The Frighteners tells the story of Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), an architect who develops psychic abilities allowing him to see, hear, and communicate with ghosts after his wife's murder. Frank runs a “ghost hunting” business using his special powers and is called to investigate a mysterious supernatural force that is murdering the residents of a small town. Whether getting up his hands dirty with corn syrup and red food colouring making low budget horror films, discovering Kate Winslet or messing around with foul mouthed puppets, Peter Jackson had carved out a nice little career for himself as a promising filmmaker in the 80s and 90s. While he didn’t have the attention of Hollywood yet, they would soon be giving him Oscars but first he had to make The Fighteners with a little help from the Grim Reaper.
1. He sees dead people, no big deal
The Frighteners is a neat little ghost story that mashes ghouls and gags with the creative vibrancy of a clever director who revels in the lighter side of the macabre. Long before Haley Joel Osment was seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense, Jackson and Co were having a riotous time with the concept while weaving the right amount of darkness into a film that’s essentially about overcoming death - quite literally, with the Grim Reaper on villain duties. The film begins with Bannister, a con-man using his ability to speak with the dead for financial gain. The opening tone is something similar to Ghostbusters and it’s an attractive lure that allows the audience to develop a false sense of security. Right when things feel safe, the film slowly descends into the shadows and as the thrilling mystery unfolds, the film immersed in twisted reality of ghosts, serial killers and the occult. It’s a wildly entertaining trip into the underworld that’s like a jaunt through a haunted house, spooky but oh so exhilarating.
2. The Fox
It was one of Michael J. Fox’s last films before taking a break after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease but Frank Bannister proved to be close to a career best. Throughout Fox’s career he was always caught between playing characters somewhere between Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties and the charming Marty McFly from the Back to the Future trilogy – the eternal know-it-all or the nice guy. Frank Bannister is an anti-hero who is damaged and slightly unhinged. It's a slight corruption of the charm that made Fox famous and it works so well. It’s the kind of roll that Fox’s agent probably tried to steer him away from but the risk pays off.
3. The Zemeckis factor
Jackson and his wife/co-writer and producer, Fran Walsh began working on the concept for The Frighteners while writing the script for Heavenly Creatures in 1992. They sent the draft script to their agents in Hollywood. It grabbed the attention of director, Robert Zemeckis who wanted to use it for a spin-off film based on the Tales from the Crypt television series. After the final draft of the script was completed years later, Zemeckis suggested that Jackson direct the film and he offered to produce the film with Universal Pictures picking up the extra funding and distribution rights. Zemeckis was riding on a wave of success after the release of Forrest Gump and the awards that followed so studios were more than willing to work with the filmmaker and producer. In a unique gesture of faith to Zemeckis, Jackson and Walsh, Universal Pictures allegedly offered the team full creative control over the film and as well as final cut. Jackson used this power to shoot the film in New Zealand as well as use his own digital effects studio Weta.
4. Special effects
Audiences are so spoilt for visual effects in 2013 that it would be quite cynical to judge the special effects in The Frighteners as a little clunky now. After all, the special effects in most films age as the technology advances. In 1996 Jackson used his own special effects company Weta Digital to produce specular visuals effects for a little production house in New Zealand with eye popping results. The special effects in The Frighteners must have had staff members at ILM, the premier special effects studio of the time, sweating a little as a new competitor for business arrived on the scene. The creation of the Grim Reaper, ghosts and various reality bending effects combined with inventive practical effects put the film ahead of its time technically and help helped Jackson and Walsh set themselves up to make another bunch of films.
5. The film that sold The Lord of the Rings
Besides being an incredibly awesome film The Frighteners was the movie that Walsh and Jackson used to pitch that they were the team that could turn J.R.R. Tokien's books into films. The Frighteners proved Jackson and Walsh could handle a big budget studio film, shoot it in New Zealand and produce exceptional visual effects from their own studio. One example is the ghost effects used in The Frighteners are very similar to the way Jackson brings to life the army of the dead in The Return of the King. The Frighteners is not only an ace film but an important step towards one of the greatest accomplishments of Walsh and Jackson’s career.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies