Film Scouts Reviews

"The Frighteners"

by Karen Jaehne

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It's the Grim Reaper as action hero - whose only worthy deed is to drive Michael J. Fox into the arms of Trini Alvarado. A gang of hysterical ghouls, a terrifying killer couple and a repulsive FBI agent guarantee that the movie lives up to its title.

Michael J. Fox plays Frank Bannister as the psychic version of an ambulance chaser - and an equal opportunity employer of post-life personalities. If you've got an unwanted spirit, Frank will charge you $229.95, plus a $30 surcharge for an after midnight house call, plus $100 for materials, not to mention gas. Being haunted can be an expensive habit. Frank knows, because he, too, is haunted by his past. Even as a con-man who looses his other-worldly pals on unsuspecting houses - only to come ghostbusting - Bannister fears the Grim Reaper.

Michael J. Fox wraps his comic timing in an uncomfortable ambivalence, because Frank is more comfortable communicating with the dead than with the living. Every time Frank gets himself in a bind, you want to say, "Michael, you're smart - just explain it to the other characters." Here, Fox is not the wiseacre we remember. He's works hard to give the character of Frank an emotional resonance unusual in a comic horror flick, even when he's shooting holy water from a squirt gun to drive poltergeists from Dr. Lynsky's (Trini Alvarado) kitchen.

The town of Fairwater is losing its citizens rapidly - and Frank's psychic abilities enable him to see numbers of their foreheads, indicating all too clearly whose number is up and who's about to go down. It's not giving away too much to say that Alvarado's half-wit husband is just as annoying a ghost as he was a spouse, so she's only too happy to join forces with Bannister to spring a young woman named Patricia from her haunted house. They must be forgiven for making several such stupid mistakes. But they're nowhere near as stupid as FBI Agent Milton Dammers.

Cult horror star Jeffrey Combs takes Dammers beyond stereotype into fearsome parody. Dammers turns into a little side show of his own making, becoming so weird he's utterly unbearable. By the time he joins in a chase through an abandoned hospital, you realize he's way out in front of the movie's own grab-bag outrageousness.

The FBI Agent recalls director Peter Jackson's personal style. The special effects otherwise dominate the movie, and Jackson doesn't have sufficient space to do the quirky, kinky stuff we loved in "Heavenly Creatures" or "Dead Alive" (aka "Braindead"). Still, he effortlessly manages out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, even near-life-experiences - such a mark of accomplishment as to put him in that grave new world of foreign directors keeping Hollywood genres alive.

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