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Dread Alive

Ghostbuddies: Michael J. Fox is spectrally flanked by Jim Fyee (left) and Chi McBride) in "The Frighteners."

Peter Jackson and Michael J. Fox salvage some scares in confused 'Frighteners'

By Richard von Busack

Dismissing The Frighteners as a derivative waste of talent might be just, but it would be harsh justice. The movie compacts, more than builds upon, all of the big horror films of the last few decades: The Exorcist, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist and Beetlejuice. It follows all of these scents at once, like a confused bloodhound.

Director Peter Jackson pops the movie's clutch throughout, substituting startling the audience for any real sense of dread, and the whole thing is hammered together by Danny Elfman belaboring a harpsichord (he's done this sort of horror soundtrack 12 too many times). Still, the generically titled Frighteners doesn't play like a rip-off. It's not nearly as disposable or as aimless as the similarly derivative Casper.

I'm equivocating because there were moments of complexity throughout. Michael J. Fox, for example, plays a traumatized hero who isn't easily healed, which is unusual for this kind of entertainment. In a spirited finale, he's pursued by both lethal ghosts and living maniacs through a haunted sanitarium.

What makes his predicament worse is he can't even stay in his own year. He's bouncing back and forth in time to witness the killing spree that proceeded the modern-day haunting--and being returned with the same abruptness. This complicated sequence is handled fluidly with a morphing effect that matches a present-day ruined building with the four-story hospital it once was.

Fox plays Frank Bannister, a freelance exorcist who has been inflicting hopelessly small-scale fraud on his little town. His ineptitude covers a secret: he really can contact ghosts. In fact, he has been hauling them around in the trunk of his car to drum up business, and a ghostly trio even lives in his house, providing some badly written comic relief.

When called upon to help a recent widow (Trini Alvarado), Bannister must deal with a series of bizarre deaths, easily traced to the ghost of a long-dead serial killer named Bartlett (appealingly played by Jake Busey as a toothy quarterback basically just trying to make sure that the U.S.A. keeps the record for most serial killings). Although we have the real killer easily pegged, Bannister is under suspicion by a deranged FBI agent (Jeffrey Combs of Re-Animator with a dismaying Alfalfa haircut).

New Zealand director Jackson's Dead Alive (1992) was a gross triumph, the splatter movie that by all rights should have ended zombie movies forever. His Heavenly Creatures (1994), partially set in the imaginary kingdom of two teenage murderers, is the work of a master filmmaker. If you haven't seen either, don't waste your time on The Frighteners; if you have, you won't be completely disappointed.

The Frighteners includes remarkable effects, especially a vision of swooping Death--faceless, wrapped in black rags, unsheathing its huge scythe with the menacing "shhhhk!" of a samurai blade leaving a scabbard. And there is an effect that keeps chilling: glowing numerals that appear on the foreheads of victims, just before Death snatches them.

Jackson and Fox both seem to be strenuously fighting the suck factor, to use the phrase from Twister. For a long time, they succeed. The Frighteners, after warning us against a monster that squeezes your heart right in your chest, proceeds to do exactly this to us at the movie's end.

Despite the occasional sweetening of Jackson's darker vision--the film's executive producer was Robert Zemeckis, who, post­Forrest Gump is becoming Spielberg II--both Jackson and Fox manage to preserve the horror. The Frighteners has a grim, mad heart that won't be snatched away. Jackson shouldn't be mistaken for just any independent who's gone Hollywood, and Fox shouldn't be mistaken for a pretty boy hitting the skids of genre movies.

The Frighteners (R; 106 min.), directed by Peter Jackson, written by Fran Walsh and Jackson, photographed by Alun Bollinger and John Blick, and starring Michael J. Fox.

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro

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