My Favorite Halloween Film: Peter Jackson’s THE FRIGHTENERS with Michael J. Fox

Me as the Joker, Halloween 2012
Me as the Joker, Halloween 2012

I’m not a big fan of Halloween.

I own many masks; Batman, Christopher Nolan’s version of Bane, Spider-Man, and two (yes, two!) Captain America masks (old school with the winged ears and new-school MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS helmet style mask – function over form…). But those ain’t Halloween costumes. That’s just my private stash of geeky masks on foam heads.

Last year, I was the Joker, Heath Ledger’s joker, with perfect face make-up that had many children second guessing whether or not they should approach to take candy.

I like to watch my NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS every year (though I also watch it round Christmas-time), but there is only one film that truly gives Halloween any meaning…

1996’s THE FRIGHTENERS! Produced by Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE). Directed by Peter Jackson, pre-LORD OF THE RINGS. Michael J. Fox’s last film before he succumb to parkinson’s.

Yet, it is one of the most underrated comedy/thriller/horror movie of all time.

Of course, Peter Jackson’s Director’s Cut of the FRIGHTENERS is the only way to see the film.

Though there are many laughs, the film is creepy and downright disturbing on many levels.

Mysterious #s Appear On Victim's Heads Prior to Mysterious Deaths
Mysterious #s Appear On Victim’s Heads Prior to Mysterious Deaths
Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister
Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister

The premise: Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), can see ghosts after a car accident that killed his wife, has his two ghost partners haunt a house until the occupants pay him to bust the ghosts (Ghostbuster!). But people begin to die in mass in Bannister’s town, all first having numbers carved into their heads in a manner only Bannister can see, just as Frank saw done to his own wife.

Is the grim reaper in town? All the victims appear to have heart attacks, yet their autopsy reveal nothing of the sort.

It is up to Frank Bannister to stop the dead from killing the living. A decade old, dead serial killer (played expertly and crazily by Jake Busey. He IS his father’s son!), is behind it all and no one is safe, not even Bannister’s ghost friends.

The Grimm ReaperTo make things worse, Bannister’s gift makes it appear as though he is behind the mysterious deaths.

Why I Love It: I may have already said this (I did!), but THE FRIGHTENERS is creepy as shit, mixing serial killers and grim reapers; Jake Busey and Jeffrey Combs, Combs playing the role of Milton Dammers, an extremely odd expert of the occult.

Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs)
Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs)

Milton is extremely creepy… too creepy, and his role will haunt my dreams forever. It is an impressive acting job for a not-so-typical role. I haven’t seen Jeffrey Combs in anything else, but he really makes the movie. A huge part of the creep factor, as previously stated.

Wash that down with the homicidal stylings of Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey) and you got yourself a formidable villain. A ghost that cannot be destroyed but kills at will. A serial killer finishing the work he started before he was executed.

Jake Busey as the living Johnny Bartlett
Jake Busey as the living Johnny Bartlett

Top that sweet plot and those gnarly performances with an amazing Danny Elfman (BATMAN, SPIDER-MAN) score, and you got yourself an amazing little package, either on DVD of the 15th Anniversary Edition on Bluray.

THE FRIGHTENERS is my Halloween! The Director’s cut, that is! (The theatrical cut ain’t terrible).

In fact, it is one of my very favorite scores from Elfman, my second favorite composer for films.

The Best Part: I love, love, love the third act. When Bannister figures out the only way he can save his new love interest, Dr. Lucy Lynskey – #41, and stop the ghost of Johnny Bartlett, is to freeze himself to a point of death to have “an out of body experience.” It is a pretty spectacular sequence, which inspired the first screenplay I wrote.

Bannister on Ice!
Bannister on Ice!

In fact, it was this sequence that I once caught flipping through the TV channels, that later lead to my investigation as to what glorious film I was watching.

The Weaknesses: Ok, so it’s not a perfect film.

The Ghost of Johnny Bartlett
The Ghost of Johnny Bartlett

Most the effects do not age well. The Grimm reaper looks awful at times, whether it is flying about or coming out of the walls.

On the plus side, it was the very computers that created THE FRIGHTENER’s CGI that inspired Peter Jackson to next do the LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY. On one of the special features he states that fact, that after FRIGHTENERS he needed an ambitious project to next use his CGI technology on.

The CGI may be way better in LORD OF THE RINGS, but technically we owe that film franchise to THE FRIGHTENERS.

I also don’t like the ‘rules’ the universe uses for ghosts. Sometimes they fall through walls, other times they can physically attack (or knock over) the living and can walk on second stories of buildings (shouldn’t they fall through the floor if they fall through the walls?).

It’s a minor gripe. But it has inspired me to more clearly express the ‘ghost rules’ in my own script, involving ghosts (Du’h).

So, this Halloween, if you are looking for an incredibly underrated treat, pop Peter Jackson’s THE FRIGHTENERS into your video playing device. You’ll be glad you did.The Face of Johnny Bartlett

And creeped the fuck out!

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