Review for The Frighteners: Peter Jackson's Director's Cut
One thing that is really cool is to know something that few other people do. It makes you feel special, part of a select crowd. For a while after 1996, I knew that Peter Jackson was an amazing mainstream director. Not a lot of people knew that, and wouldn't do for a good few years until the Lord of the Rings movies came out. Before 1996, Peter Jackson was better known for cult hits like Braindead, and Heavenly Creatures. The days of packed cinemas, mega-budgets, and awards triumphs were yet to come, but what drew me to The Frighteners wasn't even Peter Jackson's name, it was Robert Zemeckis and Michael J. Fox, who together created a major strut of my adolescence with the Back to the Future films. Zemeckis was producing this time around, but the combination still tickled my taste buds. When The Frighteners was released, I hastened to a London cinema to take in this latest summer blockbuster with the teeming masses, which as per convention of the era hit the UK in winter. The teeming masses in Leicester Square turned out to be me, and about five other people, in a cinema that normally seats a few thousand. That wasn't a good sign, and even though I saw one of the best movies I had seen in ages that day, the world didn't agree. It's fair to say that The Frighteners flopped on its theatrical release.
You can't keep a good movie down though, and as so occasionally happens with box office flops, word of mouth and home video gave it a life beyond expectations, and it has to be said that The Lord of the Rings movies giving Peter Jackson such clout also gave it a second life. Certainly the first DVD release of The Frighteners back in 1999 was pretty dismal and vanilla, non-anamorphic and with no extras worth mentioning. In an era where double dips were becoming increasingly common, I waited for The Frighteners to get an upgrade, especially as the Director's Cut was released on Laserdisc along with a massive making of documentary in 1998. The upgrade wasn't forthcoming though until the LOTR movies finally convinced Universal to cash in on the growing Peter Jackson-mania. That was back in 2005, and the DVDs have lain on my re-watch pile ever since.
Frank Bannister is an architect turned psychic investigator. When ghostly activity occurs in the sleepy town of Fairwater, he is invariably called to exorcise the restless spirits. In actual fact, Frank has chanced upon the perfect scam. Since a traumatic event, he actually has been able to see the spirits of the deceased. He's gathered a motley crew of dispossessed wraiths and uses them to engineer the hauntings. But events take a sinister turn when Frank becomes mixed up in an unexplained series of deaths. He performs an "exorcism" at the house of Lucy Lynskey but notices an ethereal number carved into her husband's forehead. Soon after, he dies of a heart attack. The Grim Reaper is loose in Fairwater, and only Frank can see the cloaked spirit fleeing from the scene of each death. This has the unfortunate effect of making him prime suspect, and soon the amiable Sheriff and a creepy FBI agent are pursuing him. Meanwhile, Lucy, who is a doctor in the town surgery, has paid a visit to Patricia Bradley, a reclusive woman who lives with her mother in a dilapidated mansion. When Patricia was 15 years old, she was the accomplice of a serial killer, Johnny Bartlett, who murdered 12 people in the local hospital. Yet now Patricia is being terrorised in the mansion, and Lucy wishing to help gets drawn into the creepy history of the Bradley Bartlett murders. Events draw Lucy and Frank together as they fight the supernatural menace and try to solve the mystery of Patricia Bradley in this chillingly funny film.
At last The Frighteners gets the transfer it deserves, a splendid 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that is clear and sharp throughout. Detail levels are astounding, the colours are strong and consistent, and other than the odd fleck of dirt, there's hardly any sign of age. Also, other than a smidge of grain, there really are no nits to pick with the transfer, no artefacts, no edge enhancement, it's just what you would want from a film on DVD. Also, The Frighteners is yet to see a Blu-ray release, so if you want a better picture than this, you'll have to buy the HD-DVD. Remember those?
Like the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has filmed this film on location in New Zealand, with the town of Lyttleton substituting for the American coastal town of Fairwater. The scenery is just gorgeous, filled with rolling green hills and picturesque coastal views. The look of the film is carefully thought out as well, a faded palette of colours lending an unearthly touch to the story and adds a genuinely spooky atmosphere. Pale greens and rich browns dominate and all the characters have pale flesh tones. The only exceptions are the flashback and otherworld scenes. The effects are remarkably well done, with the ghosts looking suitably spooky, and it has to be said that even after 15 years, the effects hold up astonishingly well.
