Friday, September 7, 2012

Film Friday: The Frighteners (1996)

The Frighteners is one of those movies. It’s a quasi-comedy, quasi-horror film with a lot of great elements and I want to like this movie. But I can’t. . . not enough. Here’s where it fails.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Frighteners is the story Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), a former architect who now makes a living as a con-man psychic. Giving the story a twist, Bannister really can see the dead and he has made a deal with three spirits who help him hustle the local community by causing hauntings so he can swoop in to ghostbust the newly infected location for a small fee. Bannister is able to see the dead because he had a near-death experience when he drove off the road during a heated argument with his wife. She was killed in the crash.
As the story opens, the local community is struggling to understand a series of unexplained deaths. Each of the victims appeared to be perfectly healthy until they suffered sudden, massive heart attacks. One such victim is Ray, a jerk of a human being who has had a run-in with Bannister. Bannister agrees to help Ray and Ray’s wife Lucy connect so she can ask some questions about lost money. Lucy admits that she was never happy with Ray and she begins to fall for Bannister. That’s when Bannister sees a Grim Reaper-like figure. This is the being that has been killing people.

Bannister starts chasing the mysterious figure, but soon becomes a suspect in the killings and an eccentric FBI Special Agent (Jeffrey Combs) is brought in to question Bannister. This man is a specialist in cults and is more than a little insane. At that point, Bannister discovers that the Grim Reaper is actually Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), a noted local serial killer, and he and his still-living girlfriend have decided to continue their killing spree. The rest of the film involves Bannister and Lucy trying to stop Bartlett while avoiding the insane FBI Agent.
Why This Film Doesn’t Work
This film proves the adage that a successful film must be more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, if we just look at the parts of this film in isolation, you would think it would be a top ten film. Check out these elements:
The Pedigree: Directed by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame and produced by Robert Zemeckis, the director of the Back to the Future series and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Frighteners’s production team is stacked with talent who are more than capable of making this kind of half-comedy, half-serious film.

The Actors: Michael J. Fox is one of the most likable actors of the 1980s and 1990s and he leads the cast. His presence alone should guarantee a solid movie. Add in excellent supporting actors like John Astin, R. Lee Ermey, and Jeffrey Combs and you’ve got a solid cast that should make for compelling viewing.

The Effects: Peter Jackson’s visual effects company, Weta Digital, handles the effects and does an excellent job. The reaper figure is amazingly intimidating and intense. His ability to move beneath solid surfaces is creepy beyond belief. The ghost effects and how flawlessly they are mixed in with the live actors, plus the death effects and the numbers that appear on foreheads are all truly superb. Even the presentation of Hell is unusually well-done.
The Soundtrack: The Danny Elfman soundtrack is solid, as is the remake of “Don’t Fear The Reaper.”
So this film has a lot going for it. Yet, it never quite hits the mark because the film never decides if it wants to be a comedy or a horror film, and that confusion keeps the film from being effective as either. Moreover, there are numerous problems with the writing which keep undercutting the story.

In many ways, one cannot help but compare Frighteners to Ghostbusters. Both involve ghostbusting and both straddle the line between comedy and horror. But this similarity hides a critical difference. Ghostbusters chose to be a comedy and made sure that each scene was played for laughs. It maintained a steady lighthearted tone floating just above a fairly heavy drama which let audience recognize the drama as driving the story but the humor as the true purpose of the movie.

Frighteners, by comparison, is not so clear. Frighteners vacillates back and forth between comedy and drama, with some scenes meant one way and others meant the other. Moreover, some characters are played for comedic effect no matter what scene they are in, until they suddenly aren’t played for comedic effect anymore. This is jarring and confusing and it results in an uneven movie that is incapable of developing a flow or a consistent tone. This means the audience can’t get its bearings to know how to judge the film scene by scene because they’re never sure if they’re supposed to laugh. Consequently, the jokes aren’t funny because it’s never clear they are meant as jokes and the drama isn’t tense because it’s never immediately clear that the scene is meant to be dramatic. Also, in the last thirty minutes, the film loses all pretense of being comedic and the entire tone of the film unexpectedly changes for the negative.

