The Frighteners (4 Disc) Review
Frank Bannister is a psychic detective living in the small American town of Fairwater. Now you might think that such a town would not have need of a man like Frank but thanks to a near-death incident some years before, Frank has an ability to see and to communicate with the dead. So, Frank partners with three ghosts as well as a spirit dog - Judge (John Astin), Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Cyrus (Chi McBride) and Rustler - sending the in to the homes of unsuspecting families and having them toss plates, home appliances and even children about, after which Frank comes in and removes the spirits. Or rather he has prearranged with them a suitable time to leave.
But the traffic accident that almost killed Frank did rob him of his wife, who was found dead near the crash scene with the number 13 carved in her head. Despite being the suspect in the murder, Frank has no memory of what happened after the crash and was acquitted of any crime. Events in Fairwater take a more sinister turn when Frank begins seeing a spirit figure that resembles the Grim Reaper soon after the local newspapers begin reporting strange deaths. Then, in the restroom of a restaurant, Frank bumps into a man with the number 38 carved into his forehead in spirit writing, moments before the Grim Reaper reaches into his body and steals his soul. As the local police and press believe Frank to be involved - they're not sure how but someone as odd has him has to be in it somewhere - it's up to Frank to uncover the Grim Reaper and solve this mystery even if it means dying...
It's odd to have a director like Peter Jackson who, in spite of the success brought to him with The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, has a few lost movies lurking in his past. Most people will be aware of Bad Taste and Brain Dead to some extent - the former for its cover of an alien flipping the bird and the latter going, as Mark Kermode once described it, as far as anyone could take horror - and Heavenly Creatures is well-known not only for launching the career of Kate Winslet but for Jackson producing a mature, delicately made film that captured the horror of a true-life New Zealand Parker-Hulme murder. Amongst these films, though, sit the psychedelic muppet shock of Meet The Feebles, the mock-documentary Forgotten Silver and this, The Frighteners, Jackson's move out of independent filmmaking and into the Hollywood big league.
And yet you might still not have heard of it, which is neither surprising nor necessarily your fault. Indeed, it's probably fair to say that Jackson's failed, pre-Lord of the Rings attempt to remake King Kong is better known than The Frighteners as this just kind of slipped out without a great deal of fanfare but with some rotten reviews all of which asked the same question, is it a comedy or is it a horror? Sadly, most of these reviews came to the conclusion that it was neither - the normally-reliable but sometimes wildly erratic Roger Ebert gave it one star - and The Frighteners just kind of limped into a few theatres and back out again. Even Jackson's fans wondered if he'd deliberately downplayed the horror of The Frighteners in pursuit of a PG-13 rating, which, in the end, was denied him regardless. With King Kong snatched away from him after The Frighteners underperformed - it's likely that Universal balked at giving Jackson one of their prize assets to play with following the failure of this film - Jackson must have wondered if leaving his beloved New Zealand, if only to agree terms with the studio, was altogether a good decision.
Maybe not unloved but not very much liked either, The Frighteners is an interesting film for showing how much Jackson changed in the years between it and The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, I suspect that he took a long look at his style of filmmaking and asked himself if he was in some way responsible for the failure of The Frighteners. Looking at it now - to be fair, it's been some years since I last watched the film before now - The Frighteners looks a lot like early Peter Jackson, with the camera being appearing to be physically thrown about. Jackson says as much on the commentary that accompanies the Director's Cut of the film, saying that he felt an audience would get bored if the camera wasn't constantly moving but, on the contrary, they're more liable to feel confused if it does. Where The Frighteners has the freneticism of early Peter Jackson, closer to Brain Dead than anything else, it's a world away from the more static shots of The Fellowship of the Ring. Indeed, this looks like the work of a completely different director, which suggests that Jackson learnt much in the years between this and beginning his adaptations of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. This does, however, look completely out of place as a Hollywood release, being breathless with ideas where a different director, perhaps one not self-taught on indie horrors, would have simplified the story a little.
