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Freaky Firsts Day 3: The Frighteners (1996)

Frighteners 1996Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Peter Jackson

Writer: Peter Jackson & Frank Walsh

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Danny Elfman

Plot: Paranormal investigator Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has a good racket going. His ghostly assistants Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Cyrus (Chi McBride) and the Judge (John Astin) “haunt” a house, and he goes in to “exterminate” them for a healthy fee. After the mysterious death of a recent client, Ray, (Peter Dobson), Frank learns of a rash of sudden deaths that appear to be heart attacks, but whose victims were in perfect health. Ray’s wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado) turns to Frank for comfort, made a bit awkward by the fact that Ray’s ghost is right there. Frank witnesses a shrouded figure (a “Grim Reaper,” according to the Judge) murdering a man, whose spirit takes the light-filled corridor to the afterlife – a choice Ray and Frank’s ghosts failed to make when given the opportunity.

FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) is brought in to investigate Frank, now a suspect in the strange deaths. Dammers has suspected Frank for some time, ever since the mysterious death of Frank’s wife. She was found with the number 13 carved into her forehead – something that resonates with Frank, who saw 37 and 38 on the two most recent victims. When 39 is killed in the museum, Frank rushes in to investigate, and the Reaper cuts the Judge’s spirit in two. Frank tries to protect #40 – newspaper editor Magda (Elizabeth Hawthorne), but the Reaper gets her as well, and Frank is arrested.

Lucy’s investigation of the situation leads her to Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace), who as a teenager was accused of being an accomplice of executed serial killer Johnny Charles Bartlett (Jake Busey). When she visits Frank in jail, “41” appears on Lucy’s forehead. Frank and the ghosts narrowly save her from the Reaper, but Stuart and Cyrus are “killed” as they escape. Frank believes he can stop the Reaper by killing himself, but Lucy instead places him in a hypothermic coma, freeing his spirit to roam. Dammers, meanwhile, abducts Lucy and takes her to a cemetery. Frank saves her from the Reaper, who turns out to be the ghost of Johnny Bartlett. He’s been collaborating with Patricia, trying to top the high scores of history’s worst serial killers.

Frank awakens and, with Lucy, finds Barlett’s ashes, hoping to use them in the hospital where he committed his murders to condemn his soul to Hell. Dammers is in the hospital too, still obsessed with Frank, and Patricia is running through the halls with a shotgun. She kills Dammers and chokes Frank to death. As the corridor to the afterlife appears, Frank rips Patricia’s soul from her body, and Bartlett chases the two of them. He and Patricia are taken to Hell as Cyrus and Stuart reappear to reunite Frank with his wife. It’s a brief reunion, though, as his friends tell him it’s not his time yet, and send him back to Earth and Lucy… who now can see the ghosts too.

Thoughts: Early in his career, Peter Jackson made gooey gorefests like Dead Alive. Today he’s known for the visual effects and epic scale of Lord of the Rings. This film, made in-between those two eras, actually serves very nicely as a bridge between them. The sensibility of the movie feels similar to his early work: funny, while still carrying a sense of the macabre, like Ghostbusters with a more cynical edge. However, here he’s beginning to step aside from the practical effects of his earlier films towards the more high-tech visuals of today. This was 1996, of course, before it was virtually a requirement that every element of a film be soaked in CGI, back when actors had to literally appear on a set together, and Jackson at this early stage actually strikes a very nice balance between the two.

The plot isn’t particularly original – the serial killer coming back as an agent of death has been done before, and since, and better, and worse. And in fact, I think the stuff with the numbers is even a bit of a cheat. If Bartlett cared numbers into victims’ foreheads when he was alive, it seems to me that people would remember that little tidbit. Frank clearly knows who Barlett is the moment he sees his face, but he didn’t know enough about his killings to know about the numbers? I call foul on that one.

That said, the execution of the story is good. Michael J. Fox isn’t quite the slick wisecracker he is in a lot of his performances. He’s wounded and somewhat cold, still struggling with his wife’s death and trying to keep Lucy at a distance despite his attraction to her. His snark is mostly kept to a minimum, and even though he’s technically a con man, he doesn’t put forth the air of a snake oil salesman one would usually associate with that kind of a role. It’s always fun to see John Astin, but it’s kind of a shame that – of the three main ghosts – he was almost completely hidden under makeup. Without his distinctive voice, it’s unlikely that anyone would have recognized him.

The final confrontation, more than any other part of the movie, really shows the filmmaker Peter Jackson was going to become. The fight in the Bradley house, with Barlett leaping through walls and paintings, has a lot of real style to it. It’s CGI, yes, and you know it’s CGI, but it’s not such blatant CGI that it rips you out of the movie, like a lot of movies come across today. Once the action moves to the hospital, the tension is ratcheted up less by the ghosts and more by the two still-living antagonists, who seem in some ways to be even more dangerous. Maybe it’s because he’s a ghost or maybe it’s because he’s Jake Busey, but somehow Barlett’s deranged behavior isn’t nearly as disturbing as that of Dammers or Patricia.