This problem is made worse by numerous mistakes in the writing. Some scenes don’t seem to advance the plot, such as his failed con-haunting of a rich woman. Too much of the movie feels too narrow in the sense that everything seems to happen to Bannister and it happens in a way which feels forced. But the biggest problem is really the lack of any sense of relationship between the characters.
Bannister has three ghosts who have agreed to work for him. But it’s never made clear why they do this. There is nothing they gain from this and if it’s friendship they crave, then Bannister is a horrible friend. It would have helped to see some warmth between them. Bannister and Lucy’s relationship isn’t much better. We’re told they fall in love with each other, but there’s little that shows this. Mainly, they seem like two people who are trying to help each other solve a problem. Moreover, there’s a very poor decision made by the writer when Bannister temporarily ends up in Heaven. When he arrives, he meets his former wife and they appear to be deeply in love with each other. She tells him it’s not his time yet to die and sends him back after suggesting she will be waiting for him. This is all well and good, but what does this do to the relationship with Lucy? Basically, it makes her into an affair.

The ending is a problem too. This is one of the earlier films I can recall which basically shut down the plot with about thirty minutes to go and turned the rest of the film into an elongated chase scene. This is sadly par for the course these days, but that doesn’t make this right. When a story based on the likeability of various characters ceases to be about those characters and instead becomes about a small group of people chasing each other through an abandoned hospital for thirty minutes, something has gone very wrong. And while the film interjects various goals for the characters throughout this chase, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s simply dull to watch people chase each other.

This is why I can’t like Frighteners even though I very much want to like this film. It has some excellent pieces, but those pieces are assembled poorly.

66 comments:

shawn said...

My experience of Peter Jackson films prior to seeing this was Meet the Feeples, an eye-rollingly bad film, and seeing VHS box covers of his low budget gore-fest movies Dead Alive and .

On the other hand, Micheal J. Fox had just come off of several of my favorite movies, the Back to the Future trilogy and Doc Hollywood, so I went to see it mostly due to him. Little did I know that he wanted to change his squeeky clean image.

Now it has been a long while since I've seen it, but I remember it starting off some-what light-hearted and then quickly become a rather dark film. I'll have to rewatch it to see if it see-saws too much. But I don't remember that being the case, at least for me.

As to the scene in heaven with his wife, I think it was in part to say "Go ahead and move on with your life" and I can't think of his material world romance as an affair because that would mean that he was cheating on his dead wife. Now if you want to talk about disturbing actions by characters we are supposed to sympathize with, I give you The Illusionist with Edward Norton.

In the end, I liked The Frighteners, even if Fox's character starts off less than reputable. Of course, opinions vary.

shawn said...

(Sigh). In the first paragraph above it should read : Dead Alive and .

shawn said...

For some strange reason, the internets won't print the name of the other movie. Now I haven't seen it, but maybe it is that bad and all records of it are being expunged.

shawn said...

As I've got the run of the place, I hope you are feeling better Andrew.

Anthony said...

The Frighteners was a big nothing.

I wasn't too impressed by Ghostbusters either to be honest. I don't regret watching it, but 80% of the funny jokes were contained in the one minute trailer. It does have the best theme song ever though.

DUQ said...

I'm in the same boat. I wanted to like this film and I thought it started well enough, but it just turned into a big ball of blah. It had it's moments, but all in all it just never came together.

Kelly said...

I do like this film, but I agree that it really can't make up its mind what kind of film it wants to be. Nice review.

tryanmax said...

I know I've seen this film, but it left no mark on me whatsoever. Even the synopsis here doesn't jog much memory outside of what is specifically mentioned.

Even the marketing team was apparently confused by this movie. Take a look at that poster. That's a poster for a total horror-fest. One shouldn't expect to see anything comedic after looking at that poster, save a bit of gallows humor from the relief. If that was all I had to go by, I would just expect a generic monster flick and pass on it for sure.

ellenB said...

I like Michael J. Fox a lot, but I was disappointed in this one. I remember it was never quite scary and never quite funny and like you say, I was never sure which it was tyring to be.

I also thought his ghost friends were mishandled. I never understood why they were drawn to him or why they didn't just go on Heaven since they obviously could.

ellenB said...

tryanmax, If I remember the trailer, it had the same problem. It looked a lot like a straight up horror film except for one or two brief moments where they showed a gag. So it wasn't even clear from the trailer whether this was horror or comedy.

DUQ said...

tryanmax, I totally agree. Looking at the poster, there's no hint this is anything other than a horror film. The only telling sign is that Michael J. Fox was in it and he hadn't done horror at that point.

Backthrow said...

I agree. I *wanted* to like THE FRIGHTENERS, but the movie was considerably less than the sum of its often-impressive parts.

