Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Frighteners (1996)

Director: Peter Jackson

Controlled Chaos is an art form few directors can achieve. Other than Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson is probably the master. It usually comes from a history of making extremely low budget films, and learning to deal with what you've got in front of you. I get the feeling that if any Peter Jackson scene were filmed on a different day, the scene would be completely different. The Frighteners is what happens when you hand over a studio budget to a truly creative mind. The Frighteners is a mixture of comedy, horror, action and a few other indefinable genres. Michael J. Fox is ramped up even for his usual performances, but it works. He plays an scam artist who is friendly with the spirits whom he gets to haunt local residents, and then charges a fee to "exorcise" them. The characters are at times really cartoonish, and sometimes eerily scary. At times the Frighteners is a little predictable. When the villain's identity is revealed, you'll wonder why they even bothered telling you. What this movie lacks in plot, it makes up for in creativity.

Indeed the devil is in the details. If you begin to ask too many questions, you may as well try a different flick. This is a fantasy adventure that's a mixture of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "Ghostbusters." When it tries to become serious, it actually succeeds. It's hard to say why it works, but I think it does. It goes on a little too long, and some might find themselves looking at their watches. Peter Jackson's direction keeps it interesting, though. The swooping camera shots add to the fantasy element, and keep from becoming a device used to keep interest, but rather establishing a mood. That mood is an odd one, and isn't afraid to delve deep into horror territory. The blood flies, and the villains make out on an autopsy table. This helps to yank the audience around and tell them that, even in a fantasy/comedy, the danger can still be real. That doesn't always work, though. Occasionally that will cause a film to be very uneven. The thing that prevents the Frighteners from tipping the scales in any direction is the atmosphere. It's gloomy, drippy and anemic... trust me, that's a good thing. The color is nearly drained. When it's there, it's blood red or an eerie blue-green. This makes it nearly impossible to become too goofy. This helps when the characters are flying through walls and bumping into things.

One memorable scene has Michael J. Fox's character, Frank, attempting to protect his love interest played by Trini Alvarado in a jail cell. He's trying to keep her away from an evil spectre as it weaves through the prison walls. Ultimately, there's nothing he can do. The evil spirit is staved off by Frank's ghostly friends. It creates a really unique action sequence where the characters feel like they're in imminent danger. There's another unique sequence that involves Frank bringing himself to the point of near death, so his ghost can battle the evil spectre. It becomes increasingly tense when Trini's character, who's supposed to revive Frank before permanent death sets in, is kidnapped and locked in a police car. It doesn't really make sense if you try to dissect it, but it makes for good cinema. The film contains a number of really creative sequences like these that keep it moving, and prevent it from becoming a forgettable feature. The Frighteners contains a lot of material, most of which is truly original. Once I'd like to see a director's cut that is shorter than the theatrical release, though. This is not a knock at Jackson's directing, but part of the procedure is knowing when to say "when." The chaos is well contained, and includes groundbreaking special effects. The story may feel rushed, and maybe that they were writing as they were going, but it delivers a mood rarely seen: the fantasy characters feel like they're in real danger. Jackson keeps the audience in their seats without resorting to cheap shock elements, or in-your-face special effects; they blend in naturally. It's the best horror/comedy/action/adventure/sci-fi/thriller out there.

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