Peter Jackson’s 1996 ghost story, The Frighteners, was the director’s first big Hollywood production. It didn’t do so hot, making just a little bit above its $26 million budget. Given the fact that the film’s star, Michael J. Fox, would make his triumphant return to the small screen just two months later, it seems almost like it was ahead of its time in more ways than one. The Frighteners debuted in July of ‘96 and in September, Fox would begin a successful run on the popular ABC sitcom, Spin City, and just months later, Jackson would begin the journey which would eventually result in the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings films.
This is all to say that The Frighteners marks the end of Jackson’s intimate little films that felt like they were these amazing, handmade products from a New Zealand madman. Bad Taste, Dead Alive, Meet the Feebles; these were all wonderful, gory little bits of fantastic cleverness which showed off their seams just as proudly as their burnished surfaces.
The Frighteners is one of those movies which came as special effects were beginning to move solidly away from practical work to CGI, and it’s the one unfortunate downside to this charming, yet surprisingly intense story of a man who can see spirits. Fox plays Frank Bannister, who gained the ability to see ghosts and the spirit world after his wife died in an automobile accident five years prior. He teams up with a couple of specters to fleece the local populace, but is soon forced to deal with a real-deal killer ghost.
Jackson’s movie succeeds on a lot of grounds, but it’s mainly due to the fun twist on a familiar premise. The ghost hunter actually working with ghosts allows for some grand expository dialogue, and the comedy inherent in the situation plays well to Jackson’s strengths as a director. There are a slew of character actors, too, with a crazy-amazing cast: John Astin as a ghostly gunfighter, Dee Wallace as a madwoman, Jake Busey as a spree killer looking to beat Charles Starkweather, and Jeffrey Combs as a batshit FBI agent.
Strangely, despite the killer spirit and absurd side characters (because they are ghosts), The Frighteners has this really heartening vein of kind-heartedness running through it, which is what makes it more than just another “ooh, spoopy!” series of special effects gags. Much like Lionel in Dead Alive (somebody’s going to correct me and say it’s actually titled Braindead, but I saw it as Dead Alive, and that’s what I’m going to call it), who kept an ever-growing collection of zombies in his basement and took care of them because he was just an inherently nice guy, Frank will fleece the hell out of the citizens in his town, but he still does the right thing when the time calls for it.
And all this while dealing with the spiritual world and reeling from the death of his wife, no less. It’s because of that sense of right and wrong that 2014’s Housebound makes a perfect pairing with The Frighteners. Yes, it’s also a New Zealand film, and it’s a haunted house movie, as well, but it’s that sense of family in the midst of supernatural shenanigans which really shines through both movies.
Housebound is the A+, #1 film I recommend to people who want a scary movie, but profess to not like horror movies. My spouse is usually indifferent to 90% of my movie viewing habits, but she’s an even greater advocate for the directorial debut of Gerard Johnstone — and for good reason. The movie’s hilarious, scary, and heartfelt in a way which is really reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy films.
Much as each of those movies were comedic plays on a genre like horror, action, or sci-fi, but Shaun of the Dead was also a really good zombie movie, so is Housebound both a comedic take on the haunted house movie, while still being a really solid film about ghosts. Kylie gets placed under house arrest at her mom’s house after getting caught trying to rob an ATM, and then it appears that there’s a haunting afoot.
Director Johnstone told the Austin Chronicle that he drew inspiration from “classic ghost mysteries like The Changeling and The Legend of Hellhouse,” saying that “it was very important that we had a decent plot and some genuine frights as well as a high gag-rate.” It’s really evident in the quiet moments of Housebound, which really allow the sense of discomfort and chill to play out really well. Those moments of silence allow for some nice jokes, too — which works well because, as the movie progresses, you’re never quite sure whether you’ll be laughing or screaming.
In its first half, Housebound has some aspects which draw from Crawlspace and Rear Window, which makes for an interesting back and forth. Once you get halfway through it, the film goes really solidly into crazed mode, much as The Frighteners builds from wacky comedy to spooky to action-y chase movie.
There’s another parallel between The Frighteners and Housebound, in that the former’s Dee Wallace plays Patricia Ann Bradley, who is kept in her mother’s home due to a crime she committed, although hers was a bit more heinous, as she helped Busey’s Johnny Bartlett gun down 12 people in a sanitorium. The latter’s Kylier, as played by Morgana O’Reilly, is more of a petty thief than anything else, and her mother is rather more forgiving and kind than Mrs. Bradley (who, in the film’s opening scenes, brandishes a shotgun).
Strange aside, here: I feel like the ‘90s really lost out when no-one thought to cast Jake Busey and Matthew Lillard alongside each other. Busey’s Johnny Bartlett from The Frighteners and Lillard’s Stu in Scream are two of the more underrated, yet over the top characters in ‘90s horror, and putting the two together as a pair would’ve really made for an intense and weird movie. Just a shame, is all.
Second aside: if someone could please talk Waxwork Records into making their next Danny Elfman vinyl release The Frighteners’ score, that would be superb. It’s just so wonderfully subdued, and the main titles — with that harpsichord — are eminently baroque, and perfectly suited for a ghost story.
So, anyhow — The Frighteners and Housebound are both excellent New Zealand horror comedies which manage to succeed at both sides of that equation, and as an added bonus, are suffused with a warm sense of family and doing what’s right. Both are available on DVD and Blu-ray. While Housebound is currently on Netflix, The Frighteners is not streaming anywhere other than to rent or buy.
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