“The Frighteners” is a migraine-inducing horror/comedy with a punk/ Gothic/smartypants vibe - it’s as if Anne Rice and the members of KISS collaborated on a limerick. A very bad limerick.
Writer/director Peter Jackson (“Heavenly Creatures”) is the brains behind the migraine. His performers affect a frenzied, loud style that is the acting equivalent of singing off-key. The story, which involves a series of ghostly murders, makes no sense, and we never figure out what the ghosts can do because the rules keep changing. Even the setting is a puzzle - virtually all of the actors are American, but what are they doing in this place that is clearly not America (it’s not specified, but the movie was shot in New Zealand)?
Give affable Michael J. Fox credit for not sinking to the level of this vile, skanky stew. In the movie’s early, “Beetlejuice” wanna-be scenes, he’s a con artist who pretends to rid homes of their ghostly occupants. Soon enough, though, he’s on the trail of a serial killer who returns from the crypt to try for a homicide record.
Jackson may think he’s satirizing our obsession with the numbers serial killers rack up, but he’s not. “The Frighteners” has the nasty heartlessness of “Natural Born Killers,” without its intelligence and sledgehammer wit. There’s one special effect that is cool - the ghosts assume human form from under floors or behind walls, making the term “haunted house” literal - until you realize, “This is a movie about scary wallpaper.”
This kind of gruesome farce requires discipline, but Jackson simply crams in whatever strikes him as funny or weird. It’s a sloppiness exemplified by the line Dee Wallace Stone says as she prepares to carve up a human victim with a chainsaw, “I’m in the mood for some vivisection.” Couldn’t anyone who made this movie even bother to look up what that word means?
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “THE FRIGHTENERS” Locations: Lincoln Heights, Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Peter Jackson, starring Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans Running time: 1:49 Rating: R