Leap Before You Look Case File #6: The Frighteners
When contemplating—or, more likely, mourning—the unimaginable budgets given the Michael Bays and Jerry Bruckheimers of the world, it’s instructive and reassuring to recall that folks like Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, and for the purposes of this Case File especially, Peter Jackson are regularly given budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars to work out personal visions that just happen to resonate with moviegoers and critics all over the world.
A filmmaker like Christopher Nolan is not given $250 million to make Inception or The Dark Knight Rises as an act of goodwill. The studio isn’t doing it for the public good. It’s doing it because Nolan has an almost unbeatable commercial track record, and studios have a strong, understandable hunch that audiences might enjoy seeing Anne Hathaway crawling around in skin-tight black leather.
Studios aren’t shelling out loot by the boatful to these filmmakers to create art. They’re paying them to create entertainment; if art ensues, that’s a nifty bonus. Studio executives don’t get paid to take risks. That shit gets them fired. If there’s one immutable truth in the universe, it’s that executives will get fired no matter what. But sometimes studios are forced to take chances, and sometimes greatness ensues. Sometimes that greatness takes a great while to grow and mature.
I don’t know that anyone saw Peter Jackson’s gleefully, exuberantly, unabashedly profane 1989 Muppets riff Meet The Feebles and envisioned the warped mind behind it someday accepting a Best Picture Oscar for 2004’s Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King. It represented long-overdue acknowledgement for a towering achievement that went far beyond a single film. Jackson had achieved so much, artistically and commercially, that merely giving him the most prestigious and sought-after award in film and probably all of entertainment represented pretty much the least the Academy could do.
Like kindred spirit Sam Raimi, Jackson made a remarkable and unexpected shift from the freakiest fringes to the middle of the mainstream. Jackson has accomplished so much in the past 15 years that in the advertisements for The Adventures Of Tintin, his producer credit is posited as nearly as much of a draw as Steven Spielberg’s directorial credit. Jackson is playing in those leagues these days. He’s breathing rarified air.
But it wasn’t always that way. In the early ’90s Jackson was simply an oddball New Zealand cult horror-comedy filmmaker whose movies had attracted a lot of attention from cult and camp aficionados without ever making much money. Everything changed with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, a rapturously received drama about a real-life murder case that rocked New Zealand in the 1950s and heralded the arrival of Kate Winslet as a major force. It was a film that announced that New Zealand’s preeminent enfant terrible had arrived as an adult filmmaker.
Michael J. Fox saw Heavenly Creatures and immediately agreed to star in Jackson’s follow-up, 1996’s The Frighteners. Executive Producer Robert Zemeckis didn’t need to see Heavenly Creatures to be convinced of Jackson’s bottomless talent and potential. Zemeckis saw Jackson and wife/co-screenwriter/co-producer Fran Walsh’s treatment for a horror-comedy about a supernatural con man forced to confront true evil, and he had the young scribes turn it into a feature-length screenplay he saw as a spin-off of Tales From The Crypt, the HBO horror anthology he produced along with a slew of other heavy-hitters like Walter Hill, Joel Silver, and Richard Donner. When Zemeckis received the final script, he was so floored that he insisted Jackson direct the film himself.
In a sense, Zemeckis was paying it forward. Decades earlier, Steven Spielberg had taken a chance on a pair of smartass UCLA graduates (Zemeckis and writing partner Bob Gale) who had written a very strange comedy about the frenzy that ensues when The Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show back in 1964. Like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Across The Universe, the film was paradoxically a Beatles film without The Beatles, and consequently something of a tricky proposition commercially.
Spielberg took a chance on the kids and, for the first time in his career, executive produced someone else’s film when he shepherded Zemeckis’ smartass 1978 debut, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The film was not a commercial success, but the following year, Spielberg took an even greater risk when he directed an even stranger screenplay Zemeckis and Gale had written about the hysteria that ensues when the West Coast becomes convinced a Japanese invasion is imminent, called 1941. Y’all know how well that turned out.
