Film: The Frighteners

"Death ain't no way to make a livin'!"
The Judge

A 1996 horror/comedy film from Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), King Kong (2005), and The Hobbit Film Trilogy (2012-2014).

Michael J. Fox is Frank Bannister, a fraudulent freelance exorcist who's not quite as fraudulent as he appears. Having acquired the ability to see and communicate with the dead after a tragic car accident that killed his wife years ago, Frank sends his three ghostly accomplices—white n' nerdy Stuart (Jim Fyfe), black swinger Cyrus (Chi McBride), and cowboy corpse The Judge (John Astinnote )—to wreak paranormal havoc in the homes of wealthy clients-to-be. These people call Frank, he shows up to perform a phony exorcism, then leaves with the cash. He's the world's greatest con man...until dozens of perfectly healthy people in his hometown of Fairwater, California start dropping dead from cardiac arrest—the very same people who suddenly acquired numbered tattoos on their foreheads that only Frank can see.

Soon after one of these victims, Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobson), becomes a ghost and pleads Frank to help him find his way toward The Light, Frank and his undead buddies discover the cause of the phenomenon: A malicious spirit in the form of The Grim Reaper (scythe and all) has gone on a mad killing spree, literally squeezing the life from his victims' hearts. And not only that, it appears he has the ability to even kill ghosts by forcing them to move on to the next world. Frank and Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado), Ray's widow, hatch a radical plan to put an end to the murders, but along the way, they must deal with Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs), a maniacal FBI agent (basically a cross between Mulder and Hitler) who believes that Frank is psychically killing the murder victims, and will go to Hell and back to see him brought to justice.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Hospital: The finale is set inside one, the site of Bartlett and Patricia's original rampage.
  • Adam Westing: R. Lee Ermey as himself.
  • Adrenaline Makeover: Lucy goes from frumpy woman in an unhappy marriage to hot widow after her husband's death.
  • Agent Mulder: Dammers is somehow convinced that Frank is using his powers to kill people by stopping their hearts and then summons an image of The Grim Reaper to absolve himself of guilt.
  • The Alleged Car: Frank's "pus-yellow" junker.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Mrs. Waterhouse, the rich lady who is Frank's second attempted on-screen con. Despite having witnessed, firsthand and not ten minutes before, things flying through the air (including her children) with no explanation, she immediately disbelieves the moment she sees a newspaper headline calling Frank a fraud.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: "Killing" a ghost simply forces them to move on to the next life.
  • Ashes to Crashes: Dammers dumps out Bartlett's ashes on purpose to get Frank's goat, not realizing he just let the Big Bad out to play.
  • Asshole Victim: Magda Rees-Jones, the editor-in-chief of the Fairwater Gazette who seems to have it out for Frank. If she hadn't been so eager to believe the absolute worst of him (and to get shrill and aggressive about it), she might have survived. Well, at least a little longer. Her desire to be a bitch is such that even as she realizes she's dead and is ascending to the next plane, all she wants to do is scream at him.
    Magda: (to Frank, as she's pulled into the light) Is this how you get your kicks? Bannister, did it feel good killing your wife? You're a MUUUUURRRRDDDEEEERRRRRR!!!!
  • Ax-Crazy: Dammers, Patricia and Bartlett.
  • Back from the Dead: Frank, twice throughout the film.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: There's The Grim Reaper (later revealed to be Johnny Bartlett) and his Dragon, Patricia, and Agent Dammers, who don't really work alongside each other but equally play a frustrating part in Frank and Lucy's lives.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Dammers has these.
  • Blond Guys Are Evil: Bartlett was a blond-haired bad guy.
  • Body-Count Competition: Barlett's motive, one he feels about so strongly that he came back from the dead to continue it.
  • Body Horror: Happens to ghosts the longer they stay on the physical plane. Ray had only been dead a day or so before his skin started to decay. The Judge has been a ghost so long, his ghostly body is literally falling apart and he's gone slightly insane; it's generally played for laughs.
  • Brick Joke: Cyrus complains about not being able to get new clothes or a cigar. In Heaven, he's seen with a cigar and a new suit.
  • California Doubling: Inverted. While set in California, it was filmed in the port town of Lyttelton, New Zealand, a suburb of Christchurch. Frank, Lucy and Ray (as a ghost) dine at the Sign of the Takehe, a nearby manor house that, in real life, had been converted into a restaurant.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Frank's utility knife.
