Blu-Ray Review: THE FRIGHTENERS – Early Confirmation of Peter Jackson’s Genius

The early Peter Jackson gem that was cruelly over-looked at the box office, but which found its audience on DVD, is re-released in high-definition to mark its 15th anniversary.

Simon Gallagher

NUFC Editor

It should always be counted a massive tragedy that Michael J Fox was robbed of the opportunity to make more films by his health, because he made some of the best family films of his generation, in the Back to the Future Trilogy, as well as other classics like Teen Wolf, The Secret of My Suce$s and Doc Hollywood. Okay, so not everything he touched was gold, but the actor who rescued Marty McFly from the evils of being ginger and unfunny (from Eric Stoltz of course) has such an easy charisma that even now when he appears in cameos and brief guest runs on TV (where his career trajectory has found comfort since 1996 and Spin City) it’s hard not to love him.

And just before he stopped making movies (aside from voice work for Stuart Little and Atlantis) the same year that Spin City arrived on the small screen, Fox made what was arguably his finest film outside of the BTTF universe, and now that movie – The Frighteners is available on Blu-ray to mark its fifteenth anniversary. Way to make a reviewer feel old.

The film centres on Michael J Fox’s Frank Bannister, a psychic medium/investigator who cons his way to a living thanks to genuine ghostly skills and a team of three spectres who help him “haunt” marks’ homes before he appears to save the day. On one such house visit, Frank notices that his mark – Ray Lynskey – has a spectral number carved into his forehead, and then mysteriously ends up dead at the cold hands of a grim reaper style ghostly killer. Frank then decides to put his skills to real use, and uncover the secret of the killer, protecting Ray’s widow Lucy, as more and more locals appear with numbers on their foreheads, and Frank is suspected of committing the murders himself.

How easy it is to forget that before Peter Jackson got in with the hobbit crowd, he was already making some stand-out films, including the wonderful Heavenly Creatures, and the cult gems Braindead and Bad Taste. The Frighteners then was the moment that Jackson moved from making smaller films to join the proper Hollywood community, with a big star and a comparatively huge budget. It was also responsible for the development of a little company called Weta from a one computer show to a fully fledged effects company with 35 computers and some real pedigree. Yes, the effects now look less than magical, but at the time, they were stand-out and more than a little head-turning.

On its initial release, The Frighteners famously bombed, with audiences not quite getting the horror-comedy genre-bending that would become much bigger business in the following years, and the R rating taking away some members of the broader audience that Jackson was aiming at (he wanted a PG 13), and who would eventually find it on DVD. But the film is a joy – it meanders from pitch black and morbid comedy, to straight horror, and back to normal situational comedy in the space of a few scenes, and features a host of brilliant supporting performances, as well as trading well on Michael J Fox’s charm.

In those supporting roles, it is Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, R. Lee Ermey who steal the show, as creepy FBI agent Milton Dammers, serial killer Johnny Charles Bartlett (great killer name) and the ghostly Sgt Hiles respectively. Mentions must also go to Dee Wallace for her ability to flip from terrified victim to murderous hell-bitch seamlessly, and Peter Dobson as Elvis-loving (and resembling) Ray Lynskey in one of the film’s better comedic roles. More than anything, it seems that everyone involved on the acting side is having fun (though leading lady Trini Alvarado floats through in an Andy McDowell-lite style performance that seems at odds with the ornateness of everyone else on screen).

I would have no problem urging more recent Peter Jackson fans – such as those fed on his mega blockbusters – to revisit The Frighteners: it has bundles of charm, despite its darkness, and it shows real early commitment to make accessible horror for a broader audience, as well as offering an early look at Hollywood’s thirst for CGI before money and advancement made it even bigger business.

Quality

The best thing that can be said about The Frighteners is that it doesn’t look fifteen years old. The image is pretty clear and well-preserved throughout, with a pleasant amount of grain that fits in with the atmospheric and aesthetic  agenda of the film. Colours are occasionally unnatural, wavering especially noticeably in facial tones early on, with particular problems in outdoor scenes, which makes me think some over-c0mpensation went into some of the more bleached out ones. But for the most part, the colours are well transferred, bright and vibrant where necessary (though it isn’t an especially colourful film) and natural throughout.

Detail and texture are both fine though some is lost in the more grainy scenes, but at least there isn’t an awful lot of noticeable artefacting going on: it looks like Universal have simply ported over the same transfer as previously released as an HD which wasn’t a massive improvement on the DVD release in all honesty. Still, it looks reasonable and there at least isn’t the usual back catalogue stripping away of detail in an attempt to “clean everything up”.

Extras

Really, really annoyingly, the Extras are split between the two versions of the movie, so if you click the Extras option of the typically awful Universal menu (seriously, sort it out) from the first menu, it will show only the Making Of documentary, plus My Scenes and Storyboards, and you must navigate into the Director’s Cut Option, which brings up an identical main root menu, but reveals director Jackson’s 10th Anniversary Intro and a Commentary from that same DVD package once you navigate into the Extras option from there. So if you’re not curious enough to wonder whether the two identical looking Extras menu buttons reveal different things (and there’s no hint), you’ll probably miss the other extras.

Other than that, it’s the documentary Making Of that sticks out a mile as the best thing on the package, with Jackson’s typically amiable commentary also mixing insight and entertainment, in exactly the right sort of mix for a commentary.

  • Peter Jackson’s 10th Anniversary Intro
  • Director’s Cut Version of the Film
  • The Making of The Frighteners
  • Feature Commentary with Director Peter Jackson
  • Storyboards
  • My Scenes

The Frighteners is available to buy on Blu-ray now.