All is not well in the sleepy coastal town of Fairwater. Plagued by an unexplainable curse, previously healthy members of the community are dying prematurely of sudden heart attacks with alarming regularity. After her husband, Ray (Peter Dobson) becomes the latest victim, local doctor Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) enlists the help of local psychic investigator Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox). Haunted by the death of his wife, Frank grinds out a living as an unscrupulous ghostly conman, using his connection with the other side to carry out fake psychic clearances. When Frank discovers the deaths are being caused by a soul collector whom only he can see, he finds himself dragged into the murderous events and becomes prime suspect, and prey of the unstable FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs). Frank becomes trapped in a race against time to uncover the mystery and stop the deaths before the psychotic Dammers brings him to justice permanently. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, Universal have finally gotten around to releasing their definitive edition of Peter Jackson's 'The Frighteners'. Fully restored in it's extended glory and (this is the major selling point) including the full and unabridged mammoth documentary old Pete shot during the making of the film that hasn't seen the light of day since it's release way back in the days of Laserdisc. Thankfully, it's more than worth the wait. Although it may seems sacrilegious to those in dutiful support of hairy-toed hobbits or mischievous primates, for me this is Peter Jackson's most satisfying outing in the director's chair. For certain he's made technically superior films; he's admirably handled subjects of far greater scope and breath than this little caper, and there's no doubting he had developed into a stunning filmmaker of vision and purpose in his comparatively brief career. There is a feeling however, that when Jackson took the Hollywood moolah and earned his spurs with 'The Frighteners' that he checked a little bit of himself in at the door. That little bit of mischievous delight that made his early works so infectious and invigorating. What makes 'The Frighteners' so special is that not only does it capture in time a great director coming of age, but it also straddles the two distinct points of his career. Here we see the director finally being allowed the budget to show just what his imagination can achieve on the big stage, but likewise preserving the carefree abandon and madcap humour that so characterised his independent career. Simultaneously modest and grandiose, this is the kind of cinematic delight you wish Hollywood would offer more often. What makes the film such a joy is that it is judged to perfection. It's a notoriously difficult job to pull off a film with so many conflicting genre strings to its bow, but Jackson manages superbly. What could have been an uneven mix of comedy, action, mystery and supernatural horror somehow knits together effortlessly into one hugely enjoyable jaunt that doesn't let up in its two hour running time. Of course you need a quality ensemble cast to pull a movie like this off and thankfully 'The Frighteners' doesn't disappoint here either. Michael J. Fox was always at his best in comedic adventure roles and he makes an admirable fist of the leading role as Frank Bannister. Although Jackson stays away from embellishing the sub-plot involving Bannister's troubled marriage to any great degree, Fox still manages to create a likeable if flawed heroic lead. Trini Alvarado makes a sterling foil for Fox, and Jake Busey's teeth alone make him a suitable menacing nemesis for Frank. Jim Fife, Chi McBride and John Astin also entertain in comedic roles as Frank's spiritual business partners. Acting honours however, go to horror icon Jeffrey Combs who is simply sensational as mentally unhinged FBI agent Milton Dammers. Combs brings his usual quirky offbeat characteristics to the fore in a perfectly judged performance which is both hilarious and worryingly creepy. There is also a nice cameo from R. Lee Ermy, sending up his role in 'Full Metal Jacket' which is a delight to watch and characteristic of the fun humour the movie excels in. The final piece in the triumvirate that makes the film such a great event is the superb use of CGI. When watching this now, it's difficult to appreciate that the movie is now a decade old. There is CGI around today that doesn't look as good as this. Marking Jackson's first real in depth exploration of the medium, the ghost effects are uniformly superb for the time, and the grim reaper (though starting to suffer from wear and tear now) still holds up as a more than decent stab at what was then a very difficult figure to achieve. It's refreshing to look back at a film made when the format was still in its relative infancy and witness a masterclass in how to implement digital effect technology. Although 'The Frighteners' is a CGI-heavy film, it's still grounded in humanity. The effects compliment the film, as opposed to overrunning it. Where the temptation now would be no doubt to overwhelm the viewer and turn the film into an almost cartoonish effects extravaganza, here Jackson skilfully manages to balance the line between impressive effects work, and solid human filmmaking. All in all, probably the quintessential Jackson flick, and certainly the one that arguably gives the best overall example of him as a filmmaker. Whilst his new movies may make 'Ben Hur' look like a pithy knock off, and gradually become more bloated than the big fella himself circa LOTR, it's important to have a little bit of simplistic fun in one's life and here it is. Idiosyncratic and original, this is a real treat.
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