THE FRIGHTENERS (1996) Reviews and overview

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‘No rest for the wicked.’

The Frighteners is a 1996 New Zealand-American horror comedy film directed by Peter Jackson (King Kong; Braindead; Bad Taste) from a screenplay co-written with his wife, Fran Walsh. The movie stars Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Dee Wallace Stone, Jeffrey Combs, and Jake Busey

Jackson and Walsh conceived the idea for The Frighteners during the scriptwriting phase of Heavenly Creatures. Executive producer Robert Zemeckis hired the duo to write the script, with the original intention of Zemeckis directing The Frighteners as a spin-off film of the television series, Tales from the Crypt.

With Jackson and Walsh’s first draft submitted in January 1994, Zemeckis believed the film would be better off directed by Jackson, produced by Zemeckis and funded/distributed by Universal Studios.

The visual effects were created by Jackson’s Weta Digital, which had only been in existence for three years. This, plus the fact that The Frighteners required more digital effects shots than almost any movie made until that time, resulted in the eighteen-month period for effects work by Weta Digital being largely stressed.

Despite a rushed post-production schedule, Universal was so impressed with Jackson’s rough cut on The Frighteners, the studio moved the theatrical release date closer by four months. However, the film was not a box office success, taking $29,359,216 worldwide against an undisclosed big budget.

The movie stars Michael J. Fox (Mars Attacks!; Tales from the Crypt TV series; Teen Wolf), Trini Alvarado (The Chair), Peter Dobson, John Astin, Dee Wallace Stone, Jeffrey Combs, and Jake Busey.


Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is an architect who develops psychic abilities allowing him to see, hear, and communicate with ghosts after his wife’s murder. Frank initially uses his new abilities to befriend ghosts, whom he sends to haunt people so that he can charge them handsome fees for “exorcising” the ghosts.

However, the spirit of a mass murderer appears able to attack the living and the dead, posing as the Grim Reaper, prompting Frank to investigate the supernatural presence…


“Jackson had made laugh-filled horror films with Bad Taste and Dead/Alive, but those films were high-camp. With The Frighteners, Jackson stumbles as the comedic elements of Frank’s dubious business and his chatty ghosts, doesn’t quite gel with the creepy “Reaper” who is killing the residents of Fairwater.” DVD Talk

“Even in his Hollywood debut, it’s obvious that Jackson’s one of those rare talents who can balance his sheer enthusiasm with fine craftsmanship. The Frighteners is rough around the edges on paper, filled with digressions and subplots that never quite get their due, but it moves with a purpose once Jackson finds his footing.” Oh, the Horror!

“It’s driven by some pretty nifty special effects, but the characters are fairly lifeless, and the plot, when it makes sense, is silly and needlessly convoluted. As horror-comedies go, this one doesn’t offer much that’s original or daring.” Reel Views

“One of the more excruciating experiences for any movie lover is to sit through a movie filled with frenetic nonstop action, in which, however, nothing of interest happens. The Frighteners is a film like that, a film that compels me to break my resolution never to quote Shakespeare’s “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Roger Ebert

Cast and characters:

Michael J. Fox … Frank Bannister
Trini Alvarado … Dr Lucy Lynskey
Peter Dobson … Ray Lynskey
John Astin … The Judge
Jeffrey Combs … Milton Dammers
Dee Wallace … Patricia Ann Bradley (as Dee Wallace-Stone)
Jake Busey … Johnny Bartlett
Chi McBride … Cyrus
Jim Fyfe … Stuart, Bannister’s Ghostly Assistant
Troy Evans … Sheriff Walt Perry
Julianna McCarthy … Old Lady Bradley
R. Lee Ermey … Sgt. Hiles
Elizabeth Hawthorne … Magda Rees-Jones
Angela Bloomfield … Debra Bannister
Desmond Kelly … Harry Sinclair

Technical details:

110 minutes | 123 minutes (director’s cut)
DTS | DTS-Stereo
Aspect ratio: 2.39: 1


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