Long before taking up residence in Middle-Earth for The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies and becoming a household name in Hollywood, director Peter Jackson made a name for himself in the horror genre with the low budget film Bad Taste (1987) and the splatter fest cult classic Dead Alive (1992). Both films showcased Jackson’s early talent (particularly with Dead Alive, which showcases some of the most stomach churning gore ever filmed).
Jackson also showed a flare for the comedic aspect of filmmaking with his delightfully twisted 1989 film Meet the Feebles, which in itself is not a horror film, but deserves a mention here based on its insane concept of what has been described as the Muppets on crack. The combination of violence, depravity and comedic elements come together for a truly unique experience that any horror fanatic could appreciate.
Jackson visited the horror genre once more in 1996 with The Frighteners.
Executive Produced by Robert Zemeckis (Back to Future trilogy) and originally intended as a directorial vehicle for Zemeckis as a spin-off feature film of the Tales From the Crypt franchise, the film marks the last live action film that Michael J. Fox headlined (he would reveal his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s Disease two years later). It’s a film that showcases Jackson’s love of the horror genre, while also boasting a great supporting cast that includes horror icons Dee Wallace (The Howling) and Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), along with John Astin, Chi McBride, Jake Busey and R. Lee Ermey in a cameo role that was intended as a spoof tribute to his character of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket (1987).
The film tells the story of Frank Bannister, an architect turned psychic investigator, who develops the psychic ability to interact with ghosts after the tragic death of his wife due to a car accident. Rather than continue and finish his “dream home” he intended to build for he and his wife, Frank decides to use his newly developed psychic abilities to con people into believing their homes are haunted and in need of his services to rid their lives of paranormal entities… for a small fee of course.
He enlists the help of three ghosts played by Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe and John Astin (in a memorable role as The Judge) to help scare up business. However, after witnessing the death of a man by a spiritual entity in a black robe, Frank discovers a long-deceased killer has returned from beyond the grave in the form of Death itself, to continue a murder spree that began decades earlier, with ties to a local woman by the name of Patricia Ann Bradley (Dee Wallace). Frank must discover Death’s true identity and stop this murder spree before it consumes him entirely, all while an FBI agent (Jeffrey Combs), who had previously investigated Bannister for the death of his wife years earlier, is convinced Frank is the one responsible for these new deaths.
Upon initial release, the film was only able to bring in a total of approximately $29 million worldwide (on a $30 million-dollar budget). Jackson and Zemeckis wanted to release the film in October of 1996 but were forced to release it in July of 1996 instead at the studio’s demand. As a result, the film opened against films that were still pulling big box office numbers: Independence Day and The Nutty Professor. However, since its release on home formats such as VHS, DVD and Blu Ray, The Frighteners has garnered cult status amongst some horror fans.
What makes The Frighteners memorable is the performances by the ensemble cast. Michael J. Fox gives arguably his best performance outside of the Back to the Future trilogy as a man who is haunted by his past, while John Astin’s Judge steals every scene he is in with an over the top performance magnified by the excellent prosthetic makeup design by the legendary Academy Award winning makeup and effects designer Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London). Jeffrey Combs is another standout, giving an over the top performance as a demented FBI agent with masochistic tendencies and a gag reflex triggered by strong-willed women (he hates being yelled at). And let’s not forget R. Lee Ermey, who dishes out punishment the only way he knows how. See if you can spot the cameo by Peter Jackson in the film as well.
Although the technology may be dated by today’s standards, the visual effects in the film (which were done by Jackson’s company Weta Digital) are impressive for its time and were directly responsible for laying the groundwork for the visual effects that would be implemented in Jackson’s next venture, The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Jackson does a great job of creating a creepy tone throughout the film that is only magnified by the impressive score by long-time Tim Burton collaborator, Danny Elfman, with some scenes feeling authentic enough to be directly copied from a documentary on the Manson family. Jackson’s ability to mix horror and comedy comes to full fruition in this film.
One can only hope that Jackson returns to the world of horror sooner rather than later. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out this gem.