If, though, the barrage of ideas in Jackson's earlier films left you untroubled, then The Frighteners can be a very enjoyable experience. No, there's not quite enough of a story to sustain its running length - something that seems to be a criticism in Jackson's work even up to King Kong - but he's clearly having fun but a bigger budget and Weta, his effects house, really stretching themselves. The problem with The Frighteners is that this fun doesn't often bring the audience with it. There are, for example, a good many one-liners from Chi McBride's Cyrus but they're delivered at too rapid a pace and behind too many great visual effects to really work. Whilst following the gags may not seem that difficult, there's so much happening on the screen, particularly as the ghosts are transparent and you do find yourself looking through them rather than at them, it's a tough film to get that much out of on a single viewing. Watch The Frighteners a second or a third time and it becomes a much better film but, even then, its pacing is all over the place. Of course, there's many who would like Peter Jackson to return to making films, like this one, that are less than two hours and while the length is right, the structure is unbalanced. There's a long sequence in an abandoned hospital near the end that could have been five or ten minutes shorter whilst the film could have done with a little more scene-setting.
Unfortunately, this Director's Cut doesn't really fix that problem with The Frighteners remaining largely as it was, Peter Jackson only really tinkering with a scene here or there. There is, though, much more of Special Agent Dammers and, better still, more scene-setting but it's really only a little better than the Theatrical Cut. But that's fine - this is good film and though it's probably one of Peter Jackson's less-successful ones, it still has more ideas in a half-hour of its running time than the likes of Brett Ratner will manage in a lifetime. I grant you that's not saying a great deal but The Frighteners, for all that I've written here, is a very enjoyable film that, from being the bridge between New Zealand indies and Hollywood blockbusters, may be more important than its reputation might suggest.
From some concern that the old non-anamorphic R2 release might have found its way into this set, I'm surprised and pleased to say that not only does this set feature the Director's Cut but also an all-new transfer of the Theatrical Cut. The Frighteners now looks terrific as it is presented in this set, with it finally being transferred anamorphically onto DVD and with a much improved level of detail. Comparing the Director's Cut on this release to the old R2 release, the picture is slightly less green and, in all other respects, a huge improvement. Ordinary-looking on its first release, The Frighteners now looks very impressive with the immediacy of the image and its clarity making an impression in the film's opening minutes.
Existing Single-Disc R2
This Four-Disc Special Edition
Existing Single-Disc R2
This Four-Disc Special Edition
Existing Single-Disc R2
This Four-Disc Special Edition
Existing Single-Disc R2
This Four-Disc Special Edition
The audio tracks are perfectly acceptable on the Theatrical Cut - a Dolby Digital 5.1 is the default option - but are much improved on the Director's Cut, where the viewer has a choice of DD5.1 and DTS. Of the two, the DTS is clearly better with a much greater dynamic range, slightly more volume and an overall clarity to the soundtrack that makes it a treat to listen to as well as to watch. Overall, Universal have done a superb job with this transfer and makes the rather ordinary old one redundant.
Introduction (2m23s): Featuring Peter Jackson and looking as though it has been shot recently - he's as thin as he is during the King Kong post-production diaries - this describes Weta's early adventures with CG and how The Frighteners allowed Jackson and his Wingnut films to make the jump from independent New Zealand films to, eventually, The Lord of the Rings.
Following an Introduction (1m58s) by Peter Jackson, in which he describes recording a lot of behind-the-scenes material in the hope of, one day, producing a Special Edition on laserdisc, Disc Two begins in the months before work started on The Frighteners.
Ghost Stories (6m15s): The cast and crew arrange themselves around a virtual campfire to talk ghost stories and the supernatural, ending with Peter Jackson telling a tale of waking up one morning to find a screaming ghost at the foot of his bed. True or the product of a suppertime treat of cheese? Three years earlier Fran Walsh had seen the same ghost while she slept alone in bed and had never mentioned it to Peter Jackson...