    • The shotgun in the intro of the film is used by Patricia to attempt to kill Frank and Lucy.
  • Creator Cameo: In one scene, Frank bumps into a random hoodlum played by Peter Jackson.
  • Creepy Doll: Played for Laughs during the Lynskey house haunting.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Frank gained the ability to communicate with the dead after a tragic accident that killed his wife and exploited it for profit as a "freelance exorcist."
  • Damsel in Distress: Lucy, with the exceptional moment when she pretends to run from Frank to distract Dammers and sprays him with a fire extinguisher while he's about to shoot Frank.
  • Deader Than Dead: The "Grim Reaper" can kill people down to their souls, though all this does is force them to move on.
  • Disco Dan: Cyrus, who died during The Seventies and dresses appropriately.
  • Disney Death: Frank, who manages to be brought back in time before his death becomes permanent.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Hiles, as played by R. Lee Ermey.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Frank, when he tries to save a newspaper editor from becoming the ghostly reaper's next victim, which only makes him look crazy to the editor who already hated him for his reputation as a fraud.
    • He does pretty badly every time he drives. He takes his eyes off the road to paw at his business cards and nearly hits a funeral procession, and when he chases the Grim Reaper, he drives so badly that even the Judge (who is already dead) looks freaked out. And of course, he had a fight with his wife while driving that ended with a crash and him getting Psychic Powers (although it was Bartlett and Patty who killed his wife).
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Frank Bannister's very first scene is walking into someone's funeral and advertising his business.
    • Milton Dammers' first scene showcases most of his eccentricities (difficulties around women, mostly), as well as his staunch belief that Frank is a murderer.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Johnny Bartlett and Patricia, surprisingly. Johnny even goes to save her when her soul is pulled out of her body by Frank near the end. Doesn't make either any less twisted or insane, though.
  • Evil Slinks: The Grim Reaper, even once revealed to be Johnny, is humanoid most of the time, but can go all gooey and seep through cracks and crevasses.
  • Flatline Plotline: Frank enlists Lucy in entering the ghost world with the aid of drugs and cryogenics to stop his heart.
  • Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Heaven is portrayed this way in the final act.
  • Foreshadowing: The hospital massacre mentioned in the first part of the film brings up that Johnny Bartlett counted the victims he and Patricia killed.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus:
    • The cereal that Frank is eating when discussing Stuart and Cyrus' grievances is, appropriately enough, Boo-Berry.
    • You briefly get a glimpse at the Grim Reaper's face when he charges through Frank's car. Attentive viewers will also notice that the eyes resemble the true identity of the Reaper: Johnny Bartlett.
  • Ghostly Goals: Of the omnicidal kind.
  • Go Into the Light: When Frank meets up with his wife in Heaven, he intends on staying, but is told it's not his time and is sent back.
  • The Grim Reaper: The ghostly murderer who is actually Serial Killer Johnny Bartlett, implied to be abusing his newfound powers in the role for the sole pleasure of killing people and scoring a bigger body count.
  • Guns Akimbo: Frank, in his ghostly form, wields two assault rifles to fight the Grim Reaper with (which had previously belonged to a ghostly R. Lee Ermey).
  • The Gunslinger: The Judge.
  • Happily Ever After: Frank and Lucy get together in the end. But holy hell, do they have to work for it.
  • Heroic BSOD: Frank goes through a major example of this halfway through the movie, to the point where he momentarily stops believing in his abilities (which makes them stop working). In his backstory, it's revealed he went through this after his wife died, with the end result of gaining his abilities in the first place.
  • Hospital Hottie: Lucy is a fairly attractive doctor.
  • Inspector Javert: Dammers
  • I See Dead People: Frank, and when all is said and done, Lucy has gained this ability as well.
  • Jacob Marley Apparel: Lampshaded and lamented by Cyrus, who is stuck in horrible clothes he wouldn't be caught dead in. But after being killed by the "Grim Reaper" and going to Heaven, he gets some nifty new threads.
  • Jerk Jock: Ray
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Ray. He might be a vain, chauvinistic and obnoxious boor, but it's shown several times that he does actually care about Lucy even if he does likely care about himself more.
    • Frank himself, given that he's a con man and he bullies the ghosts who help him out with his business. The director's cut makes him out to be more of a jerk, a notable example being that he drives into the middle of a funeral procession so he can get to his next house call quicker. The Judge even calls him out on it.
