The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of ‘80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.
Before he went and made the greatest fantasy epics of all time, Peter Jackson made his name with over-the-top gonzo fare like Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive a.k.a. Braindead. After he switched gears to the grounded psychological drama Heavenly Creatures, Hollywood began to take notice of the New Zealand filmmaker. Famed director/producer Robert Zemeckis swooped up Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh in the hopes that they would write a script for a film that would act as a spin-off to the highly successful Tales from the Crypt television show. After reading the script, Zemeckis handed off directing duties to Jackson.
That film would end up being 1996’s The Frighteners.
The story revolves around Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox in his to-date last lead on-screen performance in a feature film), a washed-up architect who has gained the ability to see ghosts after a tragic accident that claimed the life of his wife. He parlays this power into setting up hauntings that he then exorcises for a hefty fee. Unfortunately, it turns out that a real malevolent spirit is stalking around town and killing people, and Frank ends up running afoul of this spectral serial killer.
After all that factual preamble, it’s time for me to let out a big sigh and start gushing about The Frighteners. Because this is a gushworthy flick. Jackson takes all of the kinetic filmmaking he honed from his previous projects and pumps into a movie that is bursting with fun and smarts in every moment. The script by Jackson and Walsh is superb with its world-building and mythology. We get a confident pacing when it comes to introducing us to how this fantasy works and what it’s like for these characters to live in this world. For a movie that has to take a familiar concept — ghosts — and give us new rules about them, The Frighteners is a masterclass in getting an audience to buy into your high concept.
It should also be noted that The Frighteners is overflowing with a phenomenal cast. This will probably cause a flurry of comments, but Fox’s performance as Frank Bannister rivals and in some ways tops his iconic role of Marty McFly. Frank is a funny scoundrel that ends up having a truly dark and painful past, and Fox plays the character with just the right balance of humanity and cartoon charm. Not to mention ridiculously entertaining turns from Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace Stone, John Astin, and Jake Busey. This is a dream team of genre actors and they are let loose with the kind of abandon we don’t see a lot in mainstream horror offerings. It really is a treasure trove of performances.
Plus, The Frighteners is steeped in the kind of spook-a-blast shenanigans that would make Sam Raimi proud. The movie deftly walks the line between horror and comedy, never tumbling over too far into one genre or the other like most genre hybrids. It’s astounding to see how broadly appealing the film’s tone is without ever coming off as pandering or neutered. Watching The Frighteners today feels like you’re watching a movie that should have been a blockbuster hit.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Though, The Frighteners has shored up a healthy cult following in recent years. Some of that is thanks to the director’s cut of the film being released on home video. The current Blu-ray release features both the director’s cut and the theatrical version. My advice: if you’re watching The Frighteners for the first time, go with the theatrical version. The director’s cut adds 12 minutes of additional character beats that are fun and functional, but those beats work best for people who are already on board with the movie and want a little something extra.
Regardless of what version you see, you should see The Frighteners. It’s the kind of crowdpleaser that should be a part of anyone’s Halloween viewing schedule. It’s an infectiously delightful film that delivers horror, comedy, and even some affecting drama in equal parts. When it comes to ‘90s horror, The Frighteners should be regarded as one of the decade’s absolute best.