Script Development (6m16s): Beginning with a story treatment, hatched during a walk alongside the ocean with Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson describes how The Frighteners came to be a lighthearted escape from Heavenly Creatures but which was then developed into a film with the backing of Robert Zemeckis. As Jackson got lost in Heavenly Creatures and Zemeckis began work on Forrest Gump, the two came back together after seven or eight months after which work began on The Frighteners in earnest. Interestingly, Jackson mentions that if anyone wants to know what the early drafts of the story were like then they ought to look for the novelisation of the film, which, rather than being based on the finished film, is adapted from an earlier script. As Jackson says, it was whilst standing in a bookshop flicking through the book that he realised the mistake but which was, by then, too late to do anything about.
Storyboarding (45m38s): Describing the jumping through storyboards on laserdiscs as being a frustrating experience, Peter Jackson asked that this section play out in the manner of the film complete with a commentary recorded specifically for this feature. However, as he also makes clear, only two-thirds of the film is storyboarded given that they ran out of time so this only goes up to the point where Frank Bannister temporarily crosses over to supernatural world in a bid to uncover the identity of the Soul Collector.
Michael J Fox & Trini Alvarado (6m46s): Featuring interviews with both of the stars of The Frighteners as well as Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis, this allows the two principal members of the cast to describe what attracted them to the project and how they found working in New Zealand and, on film at least, with the supernatural.
Jim Fyfe, Chi McBride & John Astin (8m04s): As with the previous feature, this allows the three ghosts in the film the opportunity to talk about the months of filming that they spent acting in front of a blue screen.
Rehearsing (6m39s): Michael, Jim and Chi return, alongside Peter Jackson, to describe the process of rehearsing the film. Fox laughs at the memory of watching Jackson use a camcorder to record only the sound of the rehearsals - it sounds on the ground pointed at a mug of coffee in the example we see - when a tape recorder would have been the most obvious choice. We also see footage from the film placed against the scene as it was being rehearsed, which is quite a rare extra and is an interesting way of seeing how the final script developed.
Lyttleton as Fairwater (3m20s): Or how to turn a small New Zealand village into an American one. Start with the street signs it would appear and borrow cars from the local American base for researchers heading towards Antarctica. In a nice little shot in this feature, Fox is seen talking to a group of local kids explaining how a movie is shot and how he's 108...in dog years. Regardless, though, the little girl just accepts it in a, "108, huh?" way.
Introduction to Weta (4m38s): Weta should be well-known to anyone who's viewed King Kong or any of The Lord of the Rings films and, in this feature, the familiar figure of Richard Taylor brings us into the creature shop. There doesn't appear to be any equivalent person for the CG side of Weta so we see Peter Jackson standing behind a man doing something technical on a Silicon Graphics workstation before John Labrie, Weta Systems Administrator, explains the process of creating digital effects on film.
Scene 28 (4m17s): Choosing one particular scene - where Frank arrives home with the ghosts in tow who then proceed to bicker over their side of the deal - Peter Jackson explains how it was completed to demonstrate to Robert Zemeckis how well Weta and Wingnut could operate in New Zealand without even being that near to Hollywood.
Ghost Effects (9m57s): Ask a lot of technical questions and you doubtless get a lot of technical answers but this feature avoids at least one part of that by simply wondering aloud what a ghost might look like before showing us clips from the film rather than attempting to describe it. Although, the special effects team can't quite help themselves when it comes to showing how a carsick ghost might vomit.
Motion Control & Bluescreen (8m00s): Go through the extra material on any recent action movie and there will be one that features the actors standing in front of a blue or green screen. This is no different but it does feature behind-the-scenes footage of blue-screen action on the street, whereby a couple of men chase an actor whilst carrying a large piece of blue cloth before colliding with a shop front.
