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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “The Frighteners” (1996) – The 25th Anniversary

I remember seeing the tv spot for “The Frighteners” like it was yesterday. I was 11 years old when the movie came out in July of 1996. I had already been the biggest fan in he world of “Back To The Future” and I had already been following Michael J. Fox’s career from both his time on “Family Ties” and “BTTF” trilogy. So when I saw “The Frighteners” trailer on tv and saw that it’s star was Michael J. Fox, I begged my dad to take me. I even remember it played in theater three at our local six theater multiplex. It’s easy to say that I loved the movie and loved that Michael J. Fox even took the role, as it was such a departure for him from his previous films. 

At the time Fox was on a hot streak in the 90’s leading up to “The Frighteners”. He never stopped working since 1985, after the release of “Back To The Future”. He kicked off 1990 with “Back To The Future Part III” and then came “The Hard Way”, “Doc Hollywood”, “Life With Mikey”, “For Love Or Money”, “Greedy” and in 1995 starred in a supporting role opposite Michael Douglas in Rob Reiner’s “The American President”. 

“The Frighteners” was not only an out of the box role for Michael J. Fox, but it became infamously known to be a box office failure that has since reached cult favorite status. But, It also marked the last leading performance in a feature film for Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1991 while filming “Doc Hollywood”. It was during filming on location in New Zealand that Michael J. Fox had felt that his Parkinson’s was only going to get worse, so he made up his mind that he’d had enough of being away from his family making movies and decided to head back to the small screen and star in a new sitcom for ABC called “Spin City”.

But where did “The Frighteners” all start? Well it started with the man behind the camera Peter Jackson. According to the most recent information compiled in 2020, Jackson is the third highest grossing film director of all time. His films have grossed over $6.5 billion worldwide. Jackson began his career with the “splatstick” horror comedy “Bad Taste” (1987) and the black comedy “Meet the Feebles” (1989) before filming the zombie comedy “Dead Alive” (1992). He shared a nomination for Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with his partner Fran Walsh for “Heavenly Creatures”, which brought him to mainstream prominence in the film industry. 

Jackson has been awarded three Academy Awards for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), including the award for Best Director. After the release of “The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy, Jackson saw success when he directed his three hour plus epic “King Kong” with Jack Black and the murder mystery drama “The Lovely Bones” with Mark Wahlberg. 

Jackson considers “The Frighteners”, a crucial bridge in his career. After making his indie hit “Heavenly Creatures”, Jackson got Universal Pictures to finance “The Frighteners”, a film Jackson co-wrote with his film partner Fran Walsh. “The Frighteners” was his first studio movie with a real budget, but for the movie to work, he’d need to invest heavily in his then tiny digital effects company, Weta. 

Once the film was over, Jackson and his visual effects company Weta had way more computing power than they thought they needed. So Jackson and his company had to find a new film to justify all the money they spent. This is where “The Lord of the Rings” enters the picture. Making “The Frighteners” was the first step and helped lay the groundwork for the visual effects to Jackson’s multi-billion dollar “Lord of the Rings” franchise.

Peter Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh conceived the idea for “The Frighteners” in 1992, during the script-writing phase of “Heavenly Creatures”. Together, they wrote a three page film treatment and sent it to their talent agent in Hollywood. Ground breaking director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to Future” trilogy), viewed their treatment with the intention that it be a directorial vehicle for himself as a spin-off feature film of the “Tales From the Crypt” HBO series, that Zemeckis was head executive producer of.

Zemeckis hired Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh to turn their treatment into a full length screenplay in January of 1993. The husband and wife duo completed their first draft for “The Frighteners” in early January 1994. Zemeckis was so impressed with their script, he decided “The Frighteners” would work better directed by Peter Jackson. Instead Zemeckis stayed on as executive producer and the film was funded and distributed by Universal Pictures. 

Jackson says, “Bob (Robert Zemeckis) was very supportive of the project and has been there every step of the way. He was attuned to the kind of film I envisioned: a supernatural thriller slash black comedy. We wanted to make sure we had the right amount of balance between the shocks and laughs and the result was a roller coaster ride of a movie that audiences can just jump on and enjoy”. 

Universal green lighted the film to commence pre-production on a $26 million budget in April 1994. The studio also granted Jackson and Zemeckis total artistic control and the right of final cut privilege. Jackson decided to film “The Frighteners” entirely in New Zealand (Jackson’s hometown). Zemeckis and Universal agreed to the location, on the condition that Jackson made New Zealand look similar to the Midwestern United States. Principal photography began on May 14th, 1995 and lasted until November 16th, which is one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Pictures at the time.