  • Just for Pun:
    The Judge: They don't call me the 'Hanging Judge' for nothing!
  • Karmic Death:
    • Dammers, who had been hounding Frank throughout the film, gets his head blown off by Patricia. The best part of it is his ghost instantly appears, head sticking out of the stump of the corpse's neck with a very surprised expression on his face.
    • Bartlett and Patricia meet a gruesome "end" when they take the express bus to Hell.
  • Knight Templar: Dammers, especially towards Frank.
  • Large Ham: Most of the cast gets their moment to shine. Dammers probably takes the cake, however.
  • Marked for Death: The glowing numbers that appear on the foreheads of The Grim Reaper's victims. Only Frank can see them.
  • Monster Protection Racket: How Frank makes a living as a con artist with the help of his three ghost buddies.
  • Mood Whiplash: To so great an extent that it comes off like two movies spliced together. There's a clear point in the movie where the whole thing shifts to a darker tone, but rolls with it into pitch-black humor.
  • Multitasked Conversation: Frank is the only one who can see everyone, so this happens regularly.
  • Mundane Utility: Frank uses his power to make a living as a con man.
  • Near Death Clairvoyance: Frank got his powers from a nearly lethal car accident.
  • Nerds Are Sexy: Apparently in Heaven, Stuart's a regular Chick Magnet.
  • Non-Standard Character Design: Johnny Bartlett's ghost is a darker blue than the other ghosts in the film.
  • Not Quite Dead: Frank's plan to confront the ghostly Reaper involves deliberate flat-lining in order to fight as a ghost. Both times, he's thankfully able to revive before it becomes permanent.
  • Not-So-Phony Psychic: Frank uses his abilities to perform fake exorcisms.
  • Obstructive Zealot: Dammers will stop at nothing to antagonize Frank at every step of the way.
  • Occult Detective: Dammers and, to a lesser extent, Frank himself.
  • Only Sane Man: Frank, who unfortunately has the poor luck of being unable to prove it to clear himself of the murders.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: These ghosts are about as traditional as they get.
  • Peek-a-Bogeyman: Stuart, Cyrus and The Judge.
  • Plot Hole: The first scene of the film where Patricia is being harmed by a ghost clashes a little with what we see later on regarding her relationship with them: she and the ghost work with, and love, each other. The Director's Cut of the film explains this by revealing that Bartlett and Patricia would play role-play games like this shortly before making love.
  • Police Are Useless: Against ghosts. Much to Sheriff Perry's exasperation, this leads to them needing the no-less-useless-but-completely-unhinged liaison form the FBI to step in.
  • Psychic Powers: Frank gains them as a result of his tragic accident, though Dammers seems convinced that Frank also has the ability to stop people's hearts with his mind.
  • Psycho for Hire: Dammers once worked as a undercover agent. The director's cut delves a little more into this.
  • Punny Name: Milton Dammers, as in John Milton, of Paradise Lost fame. As well as Jeffrey Dahmer.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Sheriff Perry. Though obviously befuddled by dealing with a serial killer he can't fight, he knows Frank is a good man who knows his stuff, often allows Frank to do what he must and is highly resistant to Dammers' attempts to pile everything on him.
  • The Reveal:
    • The Grim Reaper is the ghost of legendary serial killer Johnny Bartlett.
    • The souls of good people can still go to Heaven even if they're "killed" by Bartlett.
    • Patricia really did have a part in the murders. She's Bartlett's right hand.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Happens temporarily to the Big Bad.
  • Shout-Out: Twisted In-Universe example: Bartlett compares his own body-count to those of a few Real Life serial killers and mass murderers.
  • Sinister Scythe: To match The Grim Reaper getup.
  • Those Two Guys: Cyrus and Stuart.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: After his wife's death, Frank was found wandering around in the woods with no memory of what happened.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We see Cyrus and Stuart in the afterlife, but we never see the Judge after the museum or Rusty the Dog after his intro. They had scenes later in the cemetery, and the end originally featured the Judge's upper-body riding Rusty and heading west into the sunset, but they were deleted from the movie.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: In the director's cut, The Judge gives Frank one of these after Frank cuts into a funeral procession.
    The Judge: I thought you had some character, son! Right now, you're not showing me a whole lot!
  • Who You Gonna Call?: Frank Bannister, "freelance exorcist"!