“The Frighteners” is a two-tone scarefest, the first half a facetious, aggressively jokey send-up of the supernatural, the second an attempt at some legitimate thrills. After his brilliant breakthrough two years ago with “Heavenly Creatures,” new pic reps a step back into infinitely less interesting genre work for New Zealand auteur Peter Jackson, with an added reliance on elaborate, almost continuous special effects. Horror and f/x fans may go for it, but this smirky retreading of familiar haunted ground looks to scare up just moderate B.O., although a strong promo push could generate potent openings.
Story was originally conceived as an episode of “Tales From the Crypt,” and that is perhaps what it should have remained, as the thinness of the conceit shows throughout, painfully so in the first half. Film does rebound significantly in the second hour, but not enough to redeem so much initial silliness.
With New Zealand standing in for coastal California, yarn serves up a shock opening, as a fast-moving form within an obviously haunted house terrorizes a shrieking woman. This is just one of many inexplicable events in the town of Fairwater, whose healthy citizens are being afflicted by a string of mysterious heart attacks some years after the local hospital was the scene of a horrible mass murder perpetrated by Charlie Starkweather fan Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey) , since executed.
Enter self-styled “psychic investigator” Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), a down-and-outer who hustles up a little business from local medic Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) and her obnoxious hubby Ray (Peter Dobson), whose home has seemingly been invaded by a poltergeist.
Frank, it turns out, can actually see ghosts, while others cannot, due to a traumatic accident some time before in which his wife died in a car he was driving. Three friendly spirits — an Old West gunman named the Judge (John Astin); a loud, large, ’70s-attired black man named Cyrus (Chi McBride); and the studious Stuart (Jim Fyfe) — help him in his work, although they can’t prevent the perplexing heart attack monster from striking.
Scenes with these three aren’t funny as intended, and pic reaches its nadir in a dinner scene in which Frank acts as an intermediary between Lucy and her now-dead mate, who continues to rant at her about what she should do even though she can’t hear him. In these sections, Jackson’s direction seems nervous, even frantic, as if he were desperately trying to compensate for material he knew wasn’t much good.
Already viewed as a suspicious character due to his weird behavior and repeated presence when people die, Frank is locked up when yet another woman perishes after a ride in his car. But by now we’ve seen the specter of Death zipping all around town in a cape, possessed of the traditional scythe, so it’s only a matter of time before Lucy helps Frank escape from prison so he can do battle with Death, who is stalking both of them.
In the way that the story eventually ties in with the shade of psycho killer Bartlett and the crazy woman in the house, who was his lover and accomplice in crime but got off much easier, “The Frighteners” shares with “Heavenly Creatures” a preoccupation with murdering teams. This time, however, the approach is cartoonish and conventional rather than insightful and unsettling.
It would seem, then, that the raison d’etre behind this new tale would be Jackson’s desire to play with a hefty budget and sophisticated digital effects and creatures, with which the actors must interact in a great number of the scenes. The ghosts themselves are milky white see-through figures, while the most impressive moves come from the walls, carpets and other portions of the musty old house.
Effects aside, pic is garishly designed and lit, just as the direction, sound and Danny Elfman’s score are busily in your face and ears.
Fox’s combination psychic seer and con man is a difficult character to warm up to, a reckless schemer accidentally blessed with a vision so esoteric it’s hard to know what to do with it. Alvarado survives with some dignity intact as the bright doctor, while off-the-wall supporting honors go to “Re-Animator” favorite Jeffrey Combs as a scarily lunatic FBI agent on Frank’s case. R. Lee Ermey pops up to reprise his “Full Metal Jacket” performance as a shouting military commander, only this time as a ghost.