You have a choice between DD 5.1 and DTS English for the Director's Cut, with plenty of subtitle tracks. The film gets an excellent, vibrant audio presentation that brings the action and music out in effective fashion. The sound design has to be something special to match the visual effects, and the otherworldliness of the spooks and spectres comes across with clarity. Danny Elfman's score is perfectly suited to the film, while I have to admit that The Muttonbird's cover of Don't Fear The Reaper is a particular favourite of mine.
An Amaray style case in a card slipcase holds three discs, but it's a really annoying one that holds all three discs stacked on a single, central hub. All the extras are subtitled where required.
Disc 1 has the movie, although it autoplays with one of those unskippable 'you wouldn't menace a terrier' anti-piracy ads. Peter Jackson introduces the film for 3 minutes, and puts the film in context when it comes to his filmography.
You'll also find the audio commentary here, subtitled in several languages. Peter Jackson is pretty informative and entertaining in what is his first attempt at an audio commentary, although it does get a little gappy at times. He makes a point of noting the restored scenes, and explaining why they were cut in the first place.
Discs 2 and 3 hold the making of documentary, again with an introduction from Peter Jackson. A four-hour plus making of documentary on two discs… How do you even begin with something like that? Disc 2 gets the first two thirds running to 174 minutes, and disc 3 gets the remaining 98 minutes. You can play each section as a separate featurette if you choose, both discs get extensive menus to peruse, but it's a boon to the lazier among us just to press play and let the whole thing run in one big lump of a documentary. It takes us from the conceptual development of the movie, all the way to the final theatrical release and there's lots of goodies about the special effects, the cast, the storyboards, rehearsals, deleted scenes, bloopers, and so on. There's input from the entire cast and crew, and there's space for the trivial, anecdotal, promotional and informational in its expansive run time, and it's also very easy to watch. Peter Jackson's own company filmed this as the movie was being made, so there is less of an EPK feel to it. It's also something of a trial run for the sheer breathtaking material that would be put together for the Lord of the Rings movies.
I did it again. I finally got around to reviewing a film that I've had on the pending pile for a few years now, been really looking forward to getting my teeth into, and it turns out that the damned thing has been deleted. At least the Director's Cut of The Frighteners isn't readily available on DVD in the UK anymore. You'll have to go hunting for it. Of course the hideous, non-anamorphic disc that was released over ten years ago now is on every DVD shop shelf in the land. You'll probably have to import if you want a brand, spanking new, cellophane wrapped retail package, and in my cursory search, I could only find it in Region 1. Whereas we get a three-disc release, their DC is a single disc release, a DVD 18 with the film on one dual layer side (with 45 minutes of storyboards), and the documentary minus storyboards on the other dual layer side. Maybe someone should give Universal a boot up the backside and get a Blu-ray release sorted.
After all these years, The Frighteners is still one of my favourite films. Certainly it is my favourite Peter Jackson film, a sublime blending of comedy and horror, action packed and entertaining, perfectly paced, and even in this longer Director's Cut version, unlikely to cause paralysis of the butt cheeks in the same way that the Lord of the Rings movies or King Kong does. Despite my love for the film, I did recognise that it had a problem with balance and tone; a comedy horror, the two aspects didn't quite gel well, and the shift from comedy to chills was a little abrupt and unwieldy. That was something I noted when I reviewed the theatrical version. The director's cut puts that all right. Oddly enough, the restoration of the deleted and extended scenes is seamless. Even though I know the theatrical version like the back of my hand, I still forget where the added scenes go, so naturally do they seem to fit in the narrative. Looking at the theatrical cut now, it becomes clear that too much was trimmed from the film, the director's cut flows much better, the pacing is steadier, and more importantly, the horror doesn't overwhelm the comedy. It was originally the comedy in the first act that fell victim to the editor's shears. Restoring the comic ghost scenes not only develops their characters more, making them more relevant to the plot, and building the audience empathy, but it makes the transition from laughs to shocks more graceful and less abrupt.
The Frighteners DC is a peach of a film, getting the balance between laughs and spooks just right, with an entertaining concept, brilliantly executed story, with effects that still look cutting edge today. The performances are great too, and the character of Milton Dammers is one of my favourite screen villains. It's a shame that it's so hard to find, as this Director's Cut release is the perfect way to own this film on DVD. Not only does the film get the ideal presentation, a revelation compared to the original letterbox release, but the extra features do it justice as well, presaging the Lord of the Rings information overload, with an approachable audio commentary, and a four and half hour documentary that fills you in on all aspects of the making of the film, from concept to release. Maybe it really is time for a Blu-ray release.
Note that originally the BBFC insisted on a second or so of cuts for the theatrical release. For this Director's Cut, those edits were waived, and the film is here in its entirety.