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Category:    Home > Reviews > Horror > Comedy > The Frighteners - Director's Cut (Universal DVD

The Frighteners - Director’s Cut


Picture: B+     Sound: B+     Extras: A     Film: A-



My first encounter with The Frighteners was in 1996 upon its initial release.  The preview was cool enough, and my brother wanted to see it because it looked a little spooky.  What ultimately convinced me to see it was a shot of Michael J. Fox, starring in what, to me, was his first movie since Back to the Future Part III (of course that wasn’t the case; he was involved with 13 other films between BTTF3 and The Frighteners), screaming something.  To me, it sounded like he was screaming, “Doc!” and that was enough to get me into the theater.


The movie was fun and quirky, and my dad could have spent the admission for The Frighteners on worse.  As the years went on, my brother began exploring Peter Jackson’s films more, his early works primarily for their horror, and I went about my business, The Frighteners occupying a little space in my head and heart reserved for interesting, under-appreciated movies.  When my two brothers and me watched the DVD for the new director’s cut of the film, the brother I saw it in the theater with quipped, “This is about as many people that saw it in the theater.”


The 10 years between now and the first time I saw the film didn’t numb my enjoyment of it.  But watching it today, there’s a feeling that there’s a 1000-pound gorilla in the room with you, namely Peter Jackson. (OK, more like a 500-pound gorilla now.)


Ever since the runaway success of The Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson has had carte blanche to do whatever.  And he’s certainly relished that freedom, what with making his overlong King Kong.  But that freedom has also bred smugness.  “I’m Peter Jackson, and welcome to my DVD of…” It doesn’t really matter what it is.  “I’m Peter Jackson, and welcome to my DVD of Lord of the Rings outtakes.”  “Hello, I’m Peter Jackson, and welcome to the DVD of the director’s cut of my film, The Frighteners.”  “Hello, I’m Peter Jackson, and welcome to the DVD of me polishing my Oscars.”  “I’m Peter Jackson, and this is the director’s cut of the film I made this morning of me counting my money.”


Jackson’s Cult of Myself is on particular display all over the new DVD of The Frighteners.  While it’s true that this film is a turning point in his career — it was his first taste of Hollywood, it forced him to lay the groundwork of Weta, and it allowed him to explore making the Rings films — there’s no other way to look at the DVD besides grossly self-indulgent.


Side one of the disc contains the film, a genuinely inspired, funny, and sort-of groundbreaking film.  Frank Bannister (Fox) is an I-see-dead-people paranormal huckster, employing the ghosts of the nerdy sock-hop-ish Stuart (Jim Fyfe) and the wise-ass disco king Cyrus (Chi McBride) to scare local yokels into calling Bannister to “cleanse” their homes of the invading spirits — and their wallets of their cash.  But when locals start dying of a mysterious heart ailment, and Bannister becomes a suspect, he begins tracking a cloaked figure he believes is Death itself.  Turns out, though, it’s really the spirit of long-dead serial killer Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey), returning to his old stomping grounds to kill more people with the aide of his one-time lover Patricia (Dee Wallace-Stone).


Jackson’s new cut of the film reinserts 14 minutes to the running time, none of which adds anything particularly insightful to the film.  They don’t take away from the film, but the added time does cause the film to drag.  Previously, it was a lean, mean, ghost-fighting machine.  Now, it’s a bloated, dragging grind, not to mention indulgent. And only heightening that feeling is the totally unnecessary intro to the DVD provided by Jackson.


“Hello, I’m Peter Jackson, and welcome to the director’s cut of The Frighteners.”  Wait, you mean this isn’t season three of Golden Girls?


We know we’re watching The Frighteners, and we know it’s a director’s cut.  How?  The box tells us, thanks.  This opening serves no other purpose than for newly-trim Jackson — Jackson 2.0, if you will — to appear in front of the camera and extol how amazing it is to be able to give us this new cut of the film and, gee, he’s sure glad to add all that extra footage in.


Granted, some of the things Jackson 2.0 tells us in the opening are interesting — this film moved Weta into a position to make his recent films, for example — but we’ll find this all out later.  On the three-and-a-half-hour making-of housed on side two of the DVD.


For a film like The Two Towers, such a behind-the-scene document is worthwhile.  For a film like Pearl Harbor, it’s an exercise in futility.  For The Frighteners, a film no one saw, it’s an indulgence afforded to someone who made three computer-generated films that were successful because they were pretty to look at and they had a built-in audience. And it doesn’t hurt that they just so happened to be the biggest things of the decade.


I’ll be honest; I was interested in what the making-of consisted of initially.  This is probably because it was done in a fly-on-the-wall way that makes for some interesting looks at the making of the film and some interesting perspectives from the film’s cast and crew.  And I’m a fan of the film, so sure I’m interested in the genesis of it and how it got made.


But by anyone’s estimation, nearly four hours of making-of material is an endurance test worthy of the Iron Man Competition.  What’s scary is that Jackson 1.0 shot a ton more footage for this documentary, which was originally supposed to appear on a special edition 12” LaserDisc edition of The Frighteners.  Jackson 1.0 didn’t have a problem with this, but what he didn’t have — and what 2.0 does — is the freedom to release whatever he pleases.  Had Jackson 1.0 released a laserdisc with a three-hour-plus documentary of the making of a movie that made one-half of its budget back in the United States, he’d have been laughed right out of Hollywood.  But because Jackson 2.0 is now on the scene, such a move is looked at as inspired.  “How fortuitous it was that he filmed himself way back when.  Now we can see a genius at work.”  More like a guy who doesn’t know when to stop going back to the buffet.


The Frighteners disc itself is wonderful.  There’s a trailer, Jackson 2.0 commentary, storyboards, and that monster making-of, and the film looks great in its 2.35 anamorphic presentation and sounds amazing with its Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.  It’s a film that any Jackson fan, 1.0 or 2.0 it doesn’t matter, should see if they haven’t, unfathomably, done so already.  For casual fans, The Frighteners is worth checking out for great performances and one of the most original, irreverent stories you’ll find this side of a Wes Anderson script.  In speaking of LaserDiscs, the film was issued in its original DTS in that 12” format and that sound is unfortunately not included here, but you can here some of that quality impact in the Dolby tradedown mix here.


But, let’s face it, this is the result of a man who doesn’t know when to quit.  We don’t need more, more, more Jackson 2.0, saturating every moment of the disc.  If anything, we need less.  Jackson 1.0 is certainly responsible for the film, and Jackson 2.0 is rightly proud of the work.  But he makes himself more important than the work itself.


Watching this DVD is like forcibly being a part of the Peter Jackson Experience at some New Zealand theme park. Except, rather than waiting in long-lines for the ride, you’re suckered into it with the promise of a killer film and then given the Ludovico Technique while this weird skinny guy runs reel after reel of footage of him, fat and jolly, at work carousing with movie stars.


It’s enough to make you wish for a bit of the old ultraviolence.



-   Dante A. Ciampaglia


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