Some movie buffs believe that if it hadn't been for The Lord Of The Rings, Peter Jackson might've become a really great filmmaker. He started out making sicko comedies like Bad Taste, Meet The Feebles, and Braindead, all of which positioned him as a gifted cinephile, capable of converting a warped sense of humor and a fascination with homemade special effects into weirdly personal little cult items. Jackson then paddled tentatively into the mainstream with Heavenly Creatures and Forgotten Silver, two arthouse-scaled projects that retained his sense of whimsy and wonder. But afterward, Jackson began working on a mammoth scale, and though there's a lot to be said for the epic vision of The Lord Of The Rings, there's also no denying that some of Jackson's home-movie spirit has been drained away.
Jackson's transitional film was 1996's The Frighteners, a revisiting of his horror-comedy roots, made with Universal Studios' bucks and the clout of producer Robert Zemeckis. The movie tanked at the box office and cost Jackson his first shot at helming King Kong, and while some of his early fans dismiss The Frighteners as the messy end to his charming DIY period, others insist it's an underrated climax to that phase, and point to a long-out-of-print extended-cut laserdisc edition (with a four-hour making-of documentary) as proof.
The material on that laserdisc has finally made the jump to DVD, with ample evidence to support The Frighteners' supporters. The movie is undeniably kinetic, right down to the sudden twists of its story, which has ghost-hunter/con-man Michael J. Fox and his undead partners confronting a case of severe demonic possession. Jackson ramps up the slapstick more than he should, and relies too much on Danny Elfman's funhouse score and Chi McBride's comic-relief sassiness to create excitement in the early going. But though the movie has a hard time balancing a breezy tone with the at-times-extreme violence—pushed hard by a gruesome serial-killer subplot—The Frighteners has a puckish sense of humor that allows it to parody pop items like Ghost, The Shining, and old Mickey Mouse cartoons, plus a real emotional underpinning that comes from taking those pop items quasi-seriously.
The DVD adds some new introductions from Jackson, but he doesn't really delve much into why the movie flopped or how he was able to rebound career-wise, and the documentary only contains a little "reaction to the reaction." It's left to the individual viewer to see how the scene with the gooey CGI face sliding down a tombstone might connect to Jackson's splatter past, or how the overwhelming vision of hell at the movie's end connects to the orc armies and volcanic mountains to come. Jackson may never return to being the inventive scamp he was, but at least The Frighteners explains how a man who made Bad Taste could go on to make King Kong.