Friday, September 13, 2013

Movie analysis: The Frighteners

Have you seen The Frighteners (1996), Peter Jackson's first big-budget Hollywood film after leaving New Zealand? I was super excited for it when it first came out before I ever see it, which just goes to show what a proto-hipster I was back then. I was much less excited after I saw it and just recently watched it again, which just goes to show you: people will watch anything Netflix offers when at the gym.

I'm also interested in ghost stories right now. Because I think my dog is haunted? No, of course it's because I'm interested in writing one. And The Frighteners offers a very classic form, with a vengeful ghost killing the living. It also presents what is a fairly classic urban fantasy scenario, with one person who has a special power: after a car crash that killed his wife, Frank Bannister has gone over the edge, and can now see ghosts. (Also, he was an architect, so that "Bannister" name is doing triple-duty.) Now Frank realizes that all the mysterious deaths in the town are due to a Grim Reaper--and he has his sights on the woman that Frank likes.

Now, in someone else's hands, this would be an action-adventure version of Ghost--and maybe it should've been. Jackson's sense of humor can be everything from off-beat to sophomoric, but it is rarely enlightening or integral, I find: there's no joke in a Jackson movie that makes you think or that couldn't be removed. Here's an example Jackson joke: the Old West sheriff ghost starts to have sex with the mummy in a sarcophagus, saying "I like when they lie still like that." Er, well--okay?

There's also a lot of cartoonish violence where real-world material bashes through (but doesn't really hurt) the ghosts. And an over-the-top Jeffrey Combs playing an occult-minded and bizarre FBI agent named, ahem, Dammers. Whether you like the moment when he pulls off his shirt and reveals a metal breastplate--or the moment where he pulls off his shirt and reveals that his body is "a map of pain"--that will depend more on your particular bent than any structure that Jackson has built in.

But for all that so much of The Frighteners is silly in that way--and devolves to that old "my past trauma was actually due to my current enemy"--there's something fun about many of the character structures, with our protagonist Frank shadowed by an antagonist lawman; an antagonist criminal; and an antagonist ghost. He's got a believer figure in the doctor widow and a skeptic in the figure of the unmarried newspaper editor--someone who brings the unhealthy back to life and someone who (like Frank Bannister) uses the deaths of others for her own gain. Meanwhile, Frank is helped by a trio of ghosts, an over-the-hill super-ego (the sheriff), an angry id (black), and a nervous ego (preppy).

There's almost too many characters, but we can see how they tried to work these characters into the main character's story.

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