Zemeckis eventually justified Spielberg’s faith in him to the world by directing the Spielberg-produced blockbusters Back To The Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but before Zemeckis was one of the safest and biggest names in entertainment, he was a big-ass gamble, the same way a weird-ass cult filmmaker from New Zealand might be a big-ass gamble to an established and powerful American filmmaker like Zemeckis.
Zemeckis very well could have looked at Jackson’s script and filmography and sensed a kindred spirit. Zemeckis and Jackson are both creative progeny of Mad magazine, Looney Tunes, and the Marx Brothers, unabashed creative anarchists who delight in running amok and controlled chaos. They similarly share an enthusiasm for new technology that borders on mania. They’re not the kind of patient souls to wait until a technology has been perfected, or even refined, before diving into the deep end with it. They’re leap-before-you-look types.
The Frighteners is a little like Zemeckis’ 1992 technological marvel/dire dark comedy Death Becomes Her in that both filmmakers use the magical toolbox of computer-generated imagery primarily to do new and disgusting things to the human body. CGI had empowered and liberated their sadism. They were now fit to do things to the human body previously only seen in cartoons. That seemed to be the whole point of Death Becomes Her in many ways.
It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that The Frighteners represented the biggest breakthrough in computer-generated imagery since Death Becomes Her. When it was released in 1996, The Frighteners was, if not the single most CGI-intensive film yet made, then one of them.
The Frighteners wastes no time taking full advantage of recent technological breakthroughs. CGI didn’t just liberate Jackson and Zemeckis’ imaginations; it liberated their cameras as well. In the bravura opening sequence, the camera swoops through the air as it dives from the roof of a haunted house on an archetypal dark and stormy night (the kind where a shot might ring out) on through a window and then into a sinister interior where a fluid, perpetually morphing Grim Reaper-like monster within the walls is relentlessly pursuing a spooky older woman (Dee Wallace-Stone) who will play a prominent role in the proceedings.
Jackson luxuriates in the infinite possibilities of this exciting new technology while simultaneously hearkening back to the sum of horror history: haunted houses, dark and stormy nights, crazy old ladies, and extreme, exaggerated camera angles. The CGI is new, but everything else isn’t just old—it’s classic. It’s vintage.
The Frighteners’ opening sequence also can’t help but recall the famous opening credits of Tales From The Crypt, deliberately or otherwise. It looks enough like the opening to Zemeckis and company’s beloved little fright fest to qualify as homage, if not outright theft. The Frighteners betrays its origins here and elsewhere. It feels at times like an overachieving, super-sized episode of Tales From The Crypt smuggled inside the body of a film that can never quite realize the full extent of its lofty ambitions.
We then meet our hero (Michael J. Fox) in his natural environment, lurking desperately around a funeral in hopes of drumming up some business. By the time The Frighteners was shot, Fox was deep into his evolution from a fresh-faced boy into a middle-aged man. Here, Fox sports the faintly tragic look of a baby-faced child star gone to seed. The look suits the film and the character. He is a confidence man lacking in confidence, a grifter who is perpetually waiting to be uncovered as a fraud and punished severely.
What Fox still possesses in mass amounts is charm. We like him. We root for him. We’re on his side even when he does and says things that make him difficult to sympathize with. This is important because there’s very little in the character as written that’s particularly likeable or sympathetic. At best, he’s a con man and a supernatural fraud. At worst, he’s an exploitative criminal responsible for the death of his wife in a car accident that forever altered the course of his life.
In flashback we learn that Fox once sported floppy Tommy Wiseau hair and wore expensive suits that betrayed innate spiritual and moral emptiness. He was the kind of guy who would rather angrily yell, “Sell!” into a cell phone than, say, go to a little-league game or dance recital. He was, in other words, a bad person, or at least a desperately flawed man in need of a little spiritual correction.
That comes when he gets into the aforementioned car accident and picks up the ability to see and communicate with the dead. Fox has lurked in the shadow of death for so long that the phantasmagorical and fantastic now seem commonplace to him, even ordinary. He’s abetted in his flim-flammery by a team of friendly ghosts who vamp and moan and put on a show for Fox’s clients when he’s around pretending to bust ghosts, then come home with him at the end of the night.
