Saturday 12 May 2007

The Frighteners (1996) Peter Jackson

It's taken me eleven years to see this, even though I've been a huge Peter Jackson fan from moment one. Bad Taste, his debut feature, begun as a short, shot over a few years, made on weekends, financed with his own wages, acted by friends and himself, is certainly not his best film, but it's one of my favourite films of all time. It's the first film I watched, immediately rewound and watched again. It's the film I've seen most times and it's the first film I learned by heart, transcribing the script into a text file I posted on usenet when the web was still running on Mosaic. I love that movie and naturally I followed the man's career with an interest. However I'd read that this one, his first experience of the Hollywood connection, did not end up to his liking and I didn't want to watch something that he wasn't happy with. In the end my good wife talked me into it, having seen it long ago and loved it. Now I'm happy I've seen it too but I'll still try to find the director's cut with twelve extra minutes added.

The story is cool. There's a very cool looking building at the Fairfield Hospital Sanitarium that has a legacy. Johnny Charles Bartlett massacred twelve people at the Sanitarium, one more than Charles Starkweather, and the film opens with some weird phenomena taking place there with what were probably state of the art special effects at the time but many of which have now aged notably. Peter Jackson stamps his mark on it very quickly because when the carpet monster starts eating someone, Granny takes its head off with a shotgun, something completely consistent with his other horror movies. Dr Lucy Lynskey is newly aware of all of this because she visits and finds Bartlett's girlfriend living there. She was implicated in the crimes, locked up but later released to the custody of her scary grandmother.

In what seems to be but of course isn't a separate plotline, some mystery heart condition has killed the newest of thirty plus victims over a number of years. Frank Bannister, Psychic Investigator, turns up for the funeral to distribute his cards and on his way out he crashes into what turns out to be Lynskey's front lawn. Because he infested them on the sly with ghosts working for him, the Lynskeys have to call him back in that night to address their new poltergeist problem. Bannister is Michael J Fox, looking about as old as I've ever seen him, even though that still isn't anywhere near as old as he must have been by 1996, the Lynskeys are Trini Alvarado and Peter Dobson, and they're about the only actors in this film that aren't from some cult horror movie or other.

Bannister's pet ghosts that keep his business running are headed by the Judge, played by John Astin from The Addams Family, Bartlett's girlfriend is Dee Wallace Stone from Cujo and most notably there's Jeffrey Combs from Reanimator (and what seems like every other H P Lovecraft film) in there too. He's the most bizarre FBI agent specialising in the paranormal that you've ever seen and he's hilarious. Part Jim Carrey, part Bruce Campbell, part Johnny Depp, completely out there, he's hilarious to watch. There's R Lee Ermey pretty much reprising his role from Full Metal Jacket, if that counts, except that he's dead this time and can materialise large machine guns. Even the minor players like Troy Evans who plays the local sheriff I probably saw first in films like Teen Wolf, Near Dark and Halloween 5.

The names continue from the cast to the crew: Rick Baker, the special effects wizard behind An American Werewolf in London and many others and Danny Elfman, the composer behind almost all Tim Burton's movies, including Beetlejuice, probably the closest companion piece to this film, which probably includes a bit of the TV comedy show Rentaghost too. It's certainly from the right era but I don't know if it made it to New Zealand. There's also editor Jamie Selkirk and co-writer (and wife) Fran Walsh, who have been with Peter Jackson ever since the beginning, and Robert Zemeckis, major Hollywood director (though here as producer) who had vaguely visited this sort of ballpark before with Death Becomes Her.

From a fan's perspective (and that's a fan from before this film let alone before The Lord of the Rings), this is obviously a Peter Jackson film, even though there's none of the gore that Bad Taste and Brain Dead were so notable for. He wrote and directed and his sense of humour is all over the screen, very apparent for a few reasons. Frank Bannister doesn't just see and talk with ghosts like say, the chick in Ghost Whisperer; he interacts with them completely and is quite happy to ignore them whenever it seems appropriate and elbow them out of the way if that's the only way to shut them up. His own accomplice ghosts include a dog happy to eat his fellow ghosts' jawbones and a black guy with an afro who died in the seventies. Beyond what just fits with his humour, there are mummified Sumatran rat monkeys in the museum (from Brain Dead) and even Jackson himself in the street as the shortest of his early performances. I even see recognisable Jackson touches in the way he pans quickly to roadsigns. The chief villain's most common appearance also looks scarily like a ringwraith, but this one was first!

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