director Peter Jackson
When Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners came out in 1996, I remembered thinking it was pretty good stuff. Starring Michael J. Fox as a man who can see ghosts and who uses that ability to employ ghosts to haunt and be exorcised by him fraudulently, it’s a paranormal thriller/comedy cut from a cloth laid out in part by Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). It seemed an apt project for Jackson (before he started making hobbit movies) and was produced by Robert Zemeckis a la his own Death Becomes Her (1992).
I’d had it in my Netflix streaming queue in part just because it was available, not something that I was in particular looking for to watch with the kids. But as we kept skimming over the image, I kept thinking it might be something that they would like, though I did recall it had its scary elements too.
Because along with Fox’s friendly ghosts, there is also the murderous baddie of Jake Busey (what the heck happened to that guy?), a serial killer turned ghost serial killer, inspired by Charlie Starkweather to build a body count to top all body counts.
The effects are early digital effects. 1996 seems to be a typical point in the line for the growth and efficacy of digital effects. The primary effect is the ghost of Busey, either as a grim reaper figure, or more typically, sliding under the wallpaper at a house. I recalled this effect seeming cool back in the day, but now it looks, if you pardon the expression, hella cheap.
When Wes Craven used an analog effect to have Freddy Kreuger push through a rubber wall in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), you’ve got a cool effect that transcends time. When re-created digitally for its re-make in 2010, the even more advanced digital effect still was less powerful and interesting. Back in 1996, with a much more elaborate and heavily leaned-on digital effect, who can say? I tell you that today, it looks crappy. And yes, hella cheap.
The best effect in the film is John Astin as “the judge”, a rotting corpse with digital and analog effects, but more well-designed than the others.
On the whole, the film is affable enough. The kids were a bit confused by the story, which shifted in time between the teenage rampage of the killer and the present-day ghost rampage. And then the film also relies on a stairway to heaven, with a one year limit in opportunity that leaves some ghosts on earth. This is basically a not very well thought out aspect of the film’s universe.
Neither of the kids loved it nor hated it. Though as the film wore on, they realized that it was more comic than scary. It’s funny how the things I think will freak them out are the things that don’t bother them a lick.