“The Frighteners” is out of the ordinary run of things. The kind of major commercial project that usually comes from slick, standard-issue directors, it arrives this time courtesy of New Zealand’s dark and eccentric Peter Jackson, with results that are saucy, scary and pleasantly unsettling.
Best known for the reality-based “Heavenly Creatures,” his most recent film, Jackson had an earlier career as the splatter impresario behind “Bad Taste” and “Brain Dead.” In “The Frighteners” he returns closer to those roots, making a movie so busy and chaotic it creates the illusion of careening out of control directly in front of us.
Working as usual with co-writer Frances Walsh (who also shared the “Heavenly Creatures” screenplay Oscar nomination), Jackson has added individuality to this audience picture and come up with a brash comedy of the paranormal that gets increasingly unnerving as it goes along.
Structured like a fun-house attraction, “The Frighteners” is full of red herrings, wrong turns and things that simply pop up and scare the unwary. This is no neat and tidy venture but a messy comic nightmare whose twisty plot moves too fast to worry that it has stopped making sense.
Typical is the film’s gangbusters opening scene, set in a creaky old house on a dark and stormy night and laden with spooky Danny Elfman music, terrified women screaming things like “The wicked will be punished” and an unidentified strange shape that can push out walls in pursuit of its victims. It’s a kick to watch, but trying too hard to integrate it into the movie that follows would be a mistake.
The protagonist of “The Frighteners” is Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), a low-rent psychic who trolls for clients in the small town of Fairwater’s cemetery when he’s not busy spraying holy water with a squirt gun and calling it a spirit clearance.
Peaceful though its surface is, Fairwater is a good spot for a psychic. The town is in the midst of an inexplicable string of sudden departures, each victim felled by a massive heart attack, that has the local newspaper running headlines about “The Shadow of Death.”
And that’s not the first time this hamlet has trafficked in blood. Shown in flashback is the murderous rampage of Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), a berserk orderly who gunned down a dozen with the help of his 15-year-old girlfriend Patricia Bradley. Johnny was captured and executed, but Patricia (Dee Wallace Stone) lives on with her aged and sinister mother (Julianna McCarthy).
New in town is Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado), married to the oafish Ray (Peter Dobson). Unconcerned that the whole town considers Frank Bannister a charlatan, she gives him a call when plates start flying around her house and the bed gyrates like it’s possessed.
It is “The Frighteners’ ” central and clever conceit that Bannister is a con man, but not in the way anyone suspects. As a result of a traumatic event in his past, he has the ability to see and communicate with the spirits of the dead, especially those emanations condemned to stick around Earth for a time.
Ever entrepreneurial, Bannister employs three of these spirits to mock-terrorize households like the Lynskeys’ so he can burst through the door and demand a fee to stop the madness. “I can do a clearance,” he likes to say, “but it’s not going to be cheap.”
Bannister has a trio of helpers, the nerdy Stuart (Jim Fyfe), ‘70s fashion victim Cyrus (Chi McBride) and an ancient gunfighter named the Judge (John Astin) who complains that “death ain’t no way to make a living.” Thanks to the same kind of computer-enhanced special effects that created the ghosts in “Casper,” these spirits and several others perform both effectively and efficiently.
The film’s actors are equally pleasing. Both Fox, in his most successful starring role in some time, and Alvarado, who looks rather like Andie MacDowell here, have no difficulty getting into the manic spirit of things. Worthy of special mention is Jeffrey Combs (star of “Re-Animator”) who clearly relishes the role of Milton Dammers, the kind of FBI agent who could bring J. Edgar Hoover back from the dead.
“The Frighteners’ ” plot gets crazily complex as patterns appear to develop in all those deaths and Bannister attempts to put a stop to them. Fortunately director Jackson, at home with all kinds of excess, keeps everything spinning nicely, not even losing a step when the mood turns increasingly disturbing.
Jackson also had sense enough to emphasize the tongue-in-cheek nature of the proceedings by playing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” over the closing credits. He’s one filmmaker who certainly doesn’t.
* MPAA rating: R, terror/violence. Times guidelines: intense but non-bloody attacks by spirits of the dead.
Michael J. Fox: Frank Bannister
Trini Alvarado: Lucy Lynskey
Peter Dobson: Ray Lynskey
John Astin: The Judge
Jeffrey Combs: Milton Dammers
Dee Wallace Stone: Patricia Bradley
Jake Busey: Johnny Bartlett
A Wingnut Films production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Peter Jackson. Producers Jamie Selkirk, Peter Jackson. Executive producer Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay Fran Walsh & Peter Jackson. Cinematographers Alun Bollinger, John Blick. Editor Jamie Selkirk. Costumes Barbara Darragh. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Grant Major. Art director Dan Hennah. Set dresser Jill Cormack. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.