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Peter Jackson
Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace-Stone, Jake Busey, Chi McBride
Writing Credits:
Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson

No Rest for the Wicked.

Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, a small-town 'ghostbuster' in league with the very spirits he's supposed to be exorcising. The scam works well until a powerful spirit goes on a murderous rampage, forcing Frank to find a way to stop the diabolical ghoul in this special-effects-packed supernatural chiller that's so fiendishly entertaining, it's frightening!

Box Office:
$30 million.
Opening Weekend
$5.565 million on 1669 screens.
Domestic Gross
$16.524 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 122 min.
Price: $26.98
Release Date: 11/29/2005

Side One
• Audio Commentary with Director Peter Jackson
• DVD Introduction from Peter Jackson
• Storyboards
• Trailer
Side Two
• “The Making of The Frighteners” Documentary


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Frighteners: Director's Cut (1996)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 21, 2005)

Back in 1996, who figured it would take Peter Jackson five years to produce another film after that year’s The Frighteners? And who figured his next flick would be a huge hit after Frighteners tanked? But that’s what happened, as 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring made $314 million, or about $298 million more than the sad $16 million gross of Frighteners.

What makes New Line’s $300 million gamble on Jackson more remarkable is that Frighteners was easily the biggest money-grabber of the director’s career through 1996. He made a name critically with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, but it didn’t earn much money. At least that inexpensive effort may have turned a profit, unlike Frighteners, which barely grossed half of its $30 million budget.

So chalk one up for the visionaries at New Line, as they clearly saw something in Jackson not backed up by his track record. Don’t take all of this talk as an indication that Frighteners is an artistic failure, however. While not a consistently satisfying flick, it has its moments and proves more than watchable.

Frighteners packs a lot of information into its early moments. Much of the material focuses on “psychic investigator” Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox). A low-rent ghostbuster, he uses a stable of spooks to help him con folks out of money. This group includes nerdy Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Seventies relic Cyrus (Chi McBride) and western gunslinger “The Judge” (John Astin). Once an architect, Frank lives in an unfinished house he started to build with his wife Debra (Angela Bloomfield) before her untimely demise in a car wreck. This occurred a few years earlier and left Frank with the ability to see ghosts.

The quiet town of Fairwater has seen better days, as there’s been a serious rash of deaths lately. These all resemble heart attacks but befall citizens with no signs of disease. We also learn that Fairwater had a dark past, as former hospital orderly Johnny Charles Bartlett (Jake Busey) went on a shooting spree that killed 12 in 1963. His then-15-year-old girlfriend Patricia Ann Bradley (Nicola Cliff) acted as an accomplice. Johnny got the chair, but Patricia was placed in custody until five years earlier, when she was released into her mother’s (Julianna McCarthy) care. There she remains as a 40-something woman (Dee Wallace-Stone).

We meet Patricia and her mother when a new doctor comes to check on them. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) arrived in Fairwater three months earlier along with her obnoxious yuppie husband Ray (Peter Dobson). Their paths intersect with Frank’s when he accidentally crashes into Ray’s lawn. Frank stages a haunting of the Lynskey home to cover the debts he otherwise can’t pay.

During this routine, Frank sees something startling: the number 37 emblazoned on Ray’s forehead. The digits begin to mean something when Ray becomes the next victim of the mysterious heart attacks, and Frank starts to view numbers on others who soon collapse and die.

His closeness to the victims causes suspicions among the authorities. They believe Frank may be a killer, and freaky FBI investigator Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) takes over the investigation. In the meantime, Frank gets to know Lucy better and he develops theories about the “Grim Reaper” figure behind the killings. The movie follows these issues and Frank’s attempts to ward off more deaths – including Lucy’s.

When I saw Frighteners theatrically, I found it to be eminently forgettable. Perhaps expectations had something to do with this. I recall the movie being touted as a more comedic fare than it actually was. Frighteners much more strongly embraces the horror genre than the Ghostbusters side of things. Sure, it easily qualifies as a dark comedy, but the tone remains creepy and violent much of the time.

