and how awesome the special effects were for its time.

My goodness, there are effects in this movie (in particular involving the flying reaper) that were extremely impressive and innovative for 1996.  And they still look pretty impressive today.  

If nothing else, the Frighteners should definitely have a reputation for what a great special effects showcase it was.  

Like this one

And so that's it.  The Frighteners.  The last movie starring Michael J. Fox.  One of the earliest movies directed by Peter Jackson.  A big loud fun hodgepodge of a movie, featuring peoples' hearts exploding, a reaper who likes to fly through the air and rip peoples' heads off, and Jake Busey.  I cannot say enough about Jake Busey.

Seriously, why didn't Jake Busey play the bad guy in more movies?   No one has ever been creepier.

The Frighteners won't be everyone's cup of tea, but if you have never seen it before (and I am guessing you haven't) you will probably get a kick out of it.  It's... uh... well it's unique.  Like a lot of Peter Jackson movies, I can't say I have ever seen another movie quite like it.

Especially when Jeffrey Combs shows up

And again, that reaper.  The reaper is awesome.  

In summary, it is a shame that Michael J. Fox never quite made it in Hollywood as a serious film actor.  And it is even more of a shame that his last movie (the one that was supposed to be his big leap) is a movie that nobody on Earth even seems to remember.  I mean, again, -I- didn't even remember The Frighteners.  And I remember everything.  Plus, I actually saw it in the theater!  But hey, if you have to go out with a bang, at least you can say there are very few movies that were as quirky of a big bang as this one.  

So do Michael J. Fox a favor and watch his swan song at least once.  Just see it and, if nothing else, enjoy it for the special effects.

It is the least you can do for the guy.

Oh my god, Doc, this is heavy

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about The Frighteners:

Sleeper Hit! - 6 February 2003
I'm a budding Peter Jackson fan, but I'd never had any interest in this movie because everyone told me it was terrible. So I come in on a movie on TV that I've never seen before and I just love it. I ask, "What's this movie?" "Oh, The Frighteners!" What? The terrible movie? Yeah, well, all the people who told me that were a) lying, b) crazy, or c) just didn't know good movies when they saw them. I expected it to be uselessly gory and sophomoric. It was surprisingly intelligent, by turns humorous and terrifying, and featured unusually sharp performances by people that don't usually give them (a.k.a. Michael J. Fox). He in particular had a few really dark, emotional moments that made me completely rethink him as an actor. Other standouts include Dee Wallace-Stone, throwing her heart and soul into the character of demented, possibly psychopathic Patricia, and Jeffrey Combs, who is just downright freaky as a way unbalanced FBI agent. Overall I definitely recommend this movie; it relishes in the term "fun."

The definition of an overlooked film - 6 February 2000
I don't know what it is with horror movies, and horror/comedies in particular. Either they are huge, blockbuster hits (GHOSTBUSTERS, SCREAM) or they are virtually ignored by theatergoers and critics (everything except for GHOSTBUSTERS and SCREAM). Unfortunately THE FRIGHTENERS falls into the last category, which is a shame because it's a great, original film.

Others have described the plot in detail here, so I won't go into it. Suffice it to say that Michael J. Fox gives a terrific, believable performance here as the ghostbusting con man who gets more than he bargained for. The supporting cast is a hoot (especially the insane FBI agent). Peter Jackson, a man who has proven he can even make a good movie on a camcorder, was given a decent budget here and it really shows. The special effects are noteworthy and are actually put to good use rather than being eye candy. While the violence/gore factor in THE FRIGHTENERS is toned down in comparison to Jackson's earlier films, the comedy is still spot-on. Jackson can do no wrong it seems.

Even if you're not a total horror fan, there should still be something here for you to latch on to and enjoy. Heck, there's almost nothing missing from this movie--romance, comedy, scares, action... it's all there. What's not to like? But don't take my word for it, go rent it and see for yourself.

Bizarre but fun - 22 April 2008
Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has the ability to see ghosts and is a broken down psychic investigator. His wife died in a car crash and he can't forget her. Also the town he lives in is marred by healthy people falling dead of heart attacks! He meets Dr. Lucy Lynsley (Trini Alvarado) and starts falling in love but then he discovers that the sudden heart attacks are being caused by an evil spirit. There's more to it but that should give you an idea of the plot.

