The Frighteners

(Peter Jackson, USA/New Zealand, 1996)


One of the hoariest of all film critiques occurs whenever someone dismisses a movie with the words: "I just couldn’t care about the characters". But not all films depend on full, sympathetic, complex characters. Sometimes characters are just figures in a landscape, generic ciphers or stylised abstractions – and a movie is not necessarily any less involving for that.

The Frighteners, however, is a curious case. There is no reason, on the surface, why this film should not be tremendous entertainment: it is fast, slick, busy, cleverly plotted and executed. It displays every mark of the qualities that made writer-director Peter Jackson’s previous efforts (especially Braindead, 1992) so appealing. But this time the old line is true: you just cannot care about the characters, and as a result the film is a bore.

Michael J. Fox – in perhaps the blandest and most rote performance of his career – plays Frank Bannister, a con man who preys on people’s fear of the supernatural. As a swindler, Frank has a special advantage: he is actually in cahoots with several ghosts willing to innocently scare up business for him.

It is inevitable that Frank and his phantom team are going to run up against a truly evil spook – the spirit of the monstrous, deceased serial killer Johnny (Jake Busey). But Jackson is concerned neither with the elementary moral of this tale, nor the pale love intrigue that develops between Frank and Lucy (Trini Alvarado). Everything in The Frighteners happens for only one purpose: to set up a continuous cascade of running, falling, firing and screaming.

Jackson clearly aspires to the sort of highwire, cartoon-style pyrotechnics that Sam Raimi perfected in his delirious Evil Dead films. There also nods to Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988), with its vision of beings hilariously suspended between life and death, and to Tarantino-type pop culture in-jokes. But neither the plot’s fantastic conceits nor its sniggering humour ever really come alive.

When he made Heavenly Creatures (1994), Jackson convinced many intelligent filmgoers that he was capable of creating works with dramatic gravity and moral depth, as well as his usual boyish cinematic bravura. The Frighteners makes me doubt this generous judgment. It alights on pressing social issues (murder, perverse sexuality, dysfunctional families), but reduces them to mere pretexts for dazzling camera movements and special effects.

Nothing registers as serious – and unfortunately, when it comes to the merry realm of the unserious, Jackson does not display half the élan that Burton brings to the delightful Mars Attacks! (1996).

MORE Jackson: King Kong, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

© Adrian Martin February 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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