Jackson’s Weta Digital created the films visual effects, which included computer generated imagery, as well as scale models (which were necessary to make New Zealand look American), prosthetic makeup and practical effects all with the help from Weta Workshop. The effects were so demanding Jackson had to expand their capacity from one to thirty five computers, in order to meet the visual effects for the movie. Visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor explained that effects work on “The Frighteners” was complex due to Weta’s inexperience with computer technology in the mid-1990s. Prior to “The Frighteners”, Weta worked largely with physical effects. With so many ghosts among its main cast, “The Frighteners” required more digital effects shots than almost any movie made up till that time. 

For a special effects company that had been in existence less than three years, the eighteen-month period for completing “The Frighteners” was largely stressful. Some shots were handled by a small New Zealand company called Pixel Perfect, many of whose employees would join Jackson’s Weta Digital. Legendary make-up designer Rick Baker (“American Werewolf In London”) was hired to design the prosthetic makeup for The Judge, portrayed by John Astin (the detachable jawbone was later added digitally). However, Baker was not able to apply Astin’s five hours of makeup due to his commitment on Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor”. Makeup artist Brian Penikas (“Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy”) fulfilled Baker’s duties. 

Astin said, “The Judge is an Old West character who’s definitely seen better days. Even ghosts fall apart eventually. Riddled with worm holes, the Judge’s old bones protrude from his tattered clothes. But, it’s not easy to look that dilapidated. When the Judge appears on screen, it’s a 40-person creation from wardrobe to make-up to special effects. In all my years in show business, nobody’s ever done anything this elaborate to my body before”.

The extended shooting schedule owed much to the fact that scenes where ghosts and human characters interacted had to be filmed twice; once with the human actors on set and then actors with the ghost costumes and make-up acting against a blue screen. The two elements would later be digitally composited into one shot with the use of split screen photography. Such sequences required precise timing from the cast as they traded dialogue with characters who were merely blank air. 

The hardest challenge for the digital animators at Weta was creating the Grim Reaper, which went through many transformations before finding a physical form. “We set out with the intention of doing the Reaper as a rod puppet, maybe shooting it in a water tank”, Jackson commented. “We even thought of filming someone, dressed in costume, at different camera speeds”. Test footage was shot with puppets and a man in a Reaper suit, but in the end, it was decided that using computer animation would be the easiest task”.

With digital effects work running behind schedule, Zemeckis convinced Wes Takahashi, an animation supervisor from the George Lucas owned visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, to help work on “The Frighteners”. Takahashi reflected “The shots Zemeckis showed me were pretty remarkable. But there were still about 400 shots to do and everyone was kind of worried”. Takahashi was quickly drafted as a visual effects supervisor and wondered if whether “The Frighteners” could even be finished in time. “There was no way we’d make the deadline. I figured out a concerted plan involving Jackson and Zemeckis to convince Universal it was worthy of asking for more money”. 

The executives at Universal proposed splitting some of the shots to visual effects companies within the United States, but Jackson felt it was a chance to show that New Zealand filmmaking could stand alongside Hollywood, this convinced Universal otherwise. Instead, “The Frighteners” received an accelerated release date, four months earlier than planned, and an additional $6 million in financing, with fifteen digital animators and computer workstations (some were borrowed from Universal and other effects companies in the US). 

It was Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” that helped lure Michael J. Fox, who saw the film in Toronto after being approached by Zemeckis and Jackson to star in “The Frighteners”. Fox recalled “After I saw ‘Heavenly Creatures’. I told Peter, ‘Yes. I’ll do whatever you want’. I was really attracted to the weirdness of ‘The Frighteners’ script and it seemed too tempting to pass up. It presented a lot of challenges because I’m interacting with elements that aren’t there. Most of the pieces of the puzzle come together later through special effects”.

No actor other than Michael J. Fox was considered for the role of Frank Bannister. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh were having a meeting with Robert Zemeckis about the film, and his name came up. Jackson liked the idea, and sent the script to Fox. Actors Tom Cruise, Matthew Broderick, Johnny Depp, John Cusack and Danny DeVito (still trying to wrap my head around that one) were considered for the part of Frank Bannister if Michael J. Fox had turned down the part.

Commenting on Fox’s performance, Jackson says, “Michael has a really interesting edge to him in this role that I find fascinating to watch. I think audiences are going to be quite surprised. He has been a collaborator during the whole creative process, from start to finish”. It was reported a few times that Michael J. Fox repeatedly blew his lines by calling The Judge (played by John Astin) “Doc”, the name of Christopher Lloyd’s character in the “Back to the Future” trilogy.