The other thing that hurts it, in retrospect, is that Jackson's previous genre film, the low-budget DEAD ALIVE (known as BRAIN DEAD outside of the U.S.), while probably *the* goriest film ever made, is also a full-fledged crazy comedy, with a likeable/put-upon lead (I remember Fox's FRIGHTENERS character being kind of a jerk, especially to his ghostly cohorts) and had a sweet little romance at its core. Also, it has the 'kung-fu priest', something few films can match, much less THE FRIGHTENERS.

"I kick ARSE for The LORD!!" *THWACK-THWACK-THWACK*

BIG MO said...

Your review -- nicely done -- reminded me immediately of another film that couldn't decide whether it was a comedy or drama: "I Love Trouble" with Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts. (I actually saw this in the theater.)

It made a permanent "Huh?" impression on me.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Shawn! I'm feeling better.

As we always say, your mileage may vary. I wanted to like this one a lot and part of me does like it -- certainly enough to keep watching it to give it another chance. But ultimately, I just think the movie fails.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I love Ghostbusters, but you are right about the trailer. Like all comedies, they rammed the best jokes into the trailer and defused them. Fortunately, in hindsight, it's not a big deal anymore.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, Same here. I wanted to like this, but just couldn't quite bring myself to like it. And I too enjoy the beginning much more than the middle/ending as the tone begins to change and the story narrows.

AndrewPrice said...

Kelly, That's often the problem with films like this which set out to be dark comedies, they can't quite decide if they want to be funny or scary. It's a difficult balance, and I think the added problem here is that this film tried to be funnier than it thinks it is.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I've seen this one a lot, because I keep hoping to finally like it. Like I said, it's got some great elements, it just doesn't assemble them well.

I think you're right about the poster and the marketing. There was very little other than the name of Fox and Zemeckis to suggest this wouldn't be a typical horror movie. Although sometimes the ads were using the ghosts who are dressed in funky old clothes, which made it appear like a straight comedy. I think they had a serious problem with the marketing.

AndrewPrice said...

Ellen, I agree on both points, the film couldn't make up it's mind and the ghosts were mishandled. As for the trailers, there were multiple trailers and the first one I saw was really dark and very much a horror movie. The second was pure comedy. They didn't do a very good job of showing those elements together.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, That's true. Fox had really only done comedy at that point, so his name was enough to clue you in that this wouldn't be a straight horror film -- especially because big name stars just didn't do horror back then. But you still never got a clear idea of what the tone of the movie would be.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I never saw Dead Alive so I didn't have anything to compare frighteners to except Ghostbusters, and in that regard, this film fails miserably.

That said, the real problem here (as all films must stand on their own regardless of comparison) is just that the parts never added up to what they were capable of achieving. When you look at this film, it has all the parts you need to make a truly great film, but it never comes together because they assembled it poorly.

AndrewPrice said...

Big Mo, Thanks! I had the same thought about I Love Trouble, it was just one of those films that was never sure what it really was and you leave the theater not sure what you just watched.

ellenB said...

Andrew, I think dark comedies are very difficult because everyone has a different idea of what they find funny and what they find dark. So hitting the mark in way that most people agree is funny without being too funny and is dark without being too dark is really difficult. I can't think of very many dark comedies that work.

Doc Whoa said...

I'm going to go slightly contrary and say that while I agree the overall film didn't live up to its potential, I liked the elements more than enough to enjoy the film. I do agree the ending is really dull and the film is uneven, but I like Michael J. Fox enough that he carries the film for me throughout.

Doc Whoa said...

I also agree that dark comedy is very, very hard. I'm not sure I can think of any that I truly liked. I'm sure there are some, but they just don't spring to mind.

AndrewPrice said...

Ellen, That's another aspect to this. Not only is it inherently hard to find the right balance, but it's even harder in that people will perceive the balance differently. When you do a straight up comedy, you can provide a much wider range of humor without people noticing that you're doing it. But when you do a dark comedy, you operate in a much more narrow range because it needs to be delicately balanced. That makes it even harder to find a wide audience.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, Like you, I enjoy parts of this movie more than enough that I keep rewatching it when it comes on television. I just never feel satisfied watching it. If I were to remake it, I would address the issues mentioned in the review.

Backthrow said...

It's been many years since I last watched THE FRIGHTENERS, and I've only seen it once or twice, but something else has also just occurred to me that also might've hurt the film, besides the uneven tone...

I know they wanted the story to be partially a mystery, but it's still sort of a let-down when the antagonist, which seemed to be The Grim Reaper --Death incarnate--, ends up being the ghost of a garden-variety Hollywood-style serial killer. It'd be similar to a classic James Bond film, if 007 finally confronted Blofeld, only to find out he's really just a local loan shark, putting on a big front. Kind of unsatisfying.

