When The Frighteners debuted in 1996, American moviegoers responded with thunderous indifference. Admittedly, it’s a tough sell: a big studio film with a tone that toes the uneasy line between goofy and suspenseful, a baffling R rating, and Michael J. Fox, the king of likability, cast as a grieving, emotionally distant psychic. However, it developed an instant cult following thanks to director Peter Jackson’s already legendary career as a director of goofy-suspenseful horror films like Dead Alive, Meet the Feebles, and Bad Taste. It’s one of those movies that studios greenlight because they don’t exactly know what they’ve signed up for, and personally, I always admire people who can trick studios into financing films like this.

The Frighteners boasts an insane plot that moves at a frantic clip. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, who developed the ability to see ghosts after a car accident in which his wife died. Once an architect, Bannister now sells his services as a psychic/sham-exorcist because he can’t function in any other realm. Although the script doesn’t dwell on the possibility, Fox plays Bannister like a grieving alcoholic. He drives like a maniac, makes belligerent scenes at funerals, and generally has no regard for humanity. Of course, from his point of view, the world is busy with spirit activity nobody else can see. This would drive anyone to isolation, but Bannister’s is a prison of his own making: The incomplete “dream home” he designed and started building for his wife, which he shares with ghosts Cyrus (Chi McBride), Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and The Judge (John Astin).

The death of Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobson) forces Bannister to connect. Ray — not a believer in ghosts during his life — insists that Bannister track down his wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado), to provide some closure. Through circumstances so convoluted they must be seen to be believed, Bannister’s experience with Lucy results in accusations of murder from a sinister FBI agent with a Hitler haircut: Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs). Dammers thinks Bannister is a serial killer who must be stopped. Despite evidence to the contrary, Bannister himself starts to fear Dammers is right. Lucy, however, starts to unravel a conspiracy involving a long-dead thrill killer (Jake Busey) and his seemingly insane former paramour (Dee Wallace-Stone).

Because of Jackson’s weird, unreal directing style, the dated special effects manage to lend a kooky charm that fits the film’s tone. Like Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion miniatures, the film’s style makes the effects timeless despite the fact that digital effects have improved exponentially since its release. In the same way, substituting a rain-swept coastal New Zealand town for small-town California lends a similarly fantastical quality to the film. Everything feels a little bit off, a quality that greatly benefits the film whether Jackson intended it or not.

Fox played two comedic characters so ingrained in American culture, it’s easy to forget he’s proved himself to be quite a good actor in films like Casualties of War and Bright Lights, Big City. Jackson puts his skills to good use. Although The Frighteners is mostly comedic, it goes pretty dark when Bannister starts to question his sanity and the probability that he is, indeed, a serial killer. I hate to pigeonhole, but I wouldn’t think of Alex P. Keaton and/or Marty McFly as the sort of person who could run such an emotional gamut, but Fox does terrific work here.

Also terrific: Trini Alvarado, an actress who might have gone on to bigger and better things had anyone actually seen The Frighteners. After a string of great performances in films that ranged from underseen (The Perez Family) to shouldn’t-have-been-seen (The Babe), Alvarado pretty much disappeared after The Frighteners. Whether it was her choice or Hollywood’s, Alvarado’s absence from cinema is a huge disappointment. Hollywood’s not exactly overstocked with attractive women who exude intelligence and are legitimately hilarious. Alvarado’s performance matches Fox’s in the underrated department.

The supporting players are perfectly cast, from Busey, who has never been creepier, not even as the eerie religious zealot in Contact, to Combs, whose hamminess has to be seen to be believed. In a sense, Jackson is making a live-action comic book (the film was originally intended as a Tales from the Crypt spinoff), which all the supporting players (mostly ghosts) understand. Fox and Alvarado, meanwhile, keep the film grounded in a believable emotional reality. It’s a mix that shouldn’t work, but it does in spades.

Fans of horror-comedies with crazy plots and cartoony characters will love The Frighteners. Really, it’ll please anyone who wants to laugh while being scared this Halloween. That’s assuming you find the humor in serial killers, which is sort of a prerequisite. You know who you are.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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