The physical demands of the shoot put Fox out of commission briefly with a broken foot, which he just shrugged off saying, “Pain is temporary, film is forever”. A movie adage that Michael J. Fox came up with that has been printed, used on film sets and quoted many times since and the quote has been credited to him. Peter Jackson said Fox’s injury was actually a blessing in disguise, because it allowed him to work on the script some more, and edit some of the film’s scenes, while Fox recovered for a week.

Fox’s character Frank Bannister is a broken man with a troubled past. He’s not a great person, and that pathetic nature permeates the film, but there’s the potential for greatness inside him. You cheer for him because we know he’s doing his best, but we also pity him that gives the film a nice pathos. Fox gives one of his best performances that brings out the best in all his talents as an actor.

Fox’s co-star Trini Alvarado reveled in the film’s action scenes, saying “I really enjoyed being a woman who gets to throw a punch. Lucy’s not passive, she goes for it”. Jackson says, “Trini was involved in some very intense and physical sequences and she was quite proud of showing me her bruises from the previous day’s work. She also has many scenes where she watches Michael’s character relate to ghosts she can’t see. I was impressed with her skill in responding to his reactions and establishing empathy and emotional attachment between their characters”.

One of the film’s other highlights is the work of Jeffrey Combs as FBI agent Dammers, an unusual man who possesses an extreme dedication to his job. Combs who is best known for his starring role in H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror tale and cult favorite movie “Re-Animator”. Jackson says “Dammers is somewhat twisted, even for an FBI agent. Jeffrey’s performance captures his eccentricities in a powerful fashion. Suffice to say, you would think twice about breaking the law if you knew the consequence was having Dammers in your face”. The rest of the cast includes: Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey, Peter Dobson and R. Lee Ermey in a role that’s an homage to his role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”. 

The film score was written and composed by Danny Elfman (“Batman”, “Mission Impossible”). It was released in 1996 on cassette and compact disc by Universal Records. The closing credits play a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” performed by New Zealand alternative rock band The Mutton Birds. Their version of the song had been previously released as a B-side to their single “She’s Been Talking” released in 1996.

The intended release date for “The Frighteners” was October 1996, but after Universal studio executives viewed a rough cut of the movie, they were impressed enough to move the release date to their “summer slot” on July 19th, 1996. Jackson had often disputed the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) decision on “The Frighteners” rating. Aware that he was meant to be delivering Universal a PG-13 rated film, Jackson tried his best to omit graphic violence as much as possible, but the MPAA still believed it deserved an R rating. 

Opening in 1,675 theaters and debuting at #5 on it’s opening weekend. The film earned $5 million in it’s three day gross. Eventually it grossed a worldwide total of $29 million on a $26 million budget, barely making any profit. “The Frighteners” ended up being a box office disappointment, mostly due to competition from opening against “Independence Day” and in “The Frighteners” confusing marketing campaign. 

Jackson commented on this as he was disappointed by Universal’s ubiquitous marketing strategy, including releasing a poster which looked really cool, but featured an image that’s never featured in the actual movie and doesn’t tell you anything about the picture other than that it looked to be a horror movie. Additionally, Jackson acknowledged “The Frighteners” tone made it hard to pigeon-hole and sell, and his experience on the film made him understand the importance of marketing. 

The Frighteners was first released on DVD in August 1998, but included no special features. To coincide with the release of Jackson’s “King Kong”, Universal Studios issued a double sided director’s cut DVD of “The Frighteners” in November 2005, which featured a version of the movie that was 15 minutes longer. The other side includes a documentary prepared by Jackson and his company WingNut Films originally intended for the Laserdisc release. The theatrical and director’s cut of the movie, were transported to HD DVD in 2007 and Blu-ray in 2011. 

The “making-of” documentary that was included with the directors cut on DVD and Blu Ray, stands as one of the longest running making of documentaries that runs just under 224 minutes, which is roughly three and half hours long. While the theatrically released movie itself is only an hour and fifty minutes. The documentary was originally intended to be about one hour long, but when Universal postponed Peter Jackson’s take on “King Kong” due to an inflation of monster movies that year, Jackson was able to expand and delve deeper into the documentary and making it exceptionally longer.

Peter Jackson took the kind of visceral, offbeat horror style he was already known for in his independent films before “The Frighteners”. He used his past talents and mixed that with the films that inspired him, giving us a film that was new, funny and exciting. Jackson infuses the whole film with a kinetic energy and tone that’s an accessible, fun horror comedy from one of the genre’s best. It only makes you wish Jackson made more small, original movies like this. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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