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THE FRIGHTENERS
Blu-ray Edition

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: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 110 Minutes (Theatrical Version), 123 Minutes (Director's Cut)
Release Date: September 13, 2011

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 ****

As awestruck as I was by the quality of the DVD release, I have to say that Universal definitely one-upped that presentation with this visually phenomenal Blu-ray release. Since this film basically has a visual delight per frame, whether it be a visual effect or the unique way Jackson has framed a particular shot, what this HD presentation adds up to is a two hour sheer delight for the eyes. The image detail is superb, to say the least, and that goes for both daytime and nighttime sequences, of which this film has an equal amount of. And though HD can reveal some age in effects that were considered revolutionary at the time, the visual effects still looking nothing short of remarkable, especially the moment where the Soul Catcher's identity is revealed!

Audio ****

To give you an idea of how the sound quality astounded me...I popped in the disc and started up the movie with my surround sound at a basic level, and when the opening theme kicked in during the Universal logo I couldn't believe the thunderous sound I was hearing when I knew for sure my sound wasn't even turned up (then again, this is a Danny Elfman score so that may be part of the reason). Needless to say, the DTS HD mix is quite simply scare-tacular (yep, I just made up a word there). Again, Danny Elfman's score remains a presentation highlight, and the many screams and loud sounds caused by the presence of the supernatural are rendered so magnificently in lossless sound, that you may end up questioning if your home is being haunted while watching it!

Features ****

Extras-wise, this basically contains all that was featured on the Director's Cut DVD release from about six years ago. However, that disc was a flipper with the movie on one side and most of the extras on the other. With the Blu-ray release, not only are the extras fitted onto one side, of course, but both the Theatrical Version and the Director's Cut are included as well. As far as the features go, we have a Special Introduction from Peter Jackson (on the Director's Cut only), as well as a wonderful commentary from Jackson (his first commentary and, again, is only featured on the Director's Cut). Also included is what remains one of the best making-of documentaries to grace any DVD/Blu-ray release. “The Making of The Frighteners” is a near 4 hour long look at the intriguing production, which Jackson himself insisted on capturing every bit of. You can watch this in its entirety or between 29 chapters. Rounding out the extras are the Storyboarding of Key Scenes and a Theatrical Trailer.

I will admit, though, I do wish the Blu-ray came with that awesome slipcover the DVD release had!

Summary:

The Frighteners is one film I couldn't wait to experience on Blu-ray, and as a loyal fan of this film I can definitely say that the upgrade is so incredibly worth it! Picture and sound quality, as amazing as they were on the original DVD, are about as perfect as one could ever ask for! It's a dead-on brilliant handling of what I still consider to be my absolute favorite Peter Jackson film to date!

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