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THE FRIGHTENERS
Director's Cut

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Dee Wallace Stone, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, Chi McBride
Director: Peter Jackson
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 123 Minutes
Release Date: November 29, 2005

“I gotta have an out-of-body experience…and I gotta have it RIGHT NOW!”

Film ****

When I first saw The Frighteners nearly a decade ago, I found it to be a superbly made B movie; kind of like Ghostbusters on acid. With repeated viewings, I’ve come to find it a most remarkable piece of filmmaking. In addition, the movie is far more original than you might expect.

Looking back, the film serves as in important mark in director Peter Jackson’s career. Prior to this movie, Jackson was an acclaimed filmmaker on the rise, having already achieved success in his native New Zealand with the horror release Braindead and the riveting thriller Heavenly Creatures. The Frighteners was Jackson’s first big budget production, and the first one to showcase his one of a kind use of computer effects. So it’s safe to say that this movie very much paved the way for the astonishing visual effects in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.

Although it’s clear that moviegoers everywhere will remember Jackson for LOTR, The Frighteners is a movie experience to never be forgotten. And the good news is that this already entertaining film is even better in this new Director’s Cut. Jackson has added 14 minutes of footage that add an even stronger level of depth to the story.

The movie, as it is, is a mind-blowing mix of horror, supernatural thriller, outlandish comedy and amazing visual effects that are nothing short of awe-inspiring. The story involves Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, in one of his best performances), a friendly paranormal investigator who operates in the quiet little town of Fairweather, California. He runs his own business, and is called in by townsfolk who are having unexpected encounters with all kinds of poltergeists.

However, Bannister’s real profession is that of a con artist. He carries the ability to see ghosts, and with this gift he uses it to scam customers, with the help of his dead partners Cyrus (Chi McBride), Stuart (Jim Fyfe) and Judge (John Astin). He dispatches them to sneak into homes and terrorize people, leaving an open door for him to display his phony ghost-busting.

Why is Bannister scamming people? Why did he give up his previous job to do so? How is he able to see spirits of the dead? Answers to those and other question are about to be revealed as Bannister discovers a ghoulish force has arrived in town with intentions of administering a lengthy killing spree. This evil spirit, known as the Soul Catcher (donning a grim reaper-like cloak and armed with a life-size scythe), can also wipe out the very innocent ghostly spirits that only Bannister can see. It kills by literally ripping souls out of human bodies, making it look as if they had a massive heart attack.

Bannister and his dead sidekicks set out to stop the Soul Catcher’s massacre, but it won’t be the easiest thing in the world to accomplish. For one thing, the killings seem to point to him as a suspect, since most of Fairweather think Bannister is crazy from claiming to see the dead. Another thwart is a phobic FBI agent named Demmers (Jeffery Combs of Re-Animator, hamming it up brilliantly), who’s so paranoid about the tiniest things that he makes Monk seem normal by comparison.

What Jackson has done here is constructed a movie that mixes the best of both worlds in cinema, and it’s a talent he’s maintained to this day. He gives the movie a remarkable energy, unleashing some truly astonishing effects, while allowing time for the story to develop so that the viewer can become even more engaged in the story. An example; after witnessing the Soul Catcher slay numerous victims, we are given answers to those questions mentioned earlier concerning Bannister. Is there a possible connection between him and the killings?

Although it seems that in today’s movie market, special effects tend to big a bigger priority than the handling of the screenplay, certain movies can be capable of making the effects more special, which is something The Frighteners certainly does. To this day, I’m shocked that it didn’t garner any nominations for sound or visual effects. There are so many sequences here will marvel your senses (the look and movement of the Soul Catcher is a pure feast for the eyes). And a later scene where someone makes a temporary trip to the other side will simply knock your socks off.

This is quite simply, in my opinion, a movie that never slows down and gets better and better with every scene, even if it does require you to suspend a great deal of disbelief (after all, this is a supernatural movie). If anything, it illustrated Peter Jackson’s ability to craft a film driven by both amazing visuals and engaging storytelling. Jackson, in the introduction to the movie, states that The Frighteners is, to this day, a most important film in his career. I couldn’t agree more, sir!

BONUS TRIVIA: Peter Jackson can be spotted in a brief scene as the pierced/bearded bystander who Bannister bumps into.

Video ****

Visual glory! Universal’s reissue of this film is in true fantastic form. The look of a movie is crucial when Peter Jackson is directing, and this is no exception. There isn’t a single shot in the movie that isn’t without some level of grand detail, or distinct amount of light and color. The presentation even holds up during several darkly lit sequences, including the climax of the movie. The picture also delivers the highest quality in terms of visual effects, which look even more astonishing. In short, this is truly one reference quality disc.

Audio ****

Again, I ask, how did the Academy let this go unnoticed in the Best Sound category? Believe me when I tell you that this is one 5.1 mix that will make good use of your sound system. From the opening scene all the way to the last shot, this sound presentation will rock your senses to the point that you’ll think something’s creeping to get you in your home. Every element from dialogue to scare scenes to outlandish action to Danny Elfman’s lively score is in top-notch effect. Hands down, one of the best sounding discs out there!

Features ****

Though the disc is a flipper, Universal and Peter Jackson have done the DVD collector’s absolute justice by including special features that are very special indeed. Included on the disc is Special Intro to the film by Peter Jackson, Storyboarding of key scenes, with commentary by Peter Jackson, a feature length commentary by Jackson ( a great and informative one), a theatrical trailer, “The Making of The Frighteners”, a brilliantly in-depth documentary on the making of the film which features interviews as well as the following:

Outrageous bloopers - Lost Footage Found: The Gatekeeper, The Judge and other deleted scenes - Ghost Stories: Jackson and actor Jim Fyfe share their actual, personal encounters with ghosts - Script Development: Jackson describes taking an idea from the treatment stage to a full shooting script - Behind-the-scenes cast rehearsal - Extensive exploration of the spectacular special effects, motion control and blue-screen techniques - Introduction to Jackson's visual-effects facility, WETA- Close-up look at the use of miniatures.

Summary:

As far as DVD re-issues are concerned, the new Director’s Cut of The Frighteners is one of the best to ever grace the format. I’m here to state that if you’re only familiar of Peter Jackson through Lord of the Rings, then you owe it to yourself to discover this dead-on original piece of extravagant filmmaking. If you’re already a fan of it, then you’re in for a real treat!

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