How Peter Jackson’s final foray into the horror genre proved that death is no way to make a living
In 1994, following a slew of splatter horrors and low-budget, home grown genre flicks, Peter Jackson scored a commercial and critical hit with a slightly more serious, though no less subversive, film in Heavenly Creatures, a psychological thriller based on the true crime story of the Parker-Hulme murder case which took place in 1954 in Christchurch, New Zealand. The film focused on the unhealthy relationship between its principal protagonists, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, played by Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, respectively, in their big screen debuts, whose shared adolescent fantasies turned deadly when their relationship became obsessive and the boundaries between the fantasy world they’d constructed and reality became blurred. The film would receive an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay and would mark Jackson as a director to watch. Thus, it was somewhat surprising that following Heavenly Creatures, Jackson chose to return to his genre roots with a view to fashioning a blockbuster horror-comedy on a Hollywood budget that had more in common with his outrageous early film output than, say, Peter Weir’s atmospheric and deeply unsettling Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The Frighteners was originally conceived by Jackson and Fran Walsh whilst they were scripting Heavenly Creatures in 1992. After a treatment was submitted to their agent, it wound up in the hands of Robert Zemeckis, who liked it so much he hired the couple to draft a complete script, which he planned to direct. In January 1994, Jackson and Walsh submitted a completed draft. The Frighteners was originally slated for consideration as one of three Tales from the Crypt Presents movies, where it would have sat comfortably alongside the likes of Demon Knight, released in 1995, and Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantinos’ From Dusk Til Dawn, as part of a proposed trilogy that was never fully realised. Zemeckis ultimately concluded that the film would be better served if it was directed by Jackson and produced by Zemeckis with distribution via Universal, which, in the wake of the success of Heavenly Creatures was exactly what happened.
Principal photography on The Frighteners began in May 1995 and wrapped in November of the same year, making it one the longest running shoots Universal ever okayed. The reasons for the protracted shoot were variable. However, primarily the film took as long as it did because of the need to shoot a number of scenes twice, once with real world characters on set and once with the spectral characters against a blue screen. The two were subsequently blended by Weta using split screen photography, which was a massive undertaking in and of itself. Jackson, surprisingly, had final cut on the film, probably as a result of Zemeckis’ involvement, and was able to insist that Weta Digital maintain responsibility for the movie’s effects to showcase the filmmaking talent in his home country. He also insisted the film be made entirely in New Zealand, which Universal agreed to provided Jackson could identify specific localities in and around Wellington that resembled the American Midwest.
Dr. Lucy Lynskey: Tell me, why is it that you can see Ray and I can’t?
Frank Bannister: I was in an accident. A car accident… about five years ago .I don’t know they say that sometimes when you have a traumatic experience that it can alter your perception.
Initial reactions to the film were positive. Studio execs, on seeing an early cut of the film, were sure that they were onto a winner, and pushed for an early release date to take the place of Stallone vehicle Daylight, which was running behind schedule. This resulted in the film opening in the same period as Roland Emmerich’s all conquering alien invasion behemoth Independence Day, and on the same day the Summer Olympics started in Atlanta. As a result, The Frighteners opened 5th at the box office the week of its release and just about managed to claw back 29 of its $30,000,000 cost worldwide. Had it been released in October, which was the filmmakers’ preference, its proximity to Halloween, along with a PG-13 rating as opposed to the R rating it received, would have likely boosted the box office returns considerably.
Following the death of his wife in a tragic road traffic accident, one-time successful architect Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) develops the ability to see and engage with the dead. Bannister secures the services of three ghosts, Cyrus (Chi McBride), Stuart (Jim Fyfe) and The Judge (John Astin) to assist him in setting up fake hauntings so Bannister is able to then exorcise the ghosts and claim compensation. People start to die in the small town where Bannister lives, and Frank discovers that the deaths are all the result of a mysterious entity dressed as the Grim Reaper, who is going about carving numbers on his victims’ heads that only Bannister is able to see, before killing them for reasons that Bannister is unable to fathom. Frank falls under suspicion for the murders and sets about resolving the mystery to clear his name and catch the killer.
On the surface, The Frighteners is a ghost story/spoof that merrily lampoons a variety of fright movie tropes in a respectful and creatively satisfying manner. Haunted house and spook story tropes vie for space with Evil Dead 2 slapstick, Beetlejuice styled afterlife aesthetics and Ghostbusters styled paranormal sleuthing. Body horror gets a share of the spoils via Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs as demented, chest-carving, Jim Carrey lookalike and show stealing perennial basket case, FBI Agent Milton Dammers. Psychological horror also rears its head, via Michael J. Fox’s performance as troubled widower Frank Bannister, whose post-traumatic stress and complex grief literally manifests itself via an unwelcome ability to interact with the dead.
