Grim reaper

Peter Jackson's brief resume as a writer-director is about as impressive as any independent filmmaker. Three genre films--Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead-Alive--preceded his art-house breakthrough Heavenly Creatures, but they all bespoke a peculiar, highly individualized voice. Whether you like his movies or not, you have to acknowledge how consummately Jackson realizes his personal vision--no matter how bizarre that vision may be.

Directors who, like Jackson, start off making low-budget shock-schlock, have little to rely on other than the personality they can always be counted on to deliver. They often end up as cult icons--because of their ability to make movies with microscopic resources so damned entertaining. (Most every respected current film director cut his teeth on either series television or Roger Corman quickies.)

It would be almost impossible to conceive of Hollywood successfully reproducing the cult status of films like Jackson's within the studio infrastructure. The powers that be seem genetically oblivious to the ineffable appeal of the best quirky, independent films. The very fact that they are such unlikely sources of entertainment is the wellspring of their allure: Nothing is more American than the likable loser who wins out in the end. Still, that hasn't prevented Hollywood from either assimilating (rare) the innovations of independents or promptly squashing them.

Jackson's newest film, The Frighteners, is one such example--an interesting but uneven mix of individuality and commerce. The plot ostensibly concerns dozens of perfectly healthy small-town citizens, young and old, mysteriously dying of sudden heart failure. The police suspect a local psychic (Michael J. Fox), though no one, not even nervous, tic-filled, conspiracy-minded federal investigator Milton Danvers (Jeffrey Combs), knows how he could possibly have done it. The atmosphere develops into moody uneasiness as the local doctor (Trini Alvarado) tries to prove who the real killer is--a vindictive ghost known as the Soul Collector. Yet you know much more is roiling beneath the surface of this idyllic community, and you wish the characters could just get a grip on it.

I would have liked to have been in on the initial script conference for The Frighteners when the idea was pitched to producer Robert Zemeckis. I imagine seeing Zemeckis--whose Teflon-coated output of sweetly digestible films (Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Back to the Future series) number among the most entertaining in popular culture--sitting complacently and quietly as the script is read aloud for the first time. Good concept, Zemeckis might have said, but where's the geeky villain? The vapid love interest? The happy ending? Why is the violence so dark, and why are the characters so ambiguously drawn? Where is the mainstream appeal? Tell you what--Zemeckis might have offered--allow me to add the ol' Bobby Z touches for the first half, and you can go to town with your sinister vision of the afterlife in the second--once the audience is hooked.

And that's exactly how The Frighteners plays itself out. In the end, I don't know what's more troubling: that Zemeckis co-opts, homogenizes, and flattens out Jackson's ferociously individual style, just for the sake of making a more commercial product; or that Jackson lets him.

There's nothing wrong with Zemeckis' technique--it has served him well--but Jackson's artistic disposition supports a radically different ethic. Can you imagine the raunchy, oversexed, syphilitic muppets in the sick variety show, Meet the Feebles, sharing screen time with Roger Rabbit? Even the cheekily grotesque spectacle of Zemeckis' Death Becomes Her pales before the gory, blood-soaked extravaganza of Dead-Alive, and the metaphorical figures in Heavenly Creatures carry abstraction to a level Zemeckis could never dream of.

Jackson and Zemeckis' conflicting sensibilities emerge early on in The Frighteners, and for the first hour there's an appalling lack of substance:All the chases and fisheye-lens shots coat the horror in a cartoonish patina. That's a great disappointment, as Jackson can usually be relied upon to provide an excessive yet brutal immediacy to his films.

Yet the saccharine portrayal of relationships and cutesy touches that scream of Zemeckis' influence (even the opening shot is stolen straight from Zemeckis' HBO series, Tales from the Crypt) succumb to Jackson's better judgment: You can tell the precise moment when the campiness gives way to a new sense of viciousness. Jackson turns the softness to his advantage, wisely building on the cuddly framework by offering up a vertiginous fun house of a conclusion. The Frighteners may take too long to get started, but it ratchets up the scares effectively for a blistering, unnerving finale much more interesting than the first half of the film would lead you to expect.

The best parts of The Frighteners are the ones in which the inventive special effects complement the sinister subtext and myths about the afterlife. From the ghosts' unnerving sexuality to the swooping, Grim Reaperlike villain, Jackson seizes components from films as diverse as Poltergeist and Ghost, includes touches from Roman Polanski's psychological horror story, Repulsion, and sprinkles in cynical, horrible twists to notorious rampages of violence from recent history. But to Jackson, what makes the goal worth pursuing isn't the psychologies that belie the murderousness and fear of villains like Starkweather and Manson. Facts and fears are not nearly as interesting as the way society processes its perceptions of them: Are such killers the ultimate rebels, or mere psychopaths?

Throughout his oeuvre, Jackson has demonstrated mastery in taking his audience to the darker recesses of the subconscious and stimulating them with sensory overload. He doesn't answer questions, he just poses them--bluntly, viscerally, taking them to outrageous extremes. That's why it eventually becomes necessary for him to break with Zemeckis' tidy, syllogistic style and reclaim The Frighteners as his own. You sense that he derives satisfaction simply in knowing he's stirred up some emotional mud beneath the veneer of societal norms. He's without a conscience in his desire to give us the willies at any cost. And it's that attitude that gives The Frighteners its fearsome creativity--and makes it disturbingly different from all of the other loud movies out there this summer.

The Frighteners. Universal. Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Jeffrey Combs. Written by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson. Directed by Peter Jackson. Opens July 19.


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