Three or four years ago, Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles was considered too crude and vulgar to be shown in New Zealand’s International Film Festival. Two years ago, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures made a stunning debut in the film festivals. Last year, Peter Jackson’s spoof TV documentary Forgotten Silver set many of us chortling and a few pedantic purists whingeing about its misuse of the documentary form.
Very well. I admit I had no particular liking for Jackson’s debuts Bad Taste and Brain Dead. But I really do warm to the film maker who so effortlessly gets up the noses of the stuffier, more politically correct segments of the critical establishment. Jackson has what some of his detractors don’t have - a sense of fun and a sheer enjoyment of film as a medium for illusion.
Once again co-scripted by Jackson and Fran Walsh, The Frighteners is unashamedly an entertainment package. Its slam-bang, thrill—a—minute style I can best compare with a roller—coaster ride.
Michael J. Fox plays a psychic con man. He employs two friendly ghosts to haunt houses so he can gain the credit (and cash) for cleaning them out. This endearing arrangement goes awry when a murderous supernatural force gets loose. Fox becomes a suspect and the reliable “double chase” structure has Fox and his friendly ghost chums trying to stop the Grim Reaper before they are stopped themselves.
The setting is an American small town and the principal cast are Americans. But local audiences will quickly realise (even if American audiences don’t) that the back grounds are distinctively New Zealand. The Frighteners was shot entirely in Wellington and Lyttelton. New Zealand actors pop up in bit parts, sporting American accents.
The special effects (created in Wellington) look state-of-the-art. Wallpaper and carpets twist and torque as malign ghosts move them. The Grim Reaper, leaping at high speed from rooftop to rooftop, is a genuinely eerie figure. Jackson and Walsh even slip in a Stairway to Heaven and a Slipway to Hell, and there are moments when The Frighteners approaches a splatter genre that is not for the faint—hearted. Lethal stalkings through a deserted hospital seem more tailored to the teen market than to kids.
But the humour always saves it - Fox’s nerdy and funky ghost companions. Unquiet spectres in the graveyard shouting their orders at passing funerals. A psychic, hypochondnac FBI agent. And an implied romance between Michael J. Fox and Trini Alvarado which is as much of a throwaway as the best of the gags. The Frighteners is busy-busy and fairly exhausting in places. But it fulfils Jackson’s evident ideal of cinema as a nonstop funfair.
North & South Review by Nicholas Reid - February 1997
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