The film also does a fine line in serial killer satire, via its outlandish, and occasionally tasteless rendering of killer couple Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey) and Patricia Ann Bradley (Dee Wallace Stone). Based loosely on Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend/accomplice Caril Ann Fugate, who engaged in a killing spree in Nebraska during the late 1950s, Bartlett and Bradley are all kinds of unhinged. Whilst they may not be quite as satirically on topic as contemporary killers Mickey and Mallory from Oliver Stone’s wildly unconventional media baiting send-up, Natural Born Killers, they make for an impressively demented, gleefully macabre, celebrity and fame obsessed couple.
Judge: When a man’s jawbone drops off it’s time to reassess the situation.
For the most part, The Frighteners worked as a transitional piece for Jackson that blended the blockbuster ethos of 90S Hollywood with the outrageous cult sensibility of the director’s earlier output. The film fused practical and modern filmmaking techniques, and cult and mainstream casting sensibilities to wonderful effect, creating the sort of cross-demographic fertilisation that ought to have appealed to genre and casual cinemagoers alike.
In terms of storytelling, The Frighteners proved a more ambitious film than earlier Jackson efforts, Heavenly Creatures notwithstanding. It certainly made better use of characterisation and plot mechanics. It may not have been as weighty as Heavenly Creatures, or, for that matter, as coherent as its predecessor. However, it still managed to engage on an emotional level thanks predominantly to a vulnerable and entirely charming performance from Michael J. Fox, in what would ultimately be his final leading man role, his struggles with Parkinson’s disease, a condition he’d been diagnosed with back in 1991, beginning to take their tole.
In order to tell its story effectively and to create the delirious, frenzied visuals the film would rely on for its unsavoury laugh quotient, The Frighteners would fuse the burgeoning talents of Weta Digital’s effects team with that of make-up maestro Rick Baker, who was responsible for The Judge’s decomposing prosthetics. The effects company, which Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk established in 1993 to work on Heavenly Creatures, would learn the fundamentals of their trade on the job, since the film required more digital effects trickery and shots than many a film released prior to that time.
A particular headache in a film packed full of difficult-to-realize FX was The Soul Collector, which featured as a post-mortem Grim Reaper disguise for Jake Busey’s serial-killer-gone-rogue during the early, lighter half of the film. The crew initially developed a puppet to shoot on green screen which Jackson stated, ‘looked stupid’. They also considered filming an actor in dress-up at various speeds, before the problem was resolved by effects artist Gray Horsfield, who was able to visualise the ‘flying cloth’ look Jackson had envisaged through the use of a computer code he developed to address the issue.
The protracted shooting schedule was tough on the company. As Richard Taylor noted, this was the first film the team had worked on where the majority of the effects would be achieved through the use of CG. Since the team were unfamiliar with the computer tech required to pull this off, progress was slow. Staff from Wellington-based FX company Pixel Perfect were drafted in to help manage some of the workload. However, executive producer Zemeckis expressed concern that the team might not be able to deliver the film on time so Wes Takahashi from Industrial Light and Magic was hired to supervise proceedings. Jackson, typically, insisted that Weta be allowed to finish the work themselves, without support, which they eventually did. Though some of the effects, such as the wallpaper ghost reminiscent of a Freddy Krueger dream sequence from A Nightmare on Elm Street, lacked detail, segments such as the final time shifting hospital climax, The Soul Collector atop an out of control car, and the ghost effects more than made up it.
Sergeant Hiles: What in the hell are you doing in my graveyard? You have been told to stay away! Sound off like you’ve got a pair!
Frank Bannister: Yeah, well, Cemetary is a public place, Hiles.
Sergeant Hiles: I do not like you! You cannot bring your spooks here without my permission! Disappear, scumbag!
The Frighteners was damned with faint praise, or outright stomped by critics at the time of its release, with many considering it a backward step for the director following the maturity he’d displayed with Heavenly Creatures. Roger Ebert awarded the film a single star in his review and likened it to a ‘random image generator’ stating in conclusion that ‘it is better, I think, to sit through a movie where nothing happens than one in which everything happens.’
In retrospect, it’s clear to see that the film was a natural progression for the director, and an entertaining one at that, packed full of visual eccentricity, humour and occasional ‘Bad Taste’. The film would languish in cult movie limbo following its release, undeservingly saddled with a reputation for being an early career footnote and tonally awkward creative misstep in the director’s portfolio. Jackson would follow The Frighteners with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which would eclipse his final horror effort completely. Weta would revolutionise effects with their motion capture work on the films, making good use of the lessons learned developing The Frighteners in the process.
As for The Frighteners itself, a director’s cut in the wake of The Lord of the Ring’s success would shine a light on the film, albeit briefly, in 2005 which restored additional footage omitted from the theatrical release. Over the years, as a result of Jackson’s fame, curious fans would return to the film, though opinion remains divided as to its relative merits, for the same reasons as when the film was originally released. That said, interest in the property has continued to percolate. As recently as 2020, Charlize Theron’s film production company Denver and Delilah Productions was considering making a TV show based on The Frighteners, though due to convoluted rights issues the show was unable to get off the ground.