The Jackson Boys (5m03s): As anyone who's watched a Peter Jackson movie before this knows, he does like to slip in a cameo appearance - or, in the cast of Bad Taste, the starring role - and The Frighteners is no different, with the director appearing with rings in his lips and a Grim Reaper T-shirt. The Frighteners also stars the three-month old Billy Jackson as one of the babies Stuart and Cyrus are sent to haunt with his father describing the difficulty of working with his own son and how cranky an actor of that age can get when their afternoon nap is interrupted.
Stunts (4m56s): At such a short length, this isn't about all of the stuntwork in the film but only those stunts performed by Michael J Fox. As Jackson and Fox explain, though, the accident that caused the production to shut down for a couple of weeks wasn't a stunt at all, simply Fox missing a step in the forest and breaking a couple of bones in his foot.
On The Set (26m00s): Without any introduction from Peter Jackson, this is just short of a half-hour of footage showing Peter Jackson setting up various shots during the making of the film. The video camera is there as a neutral observer and at no point does anyone in the cast or crew even acknowledge its presence other than a few interviews that break up the on-set footage.
The Reaper (12m58s): Don't fear the reaper is what Blue Oyster Cult advised us to do but the special effects crew at Weta were, if not afraid, then certainly concerned about how to bring it to the screen. Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson are on hand to describe their attempts to bring the Reaper to the screen. Rod models, stuntmen in suits, including one who was hospitalised, and one bolted to the top of a car that was driven through Lyttleton at night, which may have left a few concerned pensioners in its wake, were all tried and tested before Jackson settled on a CG Reaper, the tests for which are shown here.
Rustler (3m10s): ...or a feature about a ghost dog. Richard Taylor returns to explain how a bloodhound was brought into Weta to allow his creature shop to work up some models for the film. After that, the CG department show how they took those models into their workstations to animate the animal.
The Gatekeeper (1m52s): A character that didn't make it into the film - he's meant to be a sidekick to Lee Emery's drill sergeant - there's still some behind-the-scenes footage of a giant baby lifting Michael J Fox into the air.
Jeffrey Combs (7m25s): Agent Dammers is amongst the most memorable characters in the film - he's certainly a lot more unforgettable than Jake Busey's actual villain - and the makers of this DVD have brought him in for an interview that reveals each stage in the creation of a character. Funnier than the rest of the features here, there are great moments as Peter Jackson describes a character who, for 15 years, has worked for the FBI infiltrating Satanic and fascist cults without ever being deprogrammed, only building up the stresses in his work until, as the red butt ring suggests, he's left with a crippling haemorrhoidal problem as he defends his country.
Miniatures (2m53s): This is the final feature on the second disc and is only a short one, which gives Peter Jackson the chance to describe the use of miniatures on the film and how they allowed him to shoot the scene of Frank flying through the air out of the deep freeze and down to the graveyard.
Dee Wallace Stone & Jake Busey (6m56s): In the evil counterpart to the features starring Michael J Fox and others in the cast on the second disc, this sees Peter Jackson, Jake Busey and Dee Wallace Stone describing their characters. As the director describes casting Patricia, "who better than the mum from ET?"
Trini's Bruises (2m06s): Uh-huh...that a few bruises are worth a feature? Trini Alvarado returns to talk about her fight with Dee Wallace Stone and how - poor dear! - she suffered a scratch or two during shooting.
Slimeface & Blobman (7m15s): The shooting of the Reaper and the fight in the crypt sees Johnny Bartlett's face sliding down a tombstone and Frank Bannister wrestling what the producers call Blobman as the Reaper tries to return to its usual form. This feature sees Richard Taylor describe Weta's initial attempts to bring the creatures to the screen using models before Peter Jackson took the decision to give it to Weta Digital to animate.
Wallpaperman & Portraitman (4m13s): This is an accompanying feature to the one above that describes Dee Wallace Stone's fight with Wallpaperman and Michael J Fox's battle with Portraitman.
Acceleration (3m33s): Having given Weta Digital the chance to show their behind-the-scenes efforts in earlier features, this one allows Peter Jackson the opportunity to talk about his management of the effects team. When Universal pulled The Frighteners from its Halloween release to the summer, Weta had four months less than they had expected and Jackson talks about the problems involved when you go on a worldwide recruitment drive in the middle of making a film.
