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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.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

All New Showcase at the Movies: The Hobbit-The Desolation of Smaug

Hobbit-The Desolation of SmaugOnce again, I’ve released a movie review episode of my podcast, the All New Showcase. This time out, Jason, Kenny and I tackle The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. In a (mostly) spoiler-free discussion, we talk about how the movie diverges from the book, how they feel about the additions to the original story, and their overall feelings about the film.

And what’s cool this week? Jason has been watching Gypsy Sisters, Kenny got a new toy from Japan, and I’m doing my annual re-read of The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn.

All New Showcase at the Movies Episode 39: The Hobbit-The Desolation of Smaug

Movies you (maybe) didn’t know came from comic books

In case you didn’t know, this coming Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, the annual celebration of comics where stores across North America give out special edition comics made just for the occasion. Many of the best stores have gone so far as to make this event a sort of mini-convention, with tables for writers, artists and media folk to sit, chat, sketch, and interact with the fans. In fact, I’ll be at BSI Comics in Metairie, Louisiana Saturday with my podcast and promoting my novels.

But this year, we’re stretching the celebration out. This year, the days before FCBD have been declared Comics Kick Ass Week, a time for everyone to spread the word and talk about how great comics are. Now, I do that all the time on my main blog and in my position as a columnist and podcaster for, but I know the Reel to Reel blog reaches a slightly different audience. So I decided that here, to help get folks in the mood, I’d run down some movies or franchises you (probably) didn’t know were based on comic books. Then, check out the Comics Kick Ass Week Tumblr page to see how other bloggers and podcasters are celebrating.

Road to Perdition PosterRoad to Perdition Graphic NovelRoad to Perdition (2002)
Based on the graphic novel Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner

This graphic novel, originally published by DC Comics’ now-defunct Paradox Press imprint, tells the story of Michael Sullivan Jr., a young man horrified when he discovers his father is a hitman for the mob. When his father’s boss, John Looney, finds out that Mike Jr. knows what his father does, he tries to have the family killed. Mike Sr. and Jr. both survive, and begin a road to revenge for the murder of the rest of their family.

Collins is a great novelist and comic book writer who does some of the best old-school crime drama being published today in either medium. He also takes great lengths to make his books as true to life as possible, including real historical figures and events whenever possible. The film, directed by American Beauty’s Sam Mendes, starred Tom Hanks as Mike Sr., Tyler Hoechlin as Mike Jr., Paul Newman as John Rooney (they changed his character’s name for the film) and Jude Law as another hitman sent out to take care of the Sullivan problem. I’ve always enjoyed this movie, even though it can be kind of difficult to accept a hardcore Tom Hanks, and the graphic novel has several sequels, both in comic book form (which tell additional stories about the Sullivans’ time on the road) and in prose form (which focus more on what happened to Mike Jr. when he grew up).

Ghost World Graphic Novel Ghost WorldGhost World (2001)
Based on the graphic novel Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Ghost World focuses on a pair of teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca, the summer after their high school graduation. A practical joke on a lonely man named Seymour sends Enid into an unexpected friendship, a relationship neither of them seem to particularly understand.

Terry Zwigoff, who had previously directed a film about indie comic legend Robert Crumb, helmed this film, casting Thora Birch as Enid, Steve Buscemi as Seymour, and a pre-superstar status Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca. The graphic novel is far more episodic in nature than the film, showing assorted short stories featuring the girls without as much connectivity as Zwigoff gave them on screen. It’s an acceptable compromise, though, making the film feel unified in a way that wouldn’t have happened if he had made a strict adaptation. That sort of anthology feel works much better in book form than it does in a movie.

Adventures of TintinAdventures of Tintin Graphic NovelThe Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Based on the series The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé.

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson achieved a long-held dream in 2011 when they directed and produced the motion-capture Adventures of Tintin. Most American audiences were unfamiliar with the character, though, or if they knew him at all knew him only through the cult favorite 90s animated series. Most audiences didn’t know that Tintin is over 70 years old and, in fact, one of the most popular comic book series of all time… it’s just that most of its success has been overseas.

Created by Hergé in 1929, The Adventures of Tintin featured a young boy reporter going on incredible adventures all over the world. Hergé filled the comics with intensely-researched artifacts and cultures that Tintin and his large cast of friends would get involved with on a regular basis. The comic is criticized sometimes for some culturally insensitive portrayals of different races, depicting them as primitive in comparison to the White-As-The-Driven-Snow Tintin (who, like Hergé himself, is Belgian). Considering the time period Hergé was working in, though, it’s something I’m willing to give a partial pass. Tintin is one of those properties with a huge cultural imprint, inspiring later adventure characters like Indiana Jones, another Spielberg co-creation. It’s worth giving the original a look.

Tales From the Crypt Archives Tales From the CryptTales From the Crypt
Based on classic comics from Tales From the Crypt, The Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear by William Gaines, Al Feldstein and countless others.

