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Movie Reviews

The Frighteners  

Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Austin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace Stone Directed by: Peter Jackson Written by: Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson Rated R Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Peter Jackson's "The Frighteners" is filled with great ideas that somehow don't add up to a great movie. It has some funny moments, some scary moments, some outrageously goofy performances, and best of all, some of the most unique and thrilling special effects I've seen in a long time. The problem is, each one of these elements is fighting so hard to upstage the others that after a while, I simply lost interest in it all. Watching this film is like being at a party where everyone there is trying to be the life of it. This is a movie headed for ectoplasmic overload.

The movie stars Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a con-artist who poses as a kind of "ghostbuster". A few years earlier, he was involved in a car accident which resulted in the ability to communicate with the dearly departed. How does he use his new found "talent"? He recruits some ghosts and has them terrorize some unsuspecting neighbors who then call him to "clean house" of all lingering poltergeists. He uses a number of contraptions which do absolutely nothing, "squirts" Holy water all over the house, then charges a few hundred dollars for his services.

However, his "ghosts" aren't the only weird thing in town. A strange epidemic is sweeping across the neighborhood. Perfectly healthy citizens are dropping in record numbers from heart attacks. Is it a new disease? Or is it something of a more paranormal nature - something that could only be done away with by someone with a link to "the other side". Bannister is reluctant to investigate. After losing a loved one in the accident, he has become consumed with bitterness and guilt, and has no interest in caring about anyone again. However, there are those in the community who seem to think that Bannister is not playing with a full deck and suspect that he may be the one responsible for the deaths. After some persuading by the local doctor (Trini Alvarado) and also to clear his own name, he decides to dig deeper into the mystery. The investigation leads to some kooky characters, including a paranoid government agent (who bears an odd resemblance to Adolf Hitler), and a mysterious middle-aged woman (Dee Wallace Stone) who has been locked away in a mansion since childhood by her creepy and overbearing mother.

Did I give away too much? I don't think so. Director Peter ("Heavenly Creatures") Jackson and his co-writer Fran Walsh jam pack their story with so many subplots that it would take a review the length of their screenplay to give away too much. There is a good story somewhere in here, but I think Jackson and Walsh made the mistake to trying to tell too many good stories. Unfortunately, the result is a jumbled mess of a script. Although I have to admit, it is one of the most visually interesting jumbled messes I've seen in a while.

The special effects (as with many movies recently) are spectacular. Especially the scenes that take place in the mansion. The demons don't pop out from dark corners, but rather slither ominously through the walls and floor ducts, ready to rip you from this world without giving you time to scream for help. The effects here are spellbinding - they have to be seen to be believed. Also good are the ghosts which assist Bannister in his scams. One had died in the mid-seventies and constantly complains about wanting to get new clothes. Another one, named Judge, was killed in the Old West and continues to rot away, even so far as to have his lower jaw only attached on one side. (Although I never knew that ghosts continued to rot away. I thought only corpses did that.)

I've always felt that Michael J. Fox is a much more talented actor that many of his films would indicate. To me, he seems to select roles that limit his range. He has a couple of good moments here, especially in scenes with Trini ("Little Women") Alvarado. However, those few scenes collapse under the weight of the movie's other elements. Jeffrey Combs, as the Hitler-like government agent, and Dee Wallace Stone, as the recluse, tend to go way over the top, although they really have to, in order to compete with the effects and gimmicks tossed in by Jackson and Walsh.

Peter Jackson is clearly a gifted filmmaker with a very vivid imagination. (Rent "Heavenly Creatures" to see a better Jackson film.) However, like any other filmmaker, his story must have some kind of a balance to be effective and get us to care. I've read that Jackson was given complete artistic freedom on this film. I'm all for a director having total control over his films, but at the same time, I also realize that a filmmaker can get lost in the midst of all his or her creative ideas. It happens to the best. Even though I didn't care for this film, I could easily see signs of a brilliant filmmaker at work. Jackson's creative juices are flowing all throughout "The Frighteners". All that was needed was someone to come in and make sense of it all.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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