Just before doing "Lord of the Rings," director Peter Jackson (who can be seen in a cameo as "Man with Piercings") made an off-kilter horror/comedy movie called "The Frighteners," the tale of the undead and the guy who makes a living off of them. Though "Frighteners" was barely in theaters at all, this cult flick is funny, creepy, well-acted and wonderfully directed.
Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has seen spirits and apparitions ever since the car crash that killed his wife. Now he operates an amateur "ghostbusting" operation that is supposed to exorcise ghosts from people's houses -- the problem is that the ghosts who haunt those houses are in league with him (Chi McBride as the opinioated afro-ed Cyrus, Jim Fyfe as the nerdy Stuart, and most of John Astin as what is left of The Judge).
Frank's business certainly isn't hurt by the fact that for years after a serial killer's murderous spree, people have died mysteriously of heart attacks. Then Frank starts seeing fiery numbers emblazoned on the foreheads of people who will die, including the husband of doctor Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado). As if trying to stop a specter of death weren't hard enough, crazed FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) believes that Frank is the one murdering people. But the evil specter is still killing -- and Lucy is the next victim.
Peter Jackson once said that he has a "moronic" sense of humor, and it shows up in all its glory here -- from bug spray dissolving a ghost's face to a piece of talking oily sludge to a drill sargeant ghost with submachine guns, this is weird and absolutely hilarious. It's the perfect blend of comedy and horror.
But he's also good during the more serious moments, such as Bannister's flashbacks to his wife's death, or the eerie sight of homicidal young lovers dancing with a gun. The opening shot is pure Jackson, with the camera swooping through a window, past fluttering curtains, and though a hole in the attic floor to a screaming woman below.
Jackson also takes the opportunity to poke a bit of fun at more conventional ghost movies: the big Gothic house, crazy old lady, ghost in '70s clothes, and Fox's hilarious turn as a ghostbuster. Nothing horrific is sacred. "There ain't nothing worse than a bunch of pissed-off brothers... that's ALREADY DEAD!" Cyrus yells at one point.
Does it have a flaw? Yes -- the opening scene doesn't seem to make much sense later on in the movie. But Jackson makes up for that with a surprisingly tight, coherent plot, and a satisfying finale that makes more sense than most other horror movies do.
The cast is brilliant, whether it's the twitchy, wild-eyed FBI agent, or the three weird ghosts. Michael J. Fox does an excellent job as Frank, with the right combination of cockiness and pathos, while Alvarado is solid as the idealistic young doctor. But the scenes are reallystolen by Dee Wallace-Stone and freaky-eyed Jake Busey, as homicidal young lovers.
"Frighteners" might not make you believe in ghosts, but it will make you laugh, shiver, and maybe even shed a tear or two. Wildly funny, weird, gross, and sometimes really peculiar, this is Jackson's splatter-gore at its best.