When's the last time you saw John Astin, America's beloved Gomez Addams, in a film? He's here, in Peter Jackson's The Frighteners -- and so is Re-Animator's Jeffery Combs. Astin plays a supporting role as the Judge, a long-dead lawman, and Combs is FBI special agent Dammers, a living creep who's spent the last decade undercover in cults and sects.
Casting Astin and Combs signals the high-spirited weirdness that drives The Frighteners, but pitch-perfect atmosphere is not the only great thing about this movie. To support the comedy, gotchas and creepy bits, Peter Jackson has grounded his movie with engaging, even touching weirdness (an Astin specialty) and made sure the storytelling is intense. (Combs, fans know, is more intense than any American Justice maniac.)
We get the comedy-horror mood right off -- Jackson's agile camera swoops over rain on a steep slate roof, in through gothic windows and after a catlike creature in the walls. Danny Elfman music provides the this-is-comedy clue as the wraith's form appears under the wallpaper, and then under the rug ... and it's after somebody. Here the going gets odd because, despite all the shrieking, it's not clear whether the somebody is fearful or playful.
The woman menaced by whatever is Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace Stone, an actress whose frightfest credentials go all the way back to The Hills Have Eyes). She's a middle-aged mental case, locked up in her youth after participating in a mass murder, who has only recently been released. Patricia and her mom (Julianna McCarthy) live on the edge of Fairwater, a little town with problems.
First, there's con man Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox). He and a couple of ghostly buddies run a scam whereby the ghouls haunt a house, Bannister exorcises them and when the grateful homeowners pay up, he and friends head home for Miller time.
The second problem is more serious: townsfolk are dropping like flies. Because of his semi-criminal ways and habit of hanging around the cemetery, Bannister is a suspect. That's a problem for Bannister, and so is the specter from the opening scene. It can kill the living and the walking dead, and it's after Bannister. The psychic tries to warn the town. Not surprisingly, no one living believes him -- no one but a pretty young doctor (Trini Alvarado).
Before you can get your Milk Duds open, The Frighteners has established a half-dozen fascinating characters, introduced a romance, set up several mysteries and put the underdog hero on the trail of a really scary bogeyman. This movie, with its well-wrought structure, wit and details, is a beautiful thing, and I mean that sincerely.
Perhaps that's to be expected. The Frighteners is a Peter Jackson film, and he unsettles an audience like no one else. Few have seen Meet the Feebles, a revolting, sick and brilliant Muppets parody, but his Heavenly Creatures is infamous.
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Is The Frighteners perverse? Well, yes; The Frighteners has some moments. One exciting evening at the Fairwater museum of history, the Judge fancies a mummy. Coffin-rattling coitus follows, and when that's over, the Judge rises from the sarcophagus, smiles right into the camera and sighs with satisfaction, "I like it when they lie still like that."
Jackson's secret may be that he's just not squeamish, not about filth and gore, and not about exposing his audience to bare, raw sentiment. Amidst the chills and giggles, Jackson drops in touching, even heart-stopping moments. In any other movie, you might see a garden, or someone calling a warning, and not think much of the detail, but here, such small things carry meaning.
The Frighteners is a deliciously clever movie, and Jackson and his talented cast are full of tricks, though they never cheat us. Children too young to see an R-rated movie, even with their parents, might be creeped out, but anyone else who doesn't enjoy this bright romp is an incomplete person, missing either the ghost-stories-are-fun or the funny-doesn't-mean-stupid gene. The Frighteners is scary, fun and not an insult to ticket buyers' intelligence.
Directed by Peter Jackson. With Michael J. Fox.