I didn’t see Frighteners again until I watched the “Director’s Cut” on laserdisc when it arrived in 1998. At that time, I found the movie to be much more satisfying. That’s partly because the extra 14 minutes or so found in the “Director’s Cut” flesh out the story, but I think it’s also because I knew better what to expect. When taken on its own terms, Frighteners can be reasonably satisfying.

However, I don’t want to go nuts here and acclaim Frighteners as some neglected classic. In no way can I consider it anything great, or even especially good. The main issue stems from the fractured narrative and jagged storytelling. Particularly in the first half of the movie, it feels like something of a mess. While Jackson proved able to balance a mix of threads well in the Rings films, here he encounters troubles. All those lines battle for prominence and don’t mesh together terribly well. This leaves us somewhat confused about where the film plans to go and not sure what to care about and what to discard.

And this was even worse in the theatrical edition – at least the “Director’s Cut” makes matters more coherent. I still think the first half meanders too much and feels unsure of itself. Jackson firms up matters much better in the second half. That occurs partly because he more clearly embraces the horror. The half-assed Ghostbusters bit goes out the window as the movie turns into a battle against an extremely powerful dark agent. The occasionally goofy moment still pops up, but Jackson appears more comfortable when he strictly goes after the scares and action.

I’ve now seen Frighteners four times. In addition to the theatrical viewing, the old “Director’s Cut” LD and this new DVD with the longer version, I watched the original edition on a DTS LD back around 2001. Every time I check it out, I change my opinion of it. My feelings bounce up and down from mildly negative to moderately pleased to very positive.

Right now, I’d count The Frighteners as flawed but intriguing. It can’t tell its story very well, and at times it doesn’t seem sure where it wants to go, but it packs in enough good elements to make it enjoyable. That opinion might change next time I watch it, but currently I still like the flick.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus A

The Frighteners appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this double-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite many gorgeous moments, the transfer lacked enough consistency to earn a grade on the “A” level.

For the most part, sharpness was excellent. A few wider shots betrayed minor softness, an issue influenced by some light edge enhancement. However, the majority of the flick looked very concise and well-defined. I discerned no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, but source flaws created distractions. I noticed occasional examples of specks and grit through the film. Though these never became heavy, they still appeared more frequently than I’d like.

I can’t say I anticipated a bright palette from a ghost story, but Frighteners managed to present a surprisingly broad color template. And it did so well, as the hues always looked dynamic and lively. Blacks came across as dark and tight, while shadows were smooth and concise. Consider this one to be a very strong “B+” image.

Although the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of The Frighteners boasted quite a few standout moments, some auditory issues caused problems. Actually, my only true complaint related to bass response, but that area was such a distraction that it sometimes negated the positives. Low-end usage tended to be awfully loud, and it overwhelmed the rest of the material.

Otherwise, audio quality was solid. Speech always sounded distinctive and natural, with no edginess or other concerns. Effects were accurate and firm. Were it not for the low-end thump that came with so many of those elements, they would have been very good. Music was dynamic and lively; at least the excessive bass didn’t translate to poor reproduction of the score.

Frighteners presented a fairly active soundfield. While it didn’t go nuts, the many ghost-related moments gave it room to expand. Those elements zipped and zoomed around the room to create a good sense of the settings. The mix remained more subdued during moments without spirits, but since so many of those occurred, the track came to life quite frequently. Add to that good stereo imaging for the music and this was a satisfying soundfield. The mix as a whole would have been a “B+” or an “A-“ with tighter bass, but the loose low-end left it with a “B”.

An adaptation of the 1998 laserdisc, this DVD mostly replicates materials from that set. It spreads these across its two sides. For something new, we find an introduction from director Peter Jackson. In this two-minute and 39-second clip, Jackson talks about the film’s influence on Lord of the Rings, its connection to the rest of his career, and changes made for the Director’s Cut. Jackson provides a nice little intro for the film.