Like far too much of The Frighteners, these helper-ghosts are incredibly important for about 20 minutes, then barely factor in the rest of the film. They seem absolutely essential in the early going, then disappear for vast stretches of time until they became narratively necessary again.
The Frighteners suffers from a surplus of ideas rather than a dearth. Jackson will fall in love with a conceit like a black ghost (Chi McBride) duded out in pimp-flamboyant Soul Train finery who speaks militantly and angrily of starting an “African-American Apparition Coalition,” only to more or less abandon it for another promising, quickly discarded plot thread, like a Ghost riff that finds Fox’s paranormal charlatan playing intermediary between a doctor (Trini Alvarado) and her goober of a dead husband (Peter Dobson). When Dobson weeps uncontrollably at his own funeral at his own wasted potential, he’s luxuriating in a new and powerful form of narcissism. Not every romance is one for the ages.
Fox’s endeavors eventually bring him to the attention of an FBI agent played by Jeffrey Combs as a man who survived going deep cover with a series of cults, but just barely. Like Fox, he is a man irrevocably haunted by a past that refuses to go away, that bleeds uncomfortably into every festering moment of the present. He’s scarred, emotionally and physically. As he tells Fox in a glistening crescendo of insanity as he reveals just how brutally maimed his body is from years of abuse and torture, “My body is a roadmap of pain. But pain has its reward!”
Combs is convinced that Fox is behind a series of mysterious deaths that look like heart attacks when the real culprit is eventually revealed to be the spirit of a deranged serial killer played with lip-smacking zeal and utter abandon by second-generation crazy Jake Busey. His hilariously competitive sociopath keeps a running tally of how many people he’s killed and how it stacks up against the Charles Starkweathers, Ted Bundys, and John Wayne Gacys of the world.
The Frighteners marks the arrival of two forces that would come to dominate American film over the next 15 years—Peter Jackson and computer-generated imagery—and, in Fox’s final turn as a leading man, one of the last big-screen gasps of a beloved cinematic fixture of the ’80s and ’90s. The computer-generated special effects in The Frighteners are impressive and sophisticated enough to seem revolutionary and groundbreaking without being altogether convincing or even mostly convincing. Such is the curse of the innovator. It’s hard to identify and empathize with something your mind processes as transparently fake. Movies inherently represent elaborate acts of artifice, chicanery, and fakery, but for whatever reason, it’s easier to accept, say, Michael J. Fox as a man who sees spirits and walks between worlds than it is to buy special effects that look close enough to the real thing to be incredibly distracting.
The Frighteners sometimes feels like nothing but an endless series of special effects-intensive set pieces; the technology seems to be driving the story rather than the other way around. It’s a film of tremendous strengths—ingenuity, a certain morbid wit, technological daring, an unmistakable, fully formed sensibility—and equally formidable weaknesses. It’s a riot of competing, sometimes clashing components angrily crying out for attention. It feels sometimes like the work of someone who wants to use all of his tricks and play with all of his toys in case he never has the opportunity to do so again.
Jackson’s first American film—shot entirely in New Zealand of course—is best seen as a simultaneously dazzling and frustrating harbinger of things to come. Jackson had to stumble with The Frighteners and its over-reliance on cutting-edge technology so that he could triumph with the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Jackson and his collaborators would soon create vast worlds out of computer code and vivid imaginations. But before Jackson (and Andy Serkis) could perfect CGI with Gollum, he had to refine the technology with the imperfect clay of The Frighteners.
In The Frighteners, the villain is literally and metaphorically CGI, an amorphous blob of infinite evil. The years ahead would prove CGI to be both something to be feared/dreaded and a dazzling, game-changing, and extraordinarily powerful tool in the hands of a master like Jackson. I’m consequently tempted to give The Frighteners a pass, but I think instead I will resurrect an old, pointless tradition from My Year Of Flops and give Jackson’s engagingly flawed film a mixed rating.
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