Actually, I suppose a lot of people don't know much about Jackson's pre-Lord of the Rings career, but it's not the sort of ouevre one generally associates with an Oscar-winning director. Hell, guys with Jackson's credentials don't usually even get to attend the ceremony.
But somebody saw something in Peter Jackson, apparently. I mean, I saw it too, but it's not like I had $300 million to throw at the guy, the way New Line Cinema did. I discovered Mr. Jackson's work sometime in 1999, beginning with Bad Taste, an insanely violent alien invasion film which I liked a lot. It wasn't a good movie, but it was a audacious and weird, so I looked for more of Jackson's work and encountered Dead Alive (an insanely violent zombie movie) and Meet the Feebles (an obscenely violent parody of "The Muppet Show"). Within a couple of weeks, Jackson was announced as the director of LoTR, and everyone was confused. Most fans of the books didn't know Jackson's work, and those who did were concerned that he'd make some kind of high fantasy splatterfest. The Hollywood pundits, apparently unfamiliar with the books, did a lot of head shaking over the megabudget. Personally, I knew that I'd love whatever movies Jackson delivered, but I was just as unsure as anybody as to what kind of movies he was making. Ultimately, LoTR turned out to be excellent. Hardcore fans of the novels tend to nitpick, but they're long movies with a lot of detail; all the important stuff is in there, which makes them significantly better than most screen adaptations.
At various points between 2000 and the 2003 release of Return of the King, I managed to make my way through the rest of Jackson's major works: Heavenly Creatures (an actually good movie), Forgotten Silver (a made-for-TV mockumentary about a silent film pioneer that nobody remembers), and The Frighteners. Forgotten Silver was extremely well-received, but doesn't get seen much outside New Zeland (except by film buffs). The Frighteners is fun, but it badly underperformed at the box office and most people with an opinion agree that it's one of the lesser of Jackson's lesser films. It was also his last major film before The Fellowship of the Ring, so it's surprising that New Line was willing to take such a big chance.
...which is all a very roundabout way of saying that as much as I like The Frighteners--and I do--I wouldn't have been surprised if it had ended Jackson's mainstream career. He'd been making much better films, and The Frighteners is a return to form (i.e., horror films), but it's also a step back.
For those who haven't seen it, The Frighteners stars Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, who lost his wife five years ago in an accident which gave him the ability to see and speak with ghosts. Following a period of despondency, he retools himself as a freelance ghostbuster, and hires a few spooks to help him drum up business.
Frank is generally regarded as a charlatan, but he makes a modest living. The town has a history of mass murder, and people are complacent enough that it's not an especial shock when otherwise healthy people start dropping off like flies. The coroner reports that the victims' hearts seem to have been squeezed inside their chests. Frank has an explosive argument with a jerk who shows up dead a couple of hours later, and which garners him the attention of Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs), an FBI agent who believes that Frank is murdering people via telekenisis. Frank, on the other hand, is the only living person who can see the real culprit: a dark-hooded figure with a scythe. The grim reaper himself, apparently. Also involved in the story are a widow (sexy but not dangerous--it's not that kind of story), a deceased mass murderer, the (slightly unhinged) woman he loved during her teenage years, and her overbearing mother.
There's a lot going on in the story, which is bizarre because there's not much going on in the movie. I hope I'm not allowing Roger Ebert's opinion to influence me too much here, but I just looked up his one-star review of The Frighteners and he begrudgingly quotes Shakespeare: "'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.' It's like watching a random image generator."
This is an accurate assessment. There's a lot of action, especially at the climax of the movie, but the convoluted story is given pretty light treatment. Things get glossed over and there are a lot of coincidences, which make it a bit unfulfilling. On the other hand, Jackson is a director known for his special effects work, and I imagine that Universal Pictures was looking for a vehicle to showcase CGI, which was still a very new tool. The CGI looks incredibly cheap right now, but I can see that it was fancy in 1995. The camera moves a lot in those sequences, which is impressive if you know a little bit about adding effects to video, but its not such a big deal to John Q. LikesMoviesButDoesntCareAboutFilmmaking.
At any rate, the performances are good. I've never been crazy about Michael J. Fox, but this is an unusual role for him in that he usually plays attractive extroverts, and Frank Bannister--if not actually unattractive--would rather fade into the background. I also like Frank's ghost sidekicks, Stuart (a nerd from the '50s, played by Jim Fyfe (who I've never heard of, either)), Cyrus (a gangster from the '70s, played by Chi McBride (Emerson Cod from Pushing Daisies)), and The Judge (an elderly cowboy played by Gomez Addams himself, John Astin). R. Lee Ermey and Troy Evans who invariably play drill sergeants and police officers (respectively) show up as a drill sergeant and a police officer (respectively). Dee Wallace Stone plays a pretty good crazy lady in a state of protracted adolescence, and Trini Alvarado (the love interest) does fine with a role that she's obviously stooping to play. I like Jeffrey Combs and he plays a different sort of character here, but he takes it a little over the top.
And the musical score is by Danny Elfman, so, you know, it's frantic and bombastic. It's not a standout score, but then, it's really not a standout movie. It's fun, but it's forgettable.
Now that I'm thinking about effects and music and acting talent, it suddenly occurs to me that The Frighteners would probably have been a better film if it had cost less. There was just too much money involved to make a great movie; they had to make it flashy, too.
Click here for the trailer.