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If ghosts are really dead and well
And haunting us instead of hell
Or heaven, then it’s fair to ponder
What they’re up to when they wander.

Could it be their lifeless heads
Are in our bathrooms, in our beds,
Next to us when we’re alone
To judge us and what’s on our phone?

Could it be they find their fun
In terrifying everyone?
Just float a chair or whisper “boo,”
And while you scream, they laugh at you.

Or maybe they just do their schtick
Because the dead resent the quick
And all the things they can’t enjoy
And so endeavor to annoy?

Or maybe phantoms leave a trail
Of fear to flout the coffin nail,
To prove to us as well as them
That they exist by their mayhem.

It must be hard to be a ghoul.
To be invisible is cruel.
So next time you are all alone,
Turn to the ghost you might have known
And dare to share a friendly word,
Perhaps their first since being interred.
And if they don’t scare you away,
Just know you might have made their day.

MPA rating:  R (for violence, mostly PG-13-level except for one scene)

Yep, I’m still here catching up on my 2022 Blindspots, but I have officially seen them all! So now it’s just getting the reviews out. Though I had intended it for last Halloween, next up is a little horror film with some unlikely bedfellows in director Peter Jackson before he hit the big time with Lord of the Rings and Michael J. Fox in his last starring role, shortly before announcing his Parkinson’s diagnosis. Between Jackson’s penchant for horror comedy (much toned down here) and Fox’s natural charisma, the two proved to be a good mix, finding both humor and pathos in a tale of a con artist who can see dead people and must battle a murderous phantom only he can see.

Fox plays Frank Bannister, a self-proclaimed banisher of ghosts, who gets help in faking the hauntings in a small American town (actually Jackson’s native New Zealand) from his spectral collaborators (Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, and John Astin). He alone can see ghosts ever since a near-death experience, and after a run-in with a boorish jock (Peter Dobson) and his kinder wife (Trini Alvarado), Frank endeavors to stop a series of sudden random deaths that seem to be caused by the Grim Reaper.

After he’d earned a name through several strictly Kiwi projects of varying taste, The Frighteners was Jackson’s first Hollywood movie, and its mishmash of genres adds to it feeling like a turning-point film, the work of someone still perfecting their talent for mainstream audiences. Despite the twisty plot and colorful performances, it seemed to me that the real intended star was the special effects provided by Weta Digital (now Weta FX) to bring the ghosts to life, particularly the villain whose shape is often seen moving underneath solid surfaces like walls. By today’s standards, those all-CGI moments now have an inescapably dated and unreal look to them, but I can imagine they were a wonder in the mid-1990s.

While Fox’s natural likeability overshadows that of his character, he nails the dramatic moments and the interactions with characters that are not actually there, since all the ghost scenes were shot twice, with and without the ghosts present. As for the antagonists, while the shadowy reaper is a formidable threat, Jeffrey Combs is a scene-stealer as Miles Dammers, the intense FBI agent trying to tie Frank to the killings. Combs was clearly channeling a neurotic Jim Carrey and is a primary source of the film’s humor, which can be hit-and-miss.

Most of the film’s mixed reviews seem to consider it “tonally uneven,” which is true, never going for full-on belly laughs or deep-seated horror. The ending especially forgoes any of the light-hearted campiness in order to make events feel as hopeless as possible for the heroes while also overdoing explanatory flashbacks. Other issues include the rather shallow romance and the fact that the harrowing opening scene doesn’t make much sense in retrospect.

I don’t mean to sound overly negative; I very much enjoyed The Frighteners and actually watched it twice. It’s not high art nor an outright dud, so it’s hard to figure out in which bucket of appreciation to place it. But it’s an entertaining amalgam of influences that deserves its cult following, and I’m grateful that it served as a stepping stone for Jackson and Weta toward The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Besides, you can’t go wrong ending a movie with “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.”

Best line: (Frank) “You are SUCH an a**hole.”
(Dammers, unhinged) “Yes, I am. I’m an a**hole… with an Uzi.”

Rank:  List Runner-Up

© 2023 S.G. Liput
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