The Worm (3m39s): The Frighteners has a great glimpse of Hell in its final minutes - one that Fran Walsh was never happy with - which the artists at Weta Digital talk about with reference to their visit to a slaughterhouse for texture maps.
Deleted Scenes (17m10s): As mentioned earlier, The Gatekeeper didn't make it into the final film but the DVD offers the chance to look at its/his two scenes in the film, neither of which are as successful as the rest of the film. Not only is the look of the character up to scratch but, as Jackson admits, having a man-sized cherub in the movie does break The Frighteners' set of rules about ghosts. Following that, there are a few more scenes that were cut from the film - the initial cut was two-and-a-half hours long - including much more of John Astin's Judge and footage of a swastika on Agent Dammer's hand, gained, he explains, from being a sex slave in the service of Manson's Family at Spa Ranch.
Music (24m14s): Danny Elfman, who's responsible for the odd score on The Frighteners, is interviewed here, admitting how his love of Heavenly Creatures led to him working with Peter Jackson on this. Given the length of this feature, Elfman doesn't only talk about the music written for The Frighteners but also how music is used in a film to give a viewer clues as to where the plotting is going.
Bloopers (16m17s): Interspersed with interviews with the cast and crew, these bloopers cover a wide range of blown takes, from the cast laughing, through fluffed dialogue and on to Peter Jackson's giggling causing the actors to crack up. You, however, will be left looking a touch confused as the sixteen minutes of this pass you by.
Ratings & Final Thoughts (9m16s): Peter Jackson intended The Frighteners to be a PG-13 but thanks, among other things, to shotgun blasts in a door, the MPAA gave it an R rating. Unable to do anything to lower its rating, Jackson went back and honoured Dammer's exit with a much gorier death scene but, otherwise, left it untouched. Otherwise, Jackson, Jeffrey Combs and Jake Busey talk about the reaction that the critics had to The Frighteners and how this might have harmed its performance in the cinemas.
Finally, there is a Theatrical Trailer (2m03s) and the DVD Credits (1m34s).
Commentary: Given how many he's recorded for The Lord of the Rings and, one assuming, the forthcoming Extended Edition of King Kong, it's odd to hear Peter Jackson admitting that the commentary he's recorded for the Director's Cut of The Frighteners is his first. Initially, he sounds a little daunted by the idea of having to talk about his film for close on two hours but give him ten or fifteen minutes and he warms up to it, thereafter able to keep his track busy despite being on his own. Surprisingly, even after four blockbuster movies, Jackson still has remembers much about The Frighteners and once he relaxes into the commentary, he's spotting details in the background, reveals nods to his previous films - he points out the two appearances of Heavenly Creatures' Melanie Lynsky as well as a shot of Lynsky and Kate Winslet on the cover of a video case - and talks about cameo shots, including his own and those of his wife and his young son. Jackson also discusses the differences between the Theatrical Cut and this Director's Cut but the very best moment in the commentary is his watching the arrival of Jeffrey Combs in the film. Good though Combs is without Jackson, watching him is made all the better as the director giggles through the scene, never quite managing to finish his sentences.
If The Frighteners gets a four-disc boxset, what will Jackson's best film, Heavenly Creatures, get when it is finally honoured with a Special Edition. At this rate, I'd expect nothing less than four discs and preferably five, that last one being an album of Mario Lanza songs. As regards this release of The Frighteners, it is an exceptionally full set with there being almost nothing more that could have been added. More impressive than the three-disc sets that are available elsewhere - the difference being this set has included the original Theatrical Cut where others do not - this is an outstanding release that is proof of what can be achieved when a director puts his full weight behind a DVD. Granted, Peter Jackson was at something of a loose end when this was being produced for a laserdisc release but, even being made for the last generation of technology, it's a hugely impressive achievement.