The Frighteners (1996)

Marty McFly, Ghost Whisperer.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) isn’t the most moral man around, but he gets by with what he can; which is showing up to funerals of the recently-deceased and throwing his business cards around, in which he goes under the title “paranormal expert”. Some believe it’s phony bologna, others like Lucy Lunskey (Trini Alvarado), believe he really can speak and reason with the dead. And they aren’t incorrect in their thinking either, it’s just that maybe they don’t quite know how much Frank does in fact talk to these ghosts. In fact, he talks to them all the time and even has a scam-plan running with them where he’ll tell the ghosts where to go and whom to spook, so that he can get a call, show up and practically save the day, all for a healthy price, of course. So yeah, he may be a bit of a scam-artist, but he’s making a living at doing it and nobody knows how he is, so there’s no problem with that a single bit. That is until the Grim Reaper shows up and tries to put all of Frank’s, as well as his fellow ghouls’ shenanigans to a much-needed, much long rest. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m talking about death. He’s going to get rid of them forever.

Since Peter Jackson was making his name pretty well-known during the early 90’s in his native New Zealand, it only makes sense that eventually Hollywood would catch on, give him a call and see what they can do about making him a bigger name in their neck of the woods. Just ask any foreign director who made their names known with a big hit on their shoulders, and they’ll practically tell you that Hollywood has a knack for doing this, and the results usually aren’t pretty. Sometimes they can be, but other times, they don’t quite work out as well as maybe the Hollywood producers had originally planned on.


This is one of those cases.

Don’t get me wrong though, it isn’t like Peter Jackson’s inspired vision was ever lost in the process of this movie being made, edited and marketed to a wider audience. In fact, I’d probably wager that that’s where the main problems for this movie arises in that he couldn’t quite make up his mind as to whom he wanted to appeal to, other than just his usual band of misfits who loved all of his movies before his big break in Hollywood. That’s why there’s a slight problem with this movie and it’s tone; it never quite knows whether it wants to be a dark comedy about death, the after-life and the effect it has on those who are alive, or a slap-stick, full-blown comedy about a bunch of silly willy ghosts that like to do crazy things, even if they are just souls floating throughout the atmosphere. Jackson never quite finds that balance either, and it becomes painfully clear that this flick would have definitely benefited from that.

Then again though, I have to give Jackson still a bunch of credit for at least sticking to his vision, and making this something of his own natural beast. Every moment of horror, sprinkled with just a dash of humor, feels exactly like something you’d get from a Jackson movie, even if there aren’t loads and loads of blood or gore thrown all over the place. It’s weird that even though this is an R-rated movie, that there wasn’t as many ketchup packets to be seen here. It’s not like there were too many moments arouse that needed a nice helping of some red paint, but it wasn’t like the movie was necessarily supposed to be tame or anything. But still, Jackson gets past this and does give us a reasonably fun and light horror flick, that’s probably more about the thrills, than the chills.

However, those chills and thrills begin to somehow go away by the end, and the movie seems to get bland. Suddenly, Banister’s back-story comes to light and while it surely was interesting to see who he really was before all of these crazy ghosts came into his life, it still brought down the speed and fun of the first-half. It seemed like Jackson wanted to bring some depth and emotion into this story, which would have gone a real long way, had the movie not been so light on its feet in the first place. Because the movie was so wacky and wild for the first hour, once it gets deep into dark themes like death and the people who succumb to it, it feels strange and out-of-place, as if Jackson had intended for this to be apart of a whole other movie entirely. Instead, he just got stuck with a goofy movie starring Michael J. Fox and all of the ghosts he hangs out with, one that’s even an old Western cowboy who humps a statue. Yup, it gets that silly, which I was fine with, but once again, gets lost in the shuffle of an overly-serious last-act. One that also takes a cop-out ending, which really bummed me out more than anything else here.

My grandmom's wallpaper usually does the same thing too. Time for a change!
My grandmom’s wallpaper usually does the same thing too. Time for a change!

Speaking of the Fox, the guy does pretty well as Frank Bannister, giving us his usual wise guy, up-to-no-good persona we usually see from him. He always has some wise-crack to say in passing and seems like a pretty good guy, underneath all of the conning, lying and money-grubbing. Even when the movie does get a bit serious and dive right into Bannister’s life, it works for a short while because we know there’s more to this character and we know that he ain’t so bad of a dude, he just needs to stop messing with people’s minds and their wallets. Then again, the same could be said for those a-holes on Wall Street, and we all know that there’s nothing more to them!

