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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Tales from the Crypt: And All Through the House

The Facts:

Synopsis: A greedy woman makes the mistake of murdering her husband while an escaped mental patient dressed in a Santa Claus outfit is on the loose.

Stars: Mary Ellen Trainor, Larry Drake, Marshall Bell, Lindsey Whitney Barry, John Kassir

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: NR

Running Length: 22 mins

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While it gradually dissipated in quality over the course of its seven season run, HBO’s Tales from the Crypt opened with a first season that was chock full of scary tales helmed by some of Hollywood’s top directors.  The second episode was a Christmas-themed yarn (ironically broadcast in the dead of summer in 1989) directed by future Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and while my memories were fonder of it when I was a child, it’s a nice little 22 minute lark you can fit in during the holidays between another viewing of Home Alone or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

The credits are barely done before a cheating wife (the late, great, Mary Ellen Trainor, then married to Zemeckis) offs her husband (Marshall Bell) in their remote home on a cold winter’s night.  With her daughter upstairs anxiously awaiting the arrival of St. Nick, she attempts to dispose of the body in an outdoor well but fails to heed the warning on the radio warning of a madman (Larry Drake) in a Santa suit on the loose.  It’s no spoiler to say that mother and daughter get visited by Kris Kringle…but not the one they were expecting.

Watching this again recently, I was struck by some bad acting and pacing problems that I didn’t register when I was younger.  It’s not as taut as it could have been…and that makes sense considering this tale was filmed before with better results.  In 1972, this story was part an anthology in the theatrical release of Tales from the Crypt and in that version it was a full 10 minutes shorter.  The extra time here feels like padding and though it’s barely a half hour it starts to feel long before the halfway point.  Even with that said, there’s something manically delightful about this contained piece of business from an A-List director eager to try his hand out again on the small screen.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Walk (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: The story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s attempt to cross the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Release Date: October 2, 2015

Thoughts: After the first true teaser, I can see a viewer watching the newest trailer for The Walk on their computer screen, tablet, or iPhone and thinking that the biopic is another technically proficient film from Robert Zemeckis (Flight). However, my first experience with the trailer was on a 7 story tall IMAX screen in 3D and the effect was, as intended, impressively dizzying. Inspired by the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, Zemeckis looks to be using every cinematic trick in his repertoire to its fullest advantage as he brings audiences sky high for this true life tale of one man’s attempt to do the impossible. Those familiar with the documentary will know there’s more to the story than just stringing a wire between two buildings and with Zemeckis at the helm and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) in the leading role, I think the transition from documentary to biographical narrative will be a smooth one…one that’s required viewing in IMAX 3D.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Walk

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Synopsis: The story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s attempt to cross the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Release Date:  October 2, 2015

Thoughts: Inspired by the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire, this is the true story of a high-wire daredevil that pushed the limits of his technique.  The original documentary was a nail-biting bit of wonderment, easily deserving of its Academy Award and I’m interested to see what director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) makes of the material that was already told so well.  Zemeckis isn’t as formidable as he once was, opting to produce more films that he directs but when he does the results have been unique and defined by real storytelling.  Featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) as Philippe Petit, our first look at The Walk doesn’t give away much…but at least you’ll have time to check out Man on Wire before The Walk arrives in October