Retrospective: 25 Years Since ‘The Frighteners’ First Freaked Moviegoers By Jesse Striewski

The ’90s – especially the mid-to-late ’90s – were a unique time indeed for cinema when it comes to horror films; The Silence of the Lambs paved the waved for more ‘sophisticated’ thrillers in the beginning of the decade, while typical slasher franchises originally led by the likes of Freddy, Jason, and Chucky, were laid dormant to make way for the more realistic meta-horror of the Scream franchise and all its numerous copycats. As a fan of both horror films, and Michael J. Fox since his Back to the Future and Family Ties days, I was eager to see this new intriguing horror flick with him in it (something he had not yet attempted to do), and was at the theater to watch it with friends within its first couple of weeks of release (see original ticket stub photo attached below). What ensued was nearly two full hours of dark, brooding insanity, and big budget, zany chaos.

Before it there were also the more surreal horror flicks that bordered on equal parts fantasy, and silliness. Films such as Leprechaun (1993) and Brainscan (1994) stretched one’s imagination while taking liberties with reality as a whole. When Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners was released on July 19, 1996, it definitely ticked many of the same boxes as said previous films, yet in its own unique way. Author and Rewind It Magazine contributor Shawn McKee commented on the film; “The Frighteners is one of those films that has gotten a lot of reevaluation over time. It was both a precursor to (film director) Peter Jackson’s mainstream success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the rise of the Weta Digital and the Weta Workshop, the New Zealand (where the film was also filmed) special effects company co-founded by Jackson.”

He continued; “Upon its release in ’96, the scare trailers that followed made little mention of it as a Peter Jackson movie, who was still unknown at the time to most audiences. It was instead marketed as a supernatural comedy by Universal Pictures and Robert Zemeckis, the film’s executive producer. The trailers also struggled to explain what the movie was even about. This most likely led to its brief theatrical run, low box office performance, and eventual second chance on home video.”

Original 1996 ticket stub from the author’s personal collection

The plot is fairly simple; Fox plays Frank Banister, an ex-architect turned ghost hunter who uses the help of a trio of spirits (played brilliantly by John Aston, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) that only he can see to con locals into believing they have an actual haunting. Things start going awry once would-be client Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobson) mysteriously drops dead (among many others), and his widow Lucy (Trini Alvarado) immediately enlists Frank’s services to solve what happened. Further complicating things for Frank is an aggressive detective (Jeffery Combs) dead set on proving Frank had killed his own wife years before, a newspaper editor (Elizabeth Hawthrone) hell-bent on proving Frank’s a fake, and other spooks like Master Sargent Hiles (played by the late R. Lee Emery in a role which emulates his Full Metal Jacket performance from 1987) disgusted by Frank’s chosen methods.

It turns out that Frank is not the only one with the power to see those from beyond; local patient Patrica Bartlett (Dee Wallace) has been helping her long deceased lover Johnny (Jake Busey) continue his killing spree from beyond the grave for years, and along with a little help from his ghosts and Sheriff (Troy Evans) Frank and Lucy have to put an end to the twosome’s rampage once and for all. In an October 2020 interview, Wallace revealed to me what it was like to play a villain in place of her usual squeaky clean “mom” roles; “Oh God, I had so much fun doing that! I love exploring all of the different sides of me, and the psyche, and I just loved the arc of going from the little victim, to becoming the killer towards the end!”

The Frighteners was far from a runaway hit; grossing just under $30 million on a $26 million dollar budget, it received a lukewarm reception from moviegoers and critics at the time. Though it had the potential to become the Ghostbusters of the ’90s, it was too “out there” for the casual viewer to “get;” too dark for the family friendly crowd, and not gory enough for the usual horror fanatic. Still, a quarter of a century after its release, it remains a stepping stone in Jackson’s flimography, and worth a revisit, whether it’s your first time ever seeing it, or fifth.