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The Frighteners (1996): Peter Jackson’s Overlooked Gem

The Frighteners (Peter Jackson, 1996)

[originally posted 27Mar2001]

A skeletal face looms behind a wall in the movie poster.

What’s in your drywallet?
photo credit: IMDB

Since Jackson will be releasing the biggest films of the next three years in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I figured it was time to go back and get re-acquainted with the old stuff. The Frighteners is looked upon many as a hideous mistake for both Jackson and Zemeckis, but I think they were probably expecting something different (and opposite, depending on to whose name the fan was responding).

Michael J. Fox and his ghostly allies in a still from the film.

No movie containing a spectral Chi McBride can possibly be bad.
photo credit:

This film has a much more serious/dark cast to it than most of Jackson’s earlier work, but it should be obvious from the get-go that this isn’t a straight horror film; when Michael J. Fox is your lead character, and Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), who’s never played anything serious in his life, are two of your main characters, you’re going for laughs, or at least heavy sarcasm. Jackson delivers the latter with a trowel here. There are a few really laugh-out-loud scenes a la Dead Alive, but for the most part, the humor herein is more of the uncomfortable smile variety. It’s certainly not for everyone.

Jeffrey Combs shows off his terrible hair style in a still from the film.

How do you make Jeffrey Combs even creepier? With the world’s worst combover!
photo credit: IGN

The acting is delicious, from beginning to end. Fox, in his last big screen male lead performance, plays the frustrated psychic to the hilt. His foils are Chi McBride, John Astin, and Jim Fyfe as a trio of ghosts with whom he’s struck a deal to drum up some business to finish building his dream house. The four of them are surrounded by a minor cast of characters, both corporeal and incorporeal (note, especially, R. Lee Ermey as a drill sergeant—what a stretch!), all of whom are just great. Factor in child star Trini Alvarado all grown up as Fox’s love interest and Dee Wallace Stone as a henpecked and housebound parolee after her boyfriend (Jake Busey, looking just like his dad) went on a long-ago killing spree, and you can be assured that this movie is worth it for the acting power alone. If, that is, you can glom onto Jackson’s exceptionally black humor. *** ½



About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

One response »

  1. Good review Robert. Gave this a watch a little bit ago and while I definitely can’t say I loved it, it was a fine watch. Tonally uneven though.


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