On the sliding scale of horror and comedy, this film definitely leans more heavily on the horror side than Ghostbusters, and even more than Jackson’s own Dead Alive (although it is considerably less grotesque than the earlier movie). The ghosts feel like they came from a less wacky version of Beetlejuice. Combs, meanwhile, is impossible to separate from his character in the Re-Animator series, hamming it up similarly while playing a very different role in this film than those others.

This is a movie that’s been on my “to-watch” list for a very long time, a product of my appreciation for Peter Jackson and my love for Michael J. Fox. This month, I suspect, is going to be great for scratching movies like that off my list. It didn’t disappoint me at all.

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Fun with Riffing

RiffTrax Starship TroopersOnce upon a time, there was a thing called the “Cable Ace Awards.” It was basically the Emmys for cable TV. They stopped giving them out about the same time HBO started winning all of the real Emmys, at which point they realized there was no longer any reason for the Ace Awards to exist, showing the sort of self-awareness the MPAA  can only dream of. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one lasting contribution the Ace Awards made to modern society: they’re responsible for my introduction to Mystery Science Theater 3000. One year, whichever network was broadcasting the awards showed a bunch of the nominated shows over a weekend, including an episode of MST3K. As my parents’ cable provider did not, at that time, carry Comedy Central, I’d never seen an episode before. I stumbled upon the image of a guy and two robots in a darkened theater cracking jokes about a terrible 50s-era monster movie, the sort that local TV channels still showed all weekend even then. I was instantly mesmerized, but it would be about two years before our local cable got Comedy Central and I was given my real entryway into becoming a hardcore MSTie for life.

MST3K went away many years ago, of course, but it has its spiritual successors, my favorite of which is RiffTrax. The RiffTrax crew consists of Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy – essentially the second cast of MST3K. They’re doing the same job as before, making fun of movies, but now they do it through video on demand you can download from their website or buy on DVD, MP3 commentary riffs for blockbuster movies that you can synch and watch on your own, and a few times a year, live riffs of movies they perform in front of an audience and broadcast to movie theaters across America. Last night, I went to the first RiffTrax Live event I’ve had the chance to attend – a Kickstarter-fueled riffing of director Paul Verhoven’s laughably bad sci-fi “satire” Starship Troopers. The riff was great, picking apart the movie mercilessly. Even several cast members, including Casper Van Dien, Clancy Brown, Jake Busey, and Neil Patrick Harris (who has joined Mike Nelson for riffs in the past) spread the word about the riffing, none of which particularly spared them from the crew’s jokes… although it should be noted that Denise Richards undoubtedly got the worst of their jabs, and she didn’t seem to have anything to do with promoting the riffing.

I’m not here to sell you on the riff, though – you can go to their website and download any of their riffs if you need convincing. What I loved about this, more than anything else, was the actual experience of watching the film. I went with my friends Kenny, Daniel and Lauren, all of whom have gone to RiffTrax Live shows before, and therefore knew a bit more about what to expect than I did. As we sat down, the screen rolled with what appeared to be the usual pre-movie spiel you get in any multiplex in America… but soon, the resounding laughter would make it clear even to the blind that this wasn’t just your ordinary stuff. Instead, it was RiffTrax-generated jokes. Anagrams that poked fun at recent summer blockbusters, “Movie Mistakes” gags that invariably turned into jokes about Casper Van Dien’s post-Troopers career, and so on. With each change of the scene there’d be quiet, then laughter.

In-between the new screens, though, the atmosphere was nothing like a usual movie theater, where disinterested strangers sit around chomping down their popcorn at best or yammering on their phone at worst. Instead, it was a sort of carnival atmosphere, full of people who came not just to watch a movie, but to have a good time. People roamed around, talking, chatting to strangers. There was a sort of unspoken promise that the general volume level would drop to read the preshow cards (even though there was no technical reason for it to do so), and a bizarre feeling of community. It was like everybody in the room was in on a joke that we knew the people wandering in and out of whatever Tyler Perry joint was soiling the adjacent theater would never understand.

Once the movie started, the conversation stopped, but not the noise. People laughed, people cheered, people applauded their favorite riffs. I don’t usually clap even in the best of movies, because it’s not like the actors can hear me. But when Mike Nelson dropped a fairly obvious gag at the expense of AT&T, it hit a sort of universal chord that made the theater almost explode with energy, and I found myself pounding my hands together along with everybody else.

Because I wasn’t just “at the movies,” like I am any other time, even when the best movies are on the screen. Years ago, the MST3K commercials included a line that was something like, “It’s like watching cheesy movies with three of your funniest friends.” Last night, I felt like I was in an entire theater full of friends who wanted to have a good time together.

They’re going to rebroadcast the Starship Troopers show on September 12, again in theaters across America. Then they’re coming back on October 24 to riff the granddaddy of the modern zombie film, Night of the Living Dead. I can’t wait to see that one too, and I intend to go to as many of these as I can from now on. In a world where even movie theaters are so often dens of misery, it’s great to know that for just a little while, you can stop in for some pure, untarnished fun.