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The Frighteners (1996)

After a car accident in which his wife, Debra, was killed and he was injured, Frank Bannister develops psychic abilities allowing him to see, hear, and communicate with ghosts. After losing his wife, he then gave up his job as an architect, letting his unfinished “dream house” sit incomplete for years, and put these skills to use by befriending a few ghosts and getting them to haunt houses in the area to drum up work for his ghostbusting business; Then Frank proceeds to “exorcise” the houses for a fee. But when he discovers that an entity resembling the Grim Reaper is killing people, marking numbers on their forehead beforehand, Frank tries to help the people whom the Reaper is after!

Before his name became synonymous with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson made his name directing wacky, bloodthirsty horror movies, the most vile and notorious of which is probably Braindead. With The Frighteners, Jackson began to move into the mainstream with such luxuries as a big budget, big stars, and well publicised international release dates (though he did still insist on filming the action in his native New Zealand). Sometimes directors fail to make the transition from quirky independent movies to glossy Hollywood productions (look at John Woo and Michaelangelo Antonioni) but Jackson’s film manages to retain some of his trademark touches amidst all its polished trappings.

Michael J. Fox plays a psychic investigator in a small American town. Since a car accident gave him one almighty bump on the head, he has been able to communicate with spirits and has made a less-than-honorable living by ridding houses of ghosts which, in actual fact, are his friends! However, he occasionally envisages strange numbers glowing on peoples’ heads, and soon after these people seem to die violently. Slowly but surely, he realises that the numbers represent a numerical death list and he gradually discovers that the victims are chosen by a long-since executed serial killer who is continuing his murderous spree from beyond the grave.

So, what’s good about the film? The plot is certainly inventive, and Jackson has limitless fun engineering amusing episodes. In one super scene, three of Fox’s deceased buddies cause havoc in a museum by fooling around with some skeletal remains. In another, a ghost gets his face gruesomely diced in a car engine. The pace of the film is reminiscent of a rollercoaster ride. Jeffrey Coombs delivers one of the most outlandish and hysterical performances ever witnessed as an unhinged secret agent.

The bad points? The climax settles for a disappointingly conventional chase sequence, with predictable twists and plot contrivances, not to mention three or four over-used “rescue-just-in-the-nick-of-time” moments. The best character – John Astin as “The Judge” – gets removed from the story far too early. And worst of all, there’s a really lame moment right near the end where the film cops out completely (I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that the hero dies-but-doesn’t-die, if that makes sense).