We hear more from Jackson in his running, screen-specific audio commentary. At the start, the director expresses some anxiety about the prospect of chatting for two hours. He needn’t have worried, as he fills the time well.

Jackson covers all the expected issues. He talks about changes made for the “Director’s Cut”, working with the actors, locations and sets, visual effects, story and character points, the movie’s tone and original rating, various trivia and challenges along the way. Jackson proves amiable and informative as he gives us a good look at the production.

As I noted, this commentary repeats from the 1998 laserdisc. This fact may irritate some who want a new commentary, but I have no complaints about it. For one, it enjoys historical value since it was Jackson’s first-ever commentary and it presents a point of view he could no longer offer. It’s interesting to hear Jackson between films and before he became rich and powerful. In addition, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Jackson covered the film well in 1998 – why try to re-do that?

Also on Side One, we get a 45-minute and 35-second collection of Storyboards. On the old LD, these simply acted as one chapter of the main documentary, but here they get their own section. After an intro from Jackson, we see all of the storyboards created for the film. These cover the first two-thirds or so of the flick; they end when Frank battles the Reaper in the cemetery. (As Jackson tells us, they didn’t have time to finish the boarding process.)

Jackson offers commentary along with the drawings, so we learn about changes made for the final product and the reasons for the variations. I like the fact we get all of the boards. While I’m not a big storyboard fan, it’s cool to be able to see every one they created. The inclusion of boards not filmed and Jackson’s commentary makes this a particularly valuable component, though, and means it becomes a very worthwhile element.

Moving to Side Two, the sole attraction comes from The Making of The Frighteners. That may not sound like much, but since this documentary runs three hours, 43 minutes and 38 seconds, I can’t imagine too many folks will complain.

Matters open with a new 111-second intro from Jackson, as he lets us know about the LD history of the piece. From there the documentary uses the standard format, as we get movie snippets, behind the scenes footage, and interviews. We hear from Jackson, executive producer Robert Zemeckis, creature effects designer Richard Taylor, Weta systems administrator Jon Labrie, CG supervisor Matt Aitken, CG supervisor John Sheils, visual effects supervisor Wes Takahashi, CG supervisors Wayne Stables and Gray Horsfield, character animators Christian Rivers and Kyle Balda, composer Danny Elfman, technical director Stephen Regelous, digital effects producer Charlie McClellan, and actors Jim Fyfe, Trini Alvarado, Michael J. Fox, Chi McBride, John Astin, Jake Busey, Jeffrey Combs, and Dee Wallace Stone.

The show goes through the creation of the script and the development of the project, casting and characters, rehearsals, improvisation and additional changes to the screenplay. From there we move through New Zealand locations and making the area look like the US, practical and CG effects and issues related to those areas, ghost and Reaper design, acting challenges and Jackson’s cameo. The program continues with the actors’ stunts and injuries, deleted scenes and characters, miniatures, time pressures due to a release date change, the movie’s score and sound design, the film’s theatrical rating, and final thoughts.

Back in its day, LD fans regarded this as a groundbreaking documentary. Now that we’re in this day, it still looks pretty amazing. It certainly qualifies as one of the longest documentaries made to supplement a movie; indeed, it may remain the longest of them all.

But size isn’t everything, so it becomes important that “Making” delivers the goods. That it does. We get a terrific feel for the production and receive a great deal of information about all the appropriate areas. We also see many fine shots from the set, elements that come to the spotlight during one 26-minute montage of those pieces. Even the bloopers are pretty good, such as when Fox forgets he’s not making another Back to the Future movie. Combined with the storyboards on Side One, this becomes an exhaustive but still very entertaining and engaging piece.

I’m happy that Peter Jackson’s success finally prompted Universal to release the extended cut of The Frighteners on DVD. It’s an erratic flick but a generally entertaining one. While it doesn’t compare to Jackson’s better-known efforts, it has more than enough good moments to make it enjoyable. The DVD offers reasonably good picture and audio along with an excellent set of extras. A very solid DVD for an interesting movie, I definitely recommend this release.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.9285 Stars Number of Votes: 14
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