Maybe THE FRIGHTENERS, at least the serious parts of it, would've benefitted if they flipped that part of the premise, and had Fox and company dealing with what they think is the ghost of a killer (and his living psycho girlfriend), only to find that he's really something more otherworldly and formidable. How they'd thwart it, I have no idea (figuring such things out is why pro screenwriters are supposed to be making the 'big bucks', right? LOL!), but raising the stakes for the hero(es) usually works better for audiences than the opposite.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, That is a very good point and it helps to explain why the ending is such a let down. Not only is the whole 30 minute chase scene just not interesting, but the villain goes from this great mysterious, creepy character to just a plain old, lame serial killer.

Flipping it as you suggest might have worked, but I wonder if maybe it wouldn't have been better to just avoid the serial killer idea entirely. For example, if they made the Death character some sort of rogue grim reaper who was taking people at will, that would have been a much better premise. It also would have allowed them to tie in MJF's ghost friends better as they could have served some purpose other than just getting killed to buy the film time.

So maybe the problem is even more fundamental than just the tone? Maybe this is just a bad idea?

tryanmax said...

Backthrow, for some reason your suggestion makes me think of The Usual Suspects, which is really kinda cool. I mean, how awesome would a supernatural version of that be!?

Doc Whoa said...

Andrew, I agree with you, but I just like the elements enough to make me like this film.

ScyFyterry said...

i'm of two minds on this film, probably for the reasons you state. I like the beginning a lot, but I don't like the ending at all. I also think Backthrow makes an excellent point. I think the whole film would have been better if there was more to it than just a serial killer.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Interesting comparison. Usual Suspects is one of my favorite films and it does kind of go the opposite here, where you have a nearly supernatural criminal, whereas here you have a supernatural criminal who ends up being pretty lame.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, There's no harm in disagreeing. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Terry, I feel the same. I want to like this film. I like all the elements. But the overall film just doesn't work for me. And where it really fails is toward the ending.

ScyFyterry said...

Andrew, I agree with that. One of the real problems I had with the film, other than the confusing tone, was that things weren't well thought through.

For example, why does Barlett even need to disguise himself as the reaper? Only ghosts could see him and they aren't his target. It's like putting on a costume even though you're invisible. Also, why don't the ghosts go into the light if they hate it so much? They seem to know what the light is, so why not step into it when they see it? It feels like there are a lot of things that happen because they need to in this film.

ScyFyterry said...

... "because they need to in this film, not because that's how they would really happen."

T-Rav said...

Huh, I actually caught like five minutes of this on AMC last weekend but had no idea what it was. Good to know.

I'm just spitballin', but from the plot summary, it seems like one problem is there's too many things going on: Con artist has to use his powers for real, unexpected romance, getting tangled up with the government, temporary side trips into the afterlife....that's a lot to stick into one movie. Especially when it's supposed to be a quasi-comedy. They might have done better to stick to just a couple of those plot themes.

DUQ said...

T-Rav, It's even more than that. The love interest is a doctor who is looking after and old woman and her daughter who live in the house Bartlet haunts and they are related to him in a way. Plus, this mystery appears about the ghost of Bartlet being the guy who killed Fox's first wife rather than the accident. So there is a lot going on in this film and it probably could have been streamlined. But despite that, this film feels like it really needs more because it's ultimately too simplistic story of a story.

LawHawkRFD said...

I haven't seen the film, and now I guess I won't. Not to mention I'm probably one of the few here who thinks Michael J. Fox should have quit while he was ahead after his role as Alex P. Keaton. That also makes me one of the few who wasn't crazy about the BTTF series.

ellenB said...

Andrew, That's true too. The more specialized a story becomes, e.g. science fiction romance or dark comedy or period peice, the fewer people will want to see it.

AndrewPrice said...

Terry, That's another issue and I think it comes from the general lack of focus. A lot of these things are symptoms of a script that just wasn't ready. If they had solved the main problems, then I think all the other stuff would have been more likely to have been taken care of. Instead, I suspect, they had a story that didn't quite work and as they struggled to fill in the gaps, and that created the tone problems.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, That's a good guess, although the film actually feels like it suffers from a lack of things going on. You are correct that there is far too much to bring the story together in a unified way, but the film doesn't feel "busy." To the contrary, it feels very small.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, That's true, there is a lot going on, but it's all tied together so simplistically that it doesn't add a sense of confusion. To the contrary, it adds a sense of everything being too convenient.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I liked Michael J. Fox a lot in most of his roles. Some of his films weren't great, but I always liked him as an actor.

