1996. Directed by Peter Jackson.
Take a horror comedy, throw it in a blender with a romantic afterthought. Add in slick CGI specters and outstanding make up effects. What you get is Peter Jackson's farcical ghost story, The Frighteners.
Widower Frank Bannister is an ex-architect who, after a near death experience, can see beyond the veil. He uses his ghostly companions to set up elaborate hauntings and then shows up as the paranormal expert to solve them. Frank begins to see prophetic numbers carved into the heads of people who soon die of unusual cardiac problems. Frank begins to investigate the most recent victim's "murder" with the help of the dead man's neglected wife, putting him up against what may be the Grim Reaper himself.
The monumental struggle the effects department endured to guaranteed The Frighteners' release is a tale until itself. Jackson used serious hustle to convince Hollywood that New Zealand was worth the investment and after countless setbacks and a genuine grassroots effort, various technical specialists came together to ensure the film was completed. Every scene with the ghosts required two shots, one with the living and one with the dead on blue screen, requiring both to act against parties who weren't physically there and the final product obfuscates the complexities phenomenally.
Michael J. Fox, in his last feature film performance, is wily and jaded in all the right ways. He's supported by a grab bag of B movie titans including John Astin, Dee Wallace Stone, Chi McBride, Jake Busey, and the great R. Lee Ermey. Jeffrey Combes's damaged FBI cult infiltrator is the show stopper. His bizarre performance awkwardly melds with Jackson's thematic hodgepodge to further mutate The Frighteners into yet another kind of story, this one being rife with conspiracy theories and psychic powers.
Dan Hennah's art direction is the epitome of subterfuge. Tasked by Hollywood to make New Zealand appear as the American Midwest, every location is packed with tiny details that further the illusion while maintaining the slapstick Gothic mood. The one and only Danny Elfman's score is focused and absurd in equal amounts, invoking a sense of nostalgia for other films with a similar design(That were also scored by Elfman). Jackson and Fran Walsh's script is funny and not afraid to go off into some truly unexpected territory while still remaining in the ludicrous surreal. Ghosts are seen as more of an inconvenience for their stubbornness, rejecting salvation and damnation to continue pursuing their self important agendas.
Available now for digital streaming, The Frighteners is a great concept that in the end fails to cross the finish line. It spends a great amount of time establishing the parameters of the world it creates with such an amazing amount of detail that it's conclusion leaves the viewer wanting more of the interplay between the living and the dead and less of its serial killer dominated final act. A popcorn film, but an excellently made popcorn film, The Frighteners is vintage Jackson. There are strands of his earlier, darker, adult themed films, and hints at his greatest that would follow. Worth a revisit if you grew up with this cult gem or a first time viewing if you're interested in a fun supernatural mystery with great effects and a mostly harmless story.