Peter Jackson is a true visionary. In most circles, such a statement is agreed upon if the subject is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or his brand new King Kong remake. There are also those who’d rather remember him for his schlocky, disgusting, and dangerously enjoyable efforts Braindead and Bad Taste. Of course, either camp will love his work. It’s just a matter of preference as to which type of film they love more. I’d say most find his latest efforts to be superior to those low budget e…rly works. But none of his modern genius would have been possible without The Frighteners, his breakout studio film, which garnered respect and financing from Hollywood heavyweight Robert Zemeckis. By the same token, one might say The Frighteners would have never been possible without his terrific Heavenly Creatures. The debate can rage on for as long as it needs to, but the heart of the matter reveals this: Peter Jackson makes great films, and while he may not be a perfectionist, his work argues to the contrary — The Frighteners being no exception.
This two-hour director’s cut treats its viewers to a hefty 14 minutes of extra footage, and most of it is easily recognizable to those who have seen the theatrical release a couple of times, or once recently. By recognizable, I mean you’ll know it’s new when you see it. Right away, I want to mention a mild concern I have for the director’s cut, and it’s the same kind of problem other critics have pointed out about his latest effort King Kong. Most of the deleted scenes add a stigma of excess to the film. It’s longer than it probably should be. But at the same time, you find yourself so in love with the picture Jackson puts together that you don’t really mind the more meandering pace. In fact, you kind of enjoy it because the new scenes add more of the same rowdy horror-comedy fun, and come across as visually endearing. This film is eye candy, but it also doesn’t forsake characterization and plot for the sake of its mayhem.
What I love most about The Frighteners is that it injects such a healthy dose of comedy into the first portion that by the time Act Three rolls around, you don’t quite expect the extent to which it takes its horror. In a sense, the comedy prepares the viewer for another kind of picture, so when the horror comes, it’s actually effective.
Frank Bannister, a small-town con man with psychic abilities, buddies up with a trio of ghosts from the local cemetery in order to make a buck as a ghostbuster. The scheme: he sends the ghosts in to work their routine… along with his business card… then collects the call and, subsequently, the paycheck. It’s not exactly honest, but it’s also a crime that can’t be traced. Frank has given up on life, but he’s in no hurry to leave the rat race behind either. What he needs is a reason to give up the man that he is and become someone who can find it within himself to care for another person, especially after years of facing the guilt of his wife’s mysterious death.
Enter Lucy. Her husband dies after Frank sees an ominous number on his forehead. Soon, more will fall prey to the clutches of an otherworldly cloaked killer, who could be the Grim Reaper himself. Frank’s defense is to retreat from the world and play ball with one of the nuttiest FBI agents you’ll ever see, real-life or otherwise (played with scene-stealing perfection by veteran Jeffrey Combs). But when Lucy becomes a target, Frank realizes it’s time to face the demons of his past, so he can save the only one he cares about in the present. Of course, it’s not all as simple as that, but giving away much more would be a great injustice to those who haven’t seen it.
The Frighteners features a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The print boasts deep blacks and near-perfect color reproduction, especially flesh tones. The ghost blues can get a little fuzzy on occasion, and added scenes are telegraphed by a somewhat noticeable difference in quality from the rest of the film, but even at its weakest, the picture is DVD quality.
This sound presentation is one of the best I’ve heard in the last year. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the sometimes dark-sometimes playful nature of the film comes through full and clear with many shining moments. For one, Danny Elfman is a genius, and his ever-present scores always seem to capture the very essence of their accompanying films. Here, we find no exceptions. Aside from his running track, we also have high-speed car chases, hand-to-hand combat, shotgun blasts aplenty, and one hell of a ride in the belly of a worm (please pardon pun). The dialogue levels are not too high-pitched to imply artificiality. And the bass rumbles and rattles throughout the room with earthquake intensity.
While I do wonder how much better the picture quality could have been had this release been split into two discs, I have to give Universal credit for the bonus material they’ve provided. Nothing like a recent hit to earn a director’s earlier works respect on the small screen. Here we have a special introduction by Peter Jackson to the film. Also, there is a 45-minute piece on storyboarding, where Jackson attempts (and explains himself in doing so) to make the storyboard feature interesting. His Storyboarding of key scenes basically takes us through the entire film — with commentary. Very interesting, because of the many changes you will notice from the drawings to the final cut. As if that’s not enough, the disc also contains a feature-length commentary by Jackson. Flip the disc, and you will find the most comprehensive feature of all — The Making of The Frighteners. Clocking in at four hours, it covers all the bases and single-handedly makes this the definitive purchase for the film. Containing interviews with cast and crew, bloopers, lost footage, ghost stories, script development, behind-the-scenes cast rehearsal, extensive special effects dissection, and so much more, you’ll need more than one sitting to finish it… especially if you’ve just watched the movie.
With this his first mainstream film, it’s not hard to see how Jackson became the enormously popular commodity he is today. He also possesses a sensibility that seems not-of-this-Hollywood. He’s very much a fan’s filmmaker, and with his supervision of this excellent disc, he understands what the discriminating DVD buyers are looking for as well. From the big screen to the small, he has his ear to the ground and his fingers on the pulse of what his fans want. It’s that continued awareness that will continue to take him where he wants to go. As for the purchase, this one’s academic. If you haven’t seen it, I envy you. I also encourage you not to wait much longer. After all, this is not the blossoming work of a director with potential. It’s a horror-comedy by a filmmaker at the top of his game.
Special Features List
- A special introduction to the film by Academy Award-winning director PETER JACKSON
- Storyboarding of key scenes with commentary by PETER JACKSON
- In-depth feature commentary by PETER JACKSON
- The Making of The Frighteners, a full-length documentary