The Frighteners: Death Ain't No Way To Make A Living
Updated: Sep 24
The Frighteners: directed by Peter Jackson, co-written with Fran Walsh, produced by Robert Zemeckis, and music by Danny Elfman! This is a group of heavy hitters! Who knew that this endearing 1996 horror-romantic-comedy would lead to the creation of the entire Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies?! Peter Jackson’s special effects company, Weta Digital, used a complicated combination of real scale models, prosthetic makeup, practical effects and computer-generated imagery to create The Frighteners’ cast of ghostly characters. Weta Digital had only been around for three years, but it produced some of the most advanced digital effects of that time period, leading Jackson to take his newfound technological advancements to tackle Tolkien’s classics. But let’s get back to The Frighteners.
Starring teen heartthrob Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, the film tells the story of a once successful architect (Frank), who loses his wife after a horrible car accident, and through the traumatic experience, is now able to see and communicate with ghosts. Frank abandons architecture and uses these newfound abilities to literally “scare” up a living; he and three ghosts – 70’s Cyrus (Chi McBride), nerdy Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and the Tombstone-esque Judge (John Astin) – have developed a ruse of “haunting” people who then contact Frank to “exorcise” the spirits from their homes, (for a fee of course). While many consider Frank to be a con man that hangs out at funerals, his ability to predict deaths puts him on the watch list of both the police and the FBI. Frank has started to see burning numbers carved into the foreheads of the increasing number of victims in his town shortly before they die. These people are all reported as having had symptoms of a heart attack, but Frank knows better. He has seen a tall shrouded figure killing these people: the Grim Reaper.
Trini Alvarado, (Meg from Little Women and a definite doppelgänger for Andie McDowell), plays Dr. Lucy Lynskey. Lucy is unhappy with her marriage to husband Ray, (played by Peter Dobson). After Frank crashes his car through Ray’s fence, he sends the ghosts over to haunt Frank and Lucy’s house, leaving them no choice but to call him for an exorcism. Ray is convinced that Frank is a crackpot until he himself is murdered. Now Ray is only able to communicate with his wife through Frank, (leading to an awkward anniversary dinner where Frank joins Lucy and Ray’s ghost at a theme restaurant called, “Excalibur.” While Frank tries to help Ray and Lucy, we learn more about his own backstory: he does not remember what happened after he and his wife crashed their car in the woods. AND he woke up to find his wife dead, with the number 13 carved into her forehead. After the accident, Frank gave up on building their “dream house,” which now remains partially built, in disarray, and completely open to the elements, housed by ghosts: Cyrus, Stuart and The Judge.
As the Grim Reaper’s body count increases, Frank becomes more and more of a suspect to the police, always showing up just before someone else dies. A showdown at a local museum leads to The Judge finally meeting his maker at the hands of the Grim Reaper and leads Frank to turn himself in. At the police station we meet FBI Special Agent Milton Dammers, (played excellently by Jeffrey Combs), as a shell-shocked agent who has survived countless undercover cases with various cult groups. These cases have taken a toll on Dammers, both mentally and physically. He holds a grudge, believing that Frank is a liar who uses his, “psychic abilities” as a cover up for committing murder. Although she barely knows him, Lucy cannot believe that Frank has done anything wrong. Dammers suggests that Frank even murdered his own wife, stating that a box cutter bearing Frank’s initials was never found, (it was thought to be the weapon which carved the number 13 into his wife’s forehead). Lucy tries to convince Frank of his own innocence and shake him out of his funk by taking a risky trip to the home of Patricia Ann Bradley and her mother. Years after a huge mass murder by her then lover, Johnny Bartlett, Patricia is kept at home, a prisoner of her mother. Lucy visits the house and finds Frank’s box cutter, still bearing his initials, in the closet of Patricia’s mother. She expects the worst of the mother and tries to get Patricia to escape. With this proof she is able to snap Frank out of his stupor, just in time for the Grim Reaper to come to collect her life as body number 41. Cyrus and Stuart do their best to help Frank defend Lucy, but each meets his own demise.
Frank realizes that he cannot fight back against a spirit as a living body. He almost attempts suicide before Lucy convinces him there is another way: she administers drugs and puts his body in a freezer to lower his heart rate, enabling him to have an out-of-body-experience in order to combat the Grim Reaper. Agent Dammer sees this opportunity and abducts Lucy in an effort to prevent her from awakening a frozen Frank, but Frank’s spirit ultimately comes to the rescue. He is able to fight the Grim Reaper head to head, until Lucy shocks him back to life. But during Frank’s time as a spirit, he saw the face of the Grim Reaper: the long dead Johnny Bartlett. Frank is convinced that Patricia is in danger and warns Lucy to save her.
With this news, Lucy rushes back to the house to convince Patricia to leave before Johnny returns. Little does she know, Patricia was in on the murders all along; she still communicates with the spirit of Johnny, and has been helping him increase his death toll. Frank shows up at the house just in time to save Lucy, and together they steal the ashes of Johnny Bartlett, in an effort to destroy his spirit by taking it to consecrated ground: the chapel in an old abandoned hospital where the mass murders originally took place. As Patricia follows them with shotgun in hand, Frank is able to see flashbacks of the murder as it originally happened, helping him find his way through the now decrepit hospital. This also allows us to see a scary younger version of Patricia, helping carve numbers into the foreheads of each person Johnny kills with a scalpel. Lucy takes Johnny’s ashes and attempts to find the chapel while Frank continues to evade Patricia. Eventually, it is Frank who almost destroys Johnny, but the insane Agent Dammer interrupts him again. Dammer casts the ashes into the wind and shoots Frank in the arm. As Frank turns around, he sees that Patricia is approaching from the opposite direction, ready to shoot her shotgun. Patricia shoots and Frank ducks, falling through the rotted wood floor, and through several other floors, while Dammer takes the bullet meant for Frank and is killed.
We think Frank is finally safe, but then in true horror fashion, Patricia pops up and begins strangling him with her shotgun. We see the big wormhole to heaven open in the sky and Frank’s spirit is guided towards it, but as his spirit leaves his body, he is able to wrestle Patricia’s spirit out of hers. A panicked Johnny’s ghost follows, trying to free Patricia, until they finally separate themselves from Frank. They believe they will be able to return to earth to continue their killing spree, but instead they are taken straight to Hell. Frank, reunited with his spirit friends, Cyrus and Stuart, (now in better clothing and no longer leaking ectoplasm), also gets to see his deceased wife, Debra. Finally at peace, Frank is actually denied stay in the afterlife. It’s not his time yet; he must return to earth to finish living and “be happy.”
Frank returns to Lucy to whom he has grown close, tears down his old house and starts a new life with her. Through the ordeal, Lucy has also developed the ability to see ghosts, but she hasn’t lost her sense of humor. She chases after a happy Frank, under a blanket, doing her best ghost impression. Frank finally learns that he needed to die in order to truly live.
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro