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SYFY WIRE The Frighteners

Don’t Sleep On Peter Jackson's The Frighteners This Horror Season

This masterpiece from Peter Jackson and Michael J. Fox never had a chance, so you should give it one. 

By Brian Silliman

If you’ve never seen The Frighteners, then you are in for a treat. It is not at all what you think it is. Before Peter Jackson journeyed to Middle-earth for The Lord of the Rings, he directed and co-wrote this vastly underrated gem with Fran Walsh. It stars Michael J. Fox in the lead, and it is highly underrated. 

It is the season when horror movies reign supreme, and this overlooked gem is currently streaming on Peacock. (The Director’s Cut is superior, but it isn’t easy to find. You’ll do well enough with the version that you can stream right now.)

Fox stars as Franklin Bannister, a man who can see ghosts after he undergoes a horrible trauma. Together with his ghost pals, he performs fake exorcisms to con people out of their money. It’s a fun and wacky ghost movie, where Fox is guilty of all of the things that the Ghostbusters were once accused of! What a merry twist, and what a funny premise. Get ready for laughs!

The Frighteners (1996)

There are laughs to be had, but that’s not the movie. That’s what the movie was advertised as being, and it's a part of why it never had a chance. The studio liked the project very much, so they jumped the gun and made certain to destroy their precious. They bumped it up in the schedule; instead of an October release, they put it out on July 19, 1996. The Frighteners is many things, but it’s not a summer blockbuster. It was lost and forgotten.

It was not, however, forgotten by the few fans who had seen it. Like many of Jackson’s pre-Rings movies, The Frighteners quickly gained a cult following. Critics liked it too, and it has gotten some overdue admiration in the years since Jackson entered the mainstream. It’s still overlooked and misunderstood though, and that’s a shame.

It has some ghost gags, especially early on when you think the movie is going to focus on Bannister being a con man. The gags soon fade into the darkness, as the true trauma of Bannister’s past begins to unfold. He’s practically a ghost himself when the movie begins; a shell of who he once was. In facing his trauma, he comes back to life. Fox plays every single note to perfection, as you would expect. He’s funny, he’s charming, and he has a magical depth.

We don’t want to spoil anything, but this quirky tale transforms into the story of a cultish mass murderer. The quirks turn into genuine scares, and Jackson’s inventive directing style traps the viewer in the madness. When watching the movie, you can see the influence of his previous work (especially Heavenly Creatures) as well as how this movie influenced his style moving forward.

The Frighteners (1996)

Performances are fantastic across the board, with Trini Alvarado playing opposite Fox most of the time. The two of them form an endearing pair, and Fox has similar chemistry with Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe, the two actors who play the ghosts Cyrus and Stuart. Dee Wallace is on hand, and so are John Astin, and R. Lee Ermey. Jackson alum Melanie Lynskey pops up for a cameo. 

As great as everyone is, and as much as Fox is the necessary anchor for the movie, it all belongs to Jeffrey Combs.

The star of Re-Animator (and frequent recurring guest on multiple Star Trek shows) plays Milton Dammers, an FBI agent who has it out for Frank. This man has a specialty; he joins cults in undercover fashion to expose them. He has done this one too many times, and he's become unhinged as a result.

There is one specific scene with Dammers that will sell any horror fan on the movie. It involves mutilation. Once again, we don’t want to ruin anything — all we’ll say is that you’ll know the scene when you see it. Combs is beyond brilliant here, as he always is. The sky is a different color in Dammers’ world, and we are never privy to what color it might be. Combs delivers his devilish purr one moment, and then snap-screams the next. The escalation of his character is unexpected to say the least.

The same can be said of the entire movie. You won’t expect it to go where it goes, and you certainly won’t expect it to go as hard as it does. It’s not cute, and it’s not whimsy. It’s horrifying, and it is a sorrowful (yet hopeful) rumination on trauma at the same time. When trauma gets buried, ghosts will haunt you until it is dealt with.

We should also mention that the effects work, done by a fledgling Weta Digital and the already established Weta Workshop, is superb. Jackson and Co. were working with digital effects for the first time, as the movie often features ghosts interacting with humans. The lessons learned in digital effects (and the infrastructure that had to be created for the movie) led directly to this team being able to handle The Lord of the Rings.

The Frighteners (1996)

The studio wanted a PG-13 movie, and while Jackson tried to edit out some of the gore, it still ended up with an R rating. This is one place where the Director’s Cut proves its worth, as it revels in that rating from beginning to end.

With an R rating and a summer blockbuster release opposite Independence Day, this weird and inventive delight got F'ed in the A. The studio liked it enough to want Jackson to continue with them to make King Kong, but that project fell apart. It would have been very different from the masterpiece that Jackson eventually made in 2005.

Looking at Jackson’s movies, you'll find a bit of everything. There’s splatter (Dead Alive, Bad Taste), there’s the most disgusting movie ever made (Meet the Feebles), the greatest fantasy movies ever made (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit), the greatest remake ever made (King Kong), and the greatest mockumentary ever made (Forgotten Silver). There’s also the masterwork of Heavenly Creatures, a movie that defies description. The Lovely Bones is definitely underrated, but that's another article. 

In the middle of all of that, there’s The Frighteners. It has a little of everything, and it is a testament to Jackson, Walsh, Fox, Combs, and the entire team that it works at all. It doesn’t just float, it sails. It is a hellish work of art from beginning to end. It should not be missed.

Stream The Frighteners on Peacock right now.

*This story was originally published in October 2022.