AndrewPrice said...

Ellen, Very true. If you are making a film, the more genres you cause to overlap, the smaller your audience will be. So at the very least, you need to keep the marketing focused on a single point.

ScottDS said...

I saw this movie once years ago and I don't remember much of it, except that I was a bit disappointed with it by the end. Like you said, good filmmakers, good cast... clumsy execution.

I've never seen the lead actress (Trini Alvarado) in anything else but a cursory glance at the IMDb reveals she was on two episodes of Fringe, which I watch religiously: I guess I didn't recognize her!

Jim Fyfe who plays Stuart (the guy with the glasses in the first still) was actually in a lot of educational shows on HBO when I was a kid! He was a regular on a show called Encyclopedia, which featured a comic ensemble doing sketches on different words that began with a particular letter.

He was also in a couple of short documentaries aimed at kids which deconstructed marketing and deceptive commercials. Buy Me That and Buy Me That, Too!... this is where I learned about product placement.

I don't expect anyone to remember these shows - there isn't much info available about them and they haven't aired on TV in close to 20 years.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The interesting thing about Alvarado is that she looks a lot like several other actresses, so I keep thinking I've seen her in various other films. But it's not her.

I saw this in theater for the first time and I remember being rather disappointed by the time it was over.

I don't recall those TV shows, but I think I recall you mentioning them.

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry, let me rephrase... I've had a TV-piphony! I remember that show now. I think I saw it! :)

T-Rav said...

LawHawk, how can you not be a fan of the BTTF movies?! Heresy!!!

rlaWTX said...

I tend to pretend that there was only 1 BTTF movie...

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Maybe it's a generational thing? LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, One was clearly the best, but I don't go that far. In fact, I watched II and III this weekend and I enjoy them more than a lot of other films.

ScottDS said...

LawHawk, how can you not be a fan of the BTTF movies?! Heresy!!!

^This, times infinity. :-D

All kidding aside, I do sometimes have to sit back and remember that not every movie is for everyone. There are plenty of movies I like that get the evil eye from people when I mention them.

But BTTF is such a fun, popular, crowd-pleasing movie!

ScottDS said...

rlaWTX -

You know, I just reviewed the BTTF sequels a few weeks ago. Check them out - you might be encouraged to watch them again.

Or not. :-)

T-Rav said...

rla, you can pretend that there were only three Indiana Jones movies. You can't pretend there was only one BTTF movie. Way different.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Yeah, I've mentioned those HBO shows before. I really enjoyed them and I'd even buy a compilation DVD if HBO could pretend for one second that they once existed.

So you watched the BTTF sequels this past weekend? Any new observations or insights we may have missed with my reviews? :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, There's always somebody who doesn't love something. That's human nature. Santa could appear and hand out gifts to everyone and somebody would complain.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I would say well said, but I thought there were only three Indiana Jones films?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I know you mentioned them before, but I suddenly remembered I'd seen one of them at least at some point. :) I don't remember it, but I know I saw it. I guess that counts for something, right?

Yep, they were running II and III back to back on one of the HBO channels. I would say that their 80s nostalgia bar was pretty silly in hindsight -- more so than I remember. But it was interesting that they had a "surf Vietnam" tourism poster up since that could easily happen today.

I do think they made the same mistake all films about the future do -- they made a lot of changes that weren't natural extensions of the present. But it was forgivable because it was comedy.

ellenB said...

Scott, You are such the salesman! LOL! Nice work.

AndrewPrice said...

Ellen, Scott's very good at promotion. He's done a lot to help the site get noticed around the web.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew, I didn't see this one, but even so, your analysis of why it didn't work makes a lot of sense to me. Nothing is more frustrating than a movie that can't get it's identity figured out. As I rad this review, I couldn't help but think of that film I reviewed not long ago titled "Another Earth." With a lot less of a pedigree, it straddled a couple of different genres, but seemed to pull it off better since it ultimately stayed true to it's theme . . . . finding redemption.

T-Rav said...

Er....yes, that's right. I think I hallucinated and thought there were four Indiana Jones movies. Side effects of my new round of meds, I guess. Or maybe I went off them. I don't really remember.

AndrewPrice said...

Ok, this will probably make you wonder about my judgment, but I watched that mythical fourth film the other day and I didn't really hate it. I was as amazed as you are right now. Maybe I was high or something?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's been on HBO and I DVR'd it with intent to watch it.

I think the genre straddling thing is very tricky, and I don't think Frighteners pulls it off.

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