31 Days to Scare ~ The Frighteners (1996)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a tragic car accident kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes (Director’s Cut)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: What I love so much about movies is that over time bad ones can become good and good movies can become bad. We’ve all had experiences where we have this certain vision of a movie in our head (positive or negative) and then, upon revisiting said movie, our opinions can change. Then there are the movies that you liked but didn’t quite catch on with others which eventually gained a cult following in the ensuing years. The Frighteners is one of those movies that I remember really liking when I first saw it but a prime example of a one that didn’t get the audience is richly deserved. With the rise in popularity of its director over the last two decades, more and more people are “discovering” this horror-comedy and claiming it as a spooky favorite. Better late than never, in my book.

In 1996 director Peter Jackson hadn’t yet become ‘Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy Peter Jackson’. He had found underground success with Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, his first two movies that were truly out there in their oddity (both cult classics unto themselves). It was his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures (introducing most of us to Kate Winslet for the first time) that really put him on the map and caught the eye of big shot Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (Flight). Originally bringing Jackson on to create another film in his Tales from the Crypt series, Zemeckis read the script from Jackson and Fran Walsh and decided it was good enough to be a standalone film. Using their homeland New Zealand as a stand-in for a seaside California town, Jackson and Walsh gathered their friends at WETA studios, the fledgling effects company that would explode with the LOTR films five years later, and set about to make a different kind of ghost story.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is an opportunistic ghost hunter looking to con unsuspecting people out of their money in exchange for ridding their houses of poltergeists. The catch is that he can actually see these ghosts and has conspired with them to swindle the townspeople of Fairwater. When otherwise healthy townsfolk starting dying at an alarming rate, Frank realizes a malevolent spectre is at work…one that he may just have a personal history with. And what of the meek woman (Dee Wallace Stone, The Lords of Salem) being terrorized by an unseen force in the home she shares with her mother on the outskirts of an abandoned mental hospital? Is the same ghost responsible for all of the shenanigans going on?  With the help of a local doctor (Trini Alverado) and his ghostly friends (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) Bannister avoids a creepy detective (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) and goes further into the unknown as he seeks answers to who has gone-a-haunting (and a-hunting) within the town.

Jackson and Walsh have imbued their script with a truckload of dark humor and it’s easy to see why it may have been off-putting for audiences looking for a more straight-forward tale of terror in the summer of 1996. The movie takes a while to get hopping and when it does it blasts off like a locomotive with little reprieve. It’s an effects-heavy film and one that famously held one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Studios. The extra time was worth it, though, as even twenty years later the movie holds up to CGI scrutiny with the best of them.  I recently watched the Director’s Cut for the first time and it’s about 10 minutes longer than the version released in theaters.  The added scenes flesh out the characters (pun mostly intended) and provide a little gasp of air while the movie is moving at lighting speed. Jackson is good with setting up extended scenes of delirium but he’s not simply out to give you the willies. He’s more concerned with the overall film experience and that speaks highly of the kind of filmmaker he was growing into.   Much like he immersed us in Middle Earth with his unimpeachable LOTR trilogy, he gives the audience checking out The Frighteners what they came for and much more.

Movie Review ~ Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary on legendary movie-poster artist Drew Struzan.

Stars: Drew Struzan, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Sam Witwer

Director: Erik Sharkey

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  You may not know the name Drew Struzan but if you’ve seen a poster for a movie in the last 30+ years you most definitely have seen his work.  In a new documentary (available on Netflix) director Erik Sharkey charts the rise of Struzan through his humble origins as a starving artist (literally) to his early work designing album art for musicians and eventually into his legendary period of churning out some of the most iconic poster images in the history of film.

Along with his contemporaries John Alvin and Richard Amsel, Struzan’s poster designs are world famous for their complexities and innate way of telling you an entire story within one single image.  Unlike the majority of posters today that are Photoshopped to death with poor construction, Struzan’s hand-painted works are sometimes better than the movies they are advertising.  There’s a beauty to these paintings that can’t be mimicked by modern technology which makes the work he does all the more valuable.

Though I don’t usually add extra photos to my reviews, here is a small preview of some of Struzan’s body of work.  Can you name the movies these teaser images come from?

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While the documentary covers all the bases on where Struzan came from and how he came to do what he does so well, the film is painted with broad strokes that manage to be informative while keeping the viewer at arm’s length.  That’s partly, I suppose, because Struzan seems like a straight-forward guy that has had little of your typical Hollywood conflict.  Soft-spoken and humble, aside from a lawsuit involving paintings that were stolen by an associate of his there doesn’t seem to be anyone that has a bad thing to say about him.

What’s more, Struzan comes off as a genuinely nice guy, a family man that chose to stay home in his early days with his wife and young son while his colleagues partied like rock stars with their rock star clients.  Struzan alludes to a painful childhood raised by parents that “didn’t like me” and locked him out of the house when he returned from his first semester away at college.  Not much more is said of this and I’m guessing Starkey didn’t push Struzan on a subject that obviously has some pain attached to it.

With interviews from many of the stars and directors Struzan has provided art for, the documentary is a mostly just a genial piece of pro-Struzan propaganda and I’m totally OK with that.  If it comes off feeling like you’re simply paging through one of Struzan’s impressive coffee table books with voice-over narration from the man himself, it doesn’t matter because it still makes for worthwhile viewing.  A must watch for any true cinephile.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

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Synopsis: A documentary on legendary movie-poster artist Drew Struzan.

Release Date:  TBA 2013

Thoughts:  Though you may not be aware of it, you already are familiar with the work of Drew Struzan.  As the artist behind hundreds of now-iconic poster designs from the Indian Jones films to dramatic fair like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, Struzan has fans all over Hollywood – and with good reason.  There’s a beauty to his detail and care in his design that remains unmatched in our modern era of photoshopped posters of floating heads.  Here’s a guy that made even the most mundane film (coughcoughMastersoftheUniversecoughcough) look like a must-see winner.  This documentary should be fun to catch and if it doesn’t play near you make sure to check out your local library for his oversized coffee table books to get a immersive look at his impressive body of work.