Remember that awesome HBO horror series Tales From the Crypt? Every week it was like a new horror movie, presented by one of the greatest creepy movie hosts ever. This too, though, was based on a comic book series (in case you missed it somehow). In the early 50s, horror and crime comics were among the most popular titles being published in America, with the EC Comics line dominating sales. Then came a nationwide panic about the effect comic books were having on children, a congressional hearing, a psychology book of extremely questionable pedigree, and the comic publishers got together and wrote a content code that was so restrictive EC went almost completely out of business, eventually ceasing publication of all of their titles except a humor magazine you may have heard of, Mad.

Many of the episodes of the TV show were based on stories pulled straight from the comic books, and like the comics, they maintained their warped sense of justice. Criminals usually received a suitably karmic punishment, victims were rarely completely innocent in the first place, and through it all the Cryptkeeper would hit us with deliciously deadpan puns. The TV series was enormously popular, spawning three movies (not counting two earlier movies made before the HBO formula got it right) and an animated spin-off for kids, Tales From the Cryptkeeper. And that’s not even mentioning the huge stamp the property had on horror fiction in general over the last 50 years, influencing the likes of Stephen King and Sam Raimi and producing plenty of imitators, such as the Creepshow series.

DuckTales Uncle Scrooge in Only a Poor Old ManDucktales
Based largely on Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks.

I know what you’re thinking. “Blake, you can’t tell me DuckTales was based on a comic book. The Disney Ducks were cartoon characters first!” Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, that’s true of Donald Duck and his three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. But what about the rest of the cast of DuckTales? Scrooge McDuck? Crazy inventor Gyro Gearloose? Nefarious villains like Magica DeSpell, Flintheart Glomgold and the Beagle Boys? Just a few of the characters conjured up by one of the greatest cartoonists ever to pick up a pencil, Mr. Carl Barks. Barks worked in animation before finding his niche in the licensed Disney comic books published by Dell. Although he was one of many creators working on those comics, he quickly outshone many of the others… in fact, although at the time the comics were published without creator credits, his style was so distinctive and so much better than his contemporaries that fans sought out his work, and without knowing his name, simply started referring to him as “the Good Artist.”

Barks expanded Donald’s universe immeasurably, not just introducing new characters and concepts, but turning the ducks into globetrotting treasure hunters. Many — hell, most of the most memorable episodes of the DuckTales TV show (which did have a movie spin-off) were lifted straight from Carl Barks comics. He even did a little work on the show for a while. But his best work was in the comics, and those comics were some of the greatest ever made. Fantagraphics Comics is currently publishing an archival series of hardcover books reprinting Barks’s work — if you’re a die-hard Duck fan, you owe it to yourself to read the comics that breathed a new life into the Disney characters and helped spark the renaissance of 80s animation.

Smurfs FCBD 2013 SmurfsThe Smurfs (2011)
Based on The Smu
rfs by Peyo.

Look, I’m not even going to pretend I think the Smurfs movies were any good. But I was a fan of the cartoon when I was a kid, and at the time, I had no idea that the Smurfs, like Tintin, made their original appearance in comic books from Belgium. Originally, they were supporting characters in a Spirou magazine story called “The Flute With Six Holes,” but they soon became popular enough to explode into their own series, many of which are currently being published in English for the very first time by Papercutz Comics. And that’s the reason I’m closing off this list with the Smurfs — because this year, they’re going to be featured in a Free Comic Book Day offering that’s never appeared in the US before. If you’ve got kids who enjoy the movies, here’s a great chance to get them reading.

Check out the Free Comic Book Day website to find the nearest participating store. And while you’re there, look at some of the other books available. Your kids will find recognizable characters from Sesame Street, Spongebob Squarepants, Teen Titans Go!, Adventure Time, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For you grown-ups, there are comics based on the NBC series Grimm, the British cult favorite Judge Dredd, and the Image Comics publication that inspired the AMC smash hit The Walking Dead. Plus, you’ll find Superman, the Avengers, Star Wars, Tinkerbell, Garfield, the Peanuts gang, the Tick, Sonic the Hedgehog, Archie Andrews and other old friends, and there’ll be plenty of titles and characters you’ve never heard of before, but may turn into a new favorite.

And while you’re there, if you’re a fan of any of the movies I mentioned, browse the shelves of the store and pick up a few volumes, or look for something totally new.

What I Watched in… February 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

What I Watched in February 2013

  1. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  2. Superman II (1980), A-
  3. Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), F; RiffTrax Riff, A
  4. Groundhog Day (1993), B+
  5. Dead Alive (1992), B+
  6. Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007), B
  7. X-Men (2000), B+
  8. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), A
  9. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), B
  10. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), D
  11. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), B+
  12. Dredd (2012), B+
  13. A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), B
  14. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II (2013), B+
  15. Trekkies 2 (2004), C+
  16. Trek Nation (2010), B+
  17. Cool As Ice (1991), F; RiffTrax B+
  18. Live Free or Die Hard (2007), B+
  19. Branded (2012), C+
  20. Argo (2012), A
  21. The Crucible (1996), B-