Trini Alvarado, despite being quite the cutie, is rather bland as the supposed love-interest/admirer of Bannister’s and is okay with what she has to do, but doesn’t really bring much to the table. She’s just another pretty-face, that just so happens to fall for the strange guy on the outside. If only those types of chicks were real, then I wouldn’t have to worry about going to the clubs every night, on the prowl and looking for wife-to-be #3.

Consensus: You can definitely spot where and when Jackson’s creativity and original vision of this story comes into play, however, you can also see where and when the movie begins to lose its punch and energy, making the Frighteners seem like something more of an uneven affair.

6 / 10 = Rental!!

Them silly ghosts! Always haunting my dreams!
Them silly ghosts! Always haunting my dreams!

Photo’s Credit to: IMDBColliderJoblo


  1. I don’t think this worked as a general comedy, but as a horror/ comedy it was great! I do think you were a bit harsh in your write up as this kind of creativity is rarely seen in original pictures today! Nicely written though!

    • I will say that maybe I was a bit too mean, but compared to what I saw just the other day with Dead Alive, compared to this, I was ultimately disappointed. Did make me laugh though, I’ll give it that.

      • It’s a different film than ‘Dead Alive,’ both are signs that Jackson should return to his horror/ comedy roots, but sadly it’ll never happen, he’s become too mainstream. It’s funny though, I remember seeing ‘Dead Alive’ back in the 90s then hearing that Peter Jackson was chosen to direct ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films, I was gobsmacked as to how the trilogy would turn out!

  2. Solid work Dan. Is it just me or are those effects of the ghosts popping out of the walls a straight-up rip-off of A Nightmare on Elm Street? Maybe that’s just me. . . .

  3. I actually think this film maintains a pretty good balance (for the most part) between the horror and the comedy. There are some awkward moments to be sure but there is also a lot to enjoy. Dead Alive on the other hand I have never understood the appeal for. It’s about as subtle as using a jackhammer to remove a tooth and the comedy aspects are about as sophisticated as grade school humor…very odd.

    • The humor there is nowhere near being subtle, but it at least works in its over-zealous, insane type-of-way. That was to be seen sometimes here, but not done as effectively.

  4. I freaking loved this movie when I was a kid! It scared the shit out of me, but I couldn’t get enough of it. It probably won’t be as good when I re-watch it (I usually agree with your reviews), but it’ll always hold a place in my heart. I’ll never forget the fact that they carved the numbers into the forehead…

  5. I haven’t seen this movie all the way through since the theaters. I remember having a mixed reaction, but I was a lot younger and might enjoy it more now. I agree that it’s tonally all over the map but has some strong points for sure.

  6. Have you seen the director’s cut Dan. I wonder if the balance between the comedy in the first half and drama in the second half made more sense. This was originally going to be a Tales from The Crypt movie before Jackson stepped in as director(Producer Robert Zemeckis was one of the executives on the show and helped produce this movie)

  7. The part of this film that completely sold me were the carved numbers into people’s foreheads. I did love this film in cinemas (although it was released not long after a massacre here in Australia that had people turing off violent and bloody films, which meant it didn’t have the success it should have) and have enjoyed it many times at home on DVD/Blu.

    So many good ideas in this one. Shame it didn’t have the massive success it deserved….. At least it allowed jackson to make LOTR right afterwards…

  8. It IS an oddball of a movie that flits between the comedy (much of the first half) and horror aspects. It feels more like Jackson wanted more of a balance but couldn’t reconcile the two.

  9. I’ve come realize that these horror comedies are hit or miss. This happens to be more on the hit side for me, especially in comparison to some of the $@$#!%#^ that I’ve been watching in the genre.

    I liked it (and the wanna be animated version ParaNorman) lol

    good review!

  10. My rating for The Frighteners would be a bit higher, however I agree the film it struggles in some ways. You’re absolutely right that it has some trouble finding that balance between comedy and horror that Dead Alive achieves. Sometimes the movie’s dark, silly interpretation of the afterlife are reminiscent of Beetlejuice. Instead of being lighthearted like Beetlejuice though, it takes dark turns by mixing in Frank’s backstory and the murderous couple terrorizing the town, making the plot pretty messy. For me, a lot of the fun in The Frighteners comes from watching Michael J. Fox, who’s usually the nice guy, playing a total scumbag, shyster. It does feel a bit strange that his character makes such a drastic change by the end, so I agree that the ending is lacking. Good review Dan.

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