The Frighteners ★★★

The Frighteners is such an odd mess of a film. This might be down to where it came in Peter Jackson's career. It's partly a desire to return to the simple splatter films he made before the 'respectability' of Heavenly Creatures, as well as wanting to go through the doors to the mainstream that had now opened up to him.
So, at the start of the film we think we know what to expect when we see Robert Zemeckis' name in comically ghostly lettering, and hear Danny Elfman's jauntily spooky score. And the first part of the film is tonally very Beetlejuice, with Michael J. Fox as phoney 'ghostbuster' Frank Bannister who enlists real ghosts to haunt places in order to drum up business. Frank's work collegues are a collection of comedy cartoony ghosts who do goofy things like chase after ghost dogs that have made off with their jawbone, and make babies fly around people's rooms in order to scare the parents into hiring Frank.

By the end of the film, however, the tone is much darker, more horrific as it centres on a pair of lovebird serial killers in the mould of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugit, on a shotgun and scythe killing spree. Frank's ghost pals play less and less of a role as the movie progresses until the are 'killed off', and so they play no part whatsoever in the climactic fight.

Each part of the movie is a lot of fun, but the constant shifting of gears is clearly a result of what Jackson admits in the audio commentary: that the film started shooting before the script was even finished. It's very overcrowded, with far too many unnecessary characters vying for space, like R. Lee Ermey turning up pointlessly to re-do his drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, and the character of Special Agent Milton Dammers (Re-Animator's Jeffrey Combs), who is a brilliantly bizarre creation but one who is essentially a third antagonist.

Over-indulgence and lack of restraint has been a trait of Peter Jackson's since finishing Heavenly Creatures, and the glut of characters and special effects and wild ideas in The Frighteners point the way to his wearisomely over-egged King Kong and the mind-bogglingly exhaustive Lord of the Rings extended edition DVDs.
Few films warrant a three hour forty-five minute making-of documentary, but The Frighteners gets one, along with an extra forty-five minute thing on the storyboards alone. This kind of material is usually reserved for the DVD releases of canonical epics and the like, so it does provide a good insight into the creative process behind a mid-range movie. The doc also covers the early and extensive use of CGI in making the film, but, as we have come to expect now, it boils down to being just a bunch of computer gonks pointing to some vector graphics on a screen, and is not exactly gripping.

Having not seen the film in years I was pleased to find that it's still good for a laugh. Lots of weird and novel ideas floating around, and when it gets dark it gets dark. Michael J. Fox handles the shifts in tone well and does a good job of playing a man who is haunted by more than just goofy ghosts. How sad and strange it feels that this was to be his last starring role in a movie, and only just over ten years after Back to the Future.