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Peter Jackson’s 1996 paranormal horror-comedy The Frighteners is available to stream on Starz, and 25 years after its initial release, it’s an absolute joy to watch.
Despite a meager box-office haul and pretty mixed reviews, The Frighteners has lived on as something of a cult classic. Its 25th-anniversary last month was met with plenty of love. And it deserves it. The Frighteners is a gem, and a real glimpse into Peter Jackson’s career trajectory, moving from outrageous B-movies to Oscar-winning epics.
If you’re looking for something to stream on Starz, it’s well worth your while.
- $8.99 at Starz
A clever spin on the paranormal
I never saw The Frighteners as a kid. And yet, I’ve felt something akin to nostalgia every time I’ve watched it as an adult. It was perhaps overshadowed by its peers in 1996, like Scream and Mars Attacks. But it builds on films that came before, like Ghostbusters, The Adams Family, and Cemetery Man. And it has certainly impacted the films and television that came after, like Pushing Daisies and What We Do in the Shadows.
Like the Ghostbusters before him, Jake Bannister (Michael J. Fox) has a gift for handling hauntings. Armed with business cards, he stalks the local cemetery in search of new marks for his psychic investigation business — who you gonna call? Frank Bannister.
The trouble is, Frank is a grifter.
He can commune with the dead — that part is true. After a car accident left his wife dead, he developed his sixth sense. But ghosts are mostly harmless, hanging around their graves as they work up the courage to walk into the light. So, how does Frank make his money? He enlists the help of a few ghosts looking to kill time. They haunt a house, and he swoops in to save the day, for a fee.
Read: The best horror movies on Hulu
But Frank catches on to an angel-of-death type picking off the inhabitants of his small town. So, he works with Lucy, a local woman who recently lost her husband to this mysterious reaper. Then things get complicated when decades-old serial murders are linked to the new deaths and Frank has to come to terms with how his wife actually died.
The cynical tone and madcap humor of The Frighteners make it feel fresh and funny, but it also has some genuine scares too. It plays the horror-comedy game without ever sacrificing one genre for the other.
Peter Jackson goes big(ish)
If you’ve ever wondered how Peter Jackson got from making R-rated Muppets to his record-breaking and award-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Frighteners is a great film to revisit.
As Bloody Disgusting‘s Meagan Navaro has pointed out, Jackson and his collaborators — notably special effects legend Rick Baker and Richard Taylor — create a seamless viewing experience with life-like miniatures and haunting creature effects. The miniatures in particular are entirely unnoticeable, creating a believable vision of Midwestern America despite Jackson’s preferred New Zealand shooting locations.
The Frighteners offers the best of Peter Jackson’s pre- and post-Lord of the Rings style.
Jackson’s next films, his massive Lord of the Rings trilogy, would continue the use of miniatures. This time to create an immersive Middle-earth.
Peter Jackson has had a wild career. He made cult hits like his early low-budget outings Bad Taste, Dead Alive, Meet the Feebles (those aforementioned R-rated Muppets), and Heavenly Creatures. And he made blockbuster juggernauts like The Lord of the Rings and King Kong.
But The Frighteners came along right in the middle. It showcased the director’s diverse abilities perhaps better than any of the other titles in his filmography. It balances crude jokes, top-tier visual effects, and an intimate, human story about grief and finding closure in the face of unimaginable loss.
The Frighteners is a horror-comedy classic
The Frighteners deserved better than its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release (maybe competing with Independence Day doomed it from the start).
It has some of the morbidly creative qualities that have made Tim Burton a household name, but it somehow feels more and less showy than Burton’s oeuvre. And that’s for the best.
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Produced by Robert Zemeckis, whose Back to the Future made Fox a star, The Frighteners is also an actor’s movie. Dee Wallace Stone, Chi McBride, and Jake Busey all shine in particular.
But then there’s Jeffrey Combs. The cult star gives a gleefully bonkers performance. He plays a detective with expertise in the paranormal, gleaned from his traumatic time undercover with various cults. His undercover work has left him completely unhinged (and terrified of women who raise their voices). It’s an over-the-top role that looks as fun to play as it is to watch. Combs’ background in films like Re-Animator also instantly links The Frighteners to a rich lineage of horror-comedy.
Like many classics before it, The Frighteners deserves more love than it initially got. But it’s sitting there on Starz waiting to be streamed by generations who can discover it anew and finally appreciate what it always had to offer.