Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Frighteners: Coming soon to a theater near you. In 1996.

at 5:58 PM
[ed. note: this intro made a LOT more sense when I wrote this post on Wednesday]
Guyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyys!

After Monday was all depressing songs and then I failed to post yesterday, I bet you thought I killed myself. Guess what? I did. I'm now posting from bEyOnD tHe GrAvE. Actually I'm posting from wItHiN the grave, because my laptop killed itself too, so that I could keep blogging.

Am I allowed to be disappointed that Peter Jackson did Lord of the Rings? I admit that I was the exact perfect age to experience those movies - I got to have my every-middle-schooler-since-the-'70s LOTR phase before the movies came out, experiencing the books as just books, then I also got the full excitement of seeing them come to life at age 13. Future generations probably won't even be able to mention the books without appending "Viggo Mortleson, TM". Or, you know, contextualizing them among the sure-to-happen film and television "expansions" of the universe. You think Hollywood is going to let the most profitable intellectual property since Star Wars die just because J.R.R. Tolkien did? Good one. If you thought all the tabletop and video game gaidens were embarrassing, you haven't even seen my notes from the pitch meeting for The Lord of the Rings: Beyond the Ocean that They Sailed Away on at the End of the Last One.

That ain't sound right. Where's my sheet?

Right, The Fright. This was Jackson after hitting it big in Hollywood, but before hitting it the-biggest-thing-ever. A Robert Zemeckis Executive Producer credit brings with it a decided panache along with a degree of restraint. Meaning it's not as putridly uninviting, unmarketable, and deviously brilliant as Dead Alive, but still has some of Jackson's devilish old touch. That is to say, it may star Michael J. Fox, but it also features Jeffrey Combs. In their respective finest roles. The film is frantic and at times bizarre, but it's held together so seamlessly and so well-executed in every regard, from sets to score to acting and special effects, that it's hard not to note the budget. I guess what I'm trying to convey is that it is a very movie-like movie. Danny Elfman composed the music, for chrissakes. I can't imagine anyone more suited to immediately communicating a surreal and heightened reality.
The special effects are mostly good (and the visual design is great), even if occasionally they go pure Looney Tunes
It's a severe disservice that Frighteners gets cast off into genre-land, because a simple horror comedy it is not. And I think that's one of the reasons that it's - and I'm about to use a term I don't particularly like - misunderstood. Examining the movie solely as a horror comedy, it's not all that successful. It's not scary, it's not even attempting to effect a scary tone, and it's comic in the same sense that any well written adventure or fantasy is - not going for punchlines, but developing ridiculous scenarios and personality traits and letting those play out naturally. Moreover, the film moves from slapstick to murder mystery to psycho slasher so successfully and without ever undermining or altering the plot that it's impossible to boil it down past "epic", as far as I'm concerned. I recently complained that Jacob's Ladder wanted to be a thousand different kinds of movie and ended up being one retarded one. The problem there was that every time it made a genre shift, it uprooted all of reality; we got new characters, a new conflict, new themes. That's why it was moronic. The Frighteners is awfully ambitious, but keeps it all together by tying everything back to Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) and his relation to these mysterious murders. First he's sleazily conning the bereaved (comedy), then he feels bad about it (romance), then he witnesses a murder and, along with his new sorta-girlfriend and an off-the-rails FBI agent, starts putting pieces together (mystery), then he has to figure out how to defeat the not-so-human culprit (I dunno fantasy or something), then the psychos on opposing sides of the law race to kill him in a spooky mental hospital (action shoot-em-up/thriller). The critical response was that it was too much, but if anything I was left dying for more. 

As for the "comedy" label - it's about as appropriate for The Frighteners as it is for Raiders of the Lost Ark or Batman Returns... that is, with one caveat. The first third of the film, particularly a certain trio of ghosts, play as straight-up Three Stooges wackiness. That's not a bad thing - as a matter of fact, it's quite impressive that Jackson sets up this sardonic slapstick tone and is able to completely abandon it without slowing the film's pace at all. This front-loading of easy jokes actually carries us along until we've got some decent characters built up and can run more naturally. While I do wish we could've gotten at least one more scene with a particular Elvis-themed blockhead, I was totally happy to watch the real-world lunacy of Jeffrey Combs and Jake Busey instead.
I just want to post every screen-cap of Combs I can find. It's so hard to choose.
The movie establishes the kind of cool world with just enough mythology and explanation that I want to see more, but don't feel like I need to. It all makes enough sense, even if I don't know why Jake Busey was able to turn into the Grim Reaper or how ghosts age. I didn't necessarily have all the information, but this was a case where it felt like the filmmakers (or to remove them from the equation, the filmic world itself) did. No one kissed Lois Lane to erase her memory. And come on, that final scene where Lucy is revealed to have psychic powers and Dammers to have become a ghost is cute perfection. It wraps everything up in a way that says "and they all lived happily ever after... having dozens more crazy psychic ghost adventures!" It's that kinda hook that makes you feel like you just got a glimpse of all the shit that goes on in this world. Same with the R. Lee Ermey character and his cemetery patrol - you could have cut that scene out of the film with zero sum effect on the plot, but it gives you a moment to ponder all the weird shit Frank Bannister must see every day - and his reaction to it.

This is hardly a big deal, but a moment when I wanted to give the screen a high five: the film addresses ghosts ability to move through some things while being able to interact with others (like how they can walk on floors but through walls) without making the fatal mistake of openly addressing it. They learn how! We see novice ghosts like Frank and Ray struggling with this process, but eventually they just get the hang of it. A clumsier film would've had a ghost character nonsensically saying to himself "it sure is hard to remember how to walk on floors!" The Frighteners just gives us Michael J. Fox stumbling through floors for a few seconds as if he's learning to ice skate. It's so natural and subtle that you barely even notice, but a great touch. That's how you communicate using film! 

Puhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhlease do yourself a favor and go watch The Frighteners. It's on Netflix Instant Queue, and it is an instant classic. Why it doesn't have the same following as Army of Darkness or Big Trouble in Little China is a mystery to mankind.

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