This was supposed to be a hit. It was made on a big budget (u can tell), was supposed to be rated PG-13 and was released as a big summer movie in 1996. BUT the MPAA stupidly refused to give it a PG-13 (purportedly the ghosts looked too real) and the R rating hurt. Also it came out the same time "Independence Day" came out. "ID" was inexplicably a massive hit and this bombed. Too bad. This is a good movie.

It's a strange movie--the plot itself is VERY odd but it moves along briskly and director Peter Jackson always has things moving around. The opening sequence alone grabs you. The special effects are superb--even by today's standards. I just sat there stunned by some of them--the "Soul Collector" especially knocked me out! The acting is good too. I never really liked Fox too much but I gotta admit he's pretty good here. Alvarado matches him and the supporting cast really has fun in their roles. Jeffrey Combs especially chews the scenery. It does get a little overly convoluted at the end and goes on a bit too long but I still loved it. It's got mystery, horror, romance, some very black comedy--a little bit of everything. Not for all tastes but if you like strange horror comedies pick this one up! Recommended. An 8 all the way.

The best Horror Comedy movie ever - 16 September 2013
I remember my older brother showing me this movie when it first came out. I was younger and had a very vivid imagination so it scared the hell out of me. Today I went back and re-watched this movie I have not seen since then and while my imagination is still vivid, I respect the movie now because of it.

The movie starts off I would say 80/20 Comedy/Horror. You get to see the shenanigans that MJF and his two ghost cohorts pull off. Watching the transformation of his character as he slowly realizes that he's up against more then he thought.

The story develops unbelievably well. The characters (living and dead) are well thought out and brought to life, with such great enthusiasm it's amazing. The story evolves slowly and dramatically, each minute bringing more and more to the story.

The acting is amazing. MJF, awesome. Playing both the con artist, and then the hero. Jake Busey pulls of crazy well, but then again he is his father's son.

The CGI I think is pretty awesome for the time. The grim reaper shots, still give me the creeps.

Over all I have a love for this movie that makes me want to keep watching it again and again.

"Death ain't no way to make a living." - 15 January 2003
The Frighteners is a textbook example of how to do a horror/comedy. Peter Jackson once again proves he can handle the genre masterfully. With Psychic Investigator Frank Bannister, Michael J. Fox adds another great character to his pantheon of heroes. The rest of the cast is top notch as well. Horror icon Dee Wallace Stone is great in this. John Astin is great in this. R. Lee Ermey is great in this. Even Jake Busey is great in this. Everyone is great in this. The actors and actresses do a wonderful job of handling the humor and the scares. But the actor that really shines here is genre veteran Jeffrey Combs. His portrayal of F.B.I. Special Agent Milton Dammers is one of his most memorable in long career of genre roles. Only the best went into this movie: Rick Baker was brought in to handle some of the visual effects and Danny Elfman composed the score. I don't know that it's my favorite, but this may be Jackson's best horror offering thus far in his career. That's a bold statement considering he's no stranger to horror.

Got meself a score of 9!! - 11 February 2004
Why the hell Michael J Fox would say that he regrets making this movie is beyond me! What was he thinking? This is probably up there with some of the best work he has done.

Come to think of it, this is some of the best work that the entire cast has done. Just look at Jefferey Combs.... my god, what a character! And Jake Busey.... who else could have pulled it off like he did??

This movie (along with such others as House on Haunted Hill, Ghost Ship, Thir13n Ghosts, Bones etc etc) could have easily been another chapter in the fabulous 'Tales from the Crypt' franchise. I wish it was! It has all of the characteristics..... obviously as it was produced by Zemekis.

Peter Jackson really shines with The Frighteners. It was his first glossy Hollywood-esque foray into the US Market and he pulled it off superbly. It's just such a shame that it flopped at the box office.

There is no abundance of gore in this movie... but it is still one hell of a nasty little pleasure. Do yourself a massive favour it you want a movie that's fun, spooky and just plain awsome,.... see The Frighteners!


The Frighteners at the IMDB

The Frighteners at Wikipedia

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