I really had no inclination to watch this movie when it was in the theatres during the summer of '96. Though it became sort of a sleeper hit and it was directed by Peter Jackson, who directed the beautiful tragedy "Heavenly Creatures" in 1994, I didn't take it seriously for many reasons. The marketing of this film conveyed that it was a comedy, and I wasn't in the mood to see another "Casper", so I passed. The casting of Michael J. Fox in the lead role also made the decision easier. Now that it has been on video for awhile, I decided to check it out, and I confirmed my original suspicions.
Frank Banister (Michael J. Fox) was involved in an accident a few years prior in which his wife was killed. After the accident, he developed an ability to see and interact with the dead. So in the present, he is a huckster who uses a trio of ghosts to do fake exorcisms. One such exorcism brings him into the house of Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) and her husband. However, on this 'job', Frank notices a luminescent number scrawled onto the husband's head. Not long after, the husband dies suddenly of a heart attack, in the same manner that many other people in the town have died. Frank soon finds that the ghost of a bloodthirsty serial killer Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey) is on the loose... and of course, nobody believes him. A timid FBI agent (Jeffrey Combs, who plays a number of aliens on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"), an X-Files reject by the name of Milton Dammers, shows up and it is his theory that it is Frank who is killing everyone with his 'psychic powers', having started with his wife in the alleged accident. So Frank is then on the run from the police and the FBI, trying to stop Johnny Bartlett from claiming any more victims, and remaining consistent with well-worn melodramatic conventions, only Lucy believes him.
This movie is an entertaining mish-mash of comedy and horror with lots of neat special effects. Though it has been lambasted by some critics for being 'special effects in search of a story', I thought that Peter Jackson's surrealistic directing made up for such shortcomings, with the odd camera angles and judicious use of lighting. An example would be in the final act where Frank and Lucy are in an abandoned hospital, closed down since the day that Johnny Bartlett went on a shooting rampage in the fifties. As Frank wanders through the halls of the hospital, he jumps seamlessly between the present and past, seeing the shooting rampage that occurred in the past while trying to outrun the shotgun-wielding former girlfriend of Bartlett (Dee Wallace-Stone) in the present. Sure, there are all sorts of inconsistencies in "The Frighteners" that show up in all ghost movies (if ghosts can pass through matter, how can they 'sit' in cars or 'walk' on the ground?) and the plot is a bit hokey in some places, but it's still worth a rental.