Release Date(s)1996 (September 13, 2011)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A-
While The Frighteners is a highly entertaining movie, it’s also one of Peter Jackson’s more interesting efforts. It’s difficult to imagine him as a low budget filmmaker now, as he seems to have become accustomed to making giant-sized movies over the last couple of decades. Yet even in big budget environments, surrounded by large casts and crews, he still seems to maintain a child-like glee about moviemaking. Things like over-the-top gore, gross-out comedy, and twisted characters still pop up occasionally in his films, but not in the way they used to. This is one of the reasons why The Frighteners is so special. It showcases a filmmaker early in his career, given a decent budget to do what he does best, in a semi-studio controlled environment.
Funnily enough, The Frighteners began life as a spec script for a potential Tales from the Crypt movie, but producer Robert Zemeckis realized the potential, in both the material and the director behind it, and decided to do it as a stand-alone movie instead. Jackson, who was fresh off the indie success of Heavenly Creatures, was able to get well-known talent in front of and behind the camera based upon the strength of that effort alone. Besides recruiting Danny Elfman to do the score and Michael J. Fox for the lead, he also landed John Astin, Trini Alvarado, Chi McBride, and Jeffrey Combs in one of his most memorable roles. Jackson also had a tough time selling, to both Zemeckis and the studio, the idea of shooting in his native homeland of New Zealand, not to mention getting clearance for his then-new digital and special effects company WETA to work on the movie. Eventually, it all came together and, in July of 1996, Universal released it to theaters.
Today, The Frighteners still holds up well, my personal bias towards it and nostalgia for it aside. It’s true that the film didn’t do well at the box office and became a bigger hit on video, but when I was a teenager, it was the perfect movie for me. It was everything I wanted out of a movie experience; it was funny, scary, had cool special effects, and featured one of my big screen heroes, Michael J. Fox. Looking back at it now, it’s interesting seeing Peter Jackson right on the cusp of becoming a different kind of filmmaker entirely. He’s now in league with folks like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but I do truly miss this earlier version of him.
Universal’s treatment of The Frighteners on Blu-ray leaves little room for complaint in all respects. The A/V presentation is pretty stellar. Obviously, the dated CGI is still dated-looking, but the overall appearance of the film has been kept pristine. There are solid grain levels across the board with high amounts of fine detail, whether it’s a foreground or a background element, close-up or a wide shot. Colors are also quite accurate, as are skin tones, with the hazy, overcast look of Fairwater and more natural hues of interior sets juxtaposed well against the nightly environments. Speaking of which, black levels in this movie are super, allowing for crisp shadow detailing. Brightness and contrast levels are also top notch, and there’s no evidence of digital sharpening or heavy DNR on display. The sole audio track available to go with it is an English 5.1 DTS-HD track, which is a busy and bombastic soundtrack. Besides dialogue always being perfectly rendered and clear, sound effects and score will give the old home theater system a real workout as surround and LFE activity are abundant. No major grievances here either. All in all, it’s a near perfect presentation. And if you require them, subtitle options are included in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Universal also does the film proud by including all of the previous extras from The Frighteners’ terrific Signature Edition Laserdisc and 10th Anniversary Director’s Cut DVD releases. These include Peter Jackson’s 10th Anniversary Intro; an audio commentary with Peter Jackson for the Director’s Cut of the movie; the massive and very entertaining documentary The Making of The Frighteners, presented in 30 chapters (Peter Jackson’s Introduction, Ghost Stories, Script Development, Michael J. Fox & Trini Alvarado, Jim Fyfe, Chi McBride, John Astin, Rehearsing, Lyttleton as Fairwater, Introduction to WETA, Scene 28, Ghost Effects, Motion Control & Bluescreen, The Jackson Boys, Stunts, On the Set, The Reaper, Rustler, The Gatekeeper, Jeffrey Combs, Miniatures, Dee Wallace Stone & Jake Busey, Trini’s Bruises, Slimeface & Blobman, Wallpaperman & Portraitman, Acceleration, The Worm, The Gatekeeper, The Judge, & Other Deleted Stories, Music, Bloopers, Ratings & Final Thoughts, Credits); a Storyboarding featurette, which is presented separately from the main documentary; the movie’s theatrical trailer; and Universal’s usual interactive options including My Scenes, D-BOX Motion Code, and BD-Live connectivity.
For its 15th Anniversary release, Universal’s Blu-ray of The Frighteners does little to disappoint. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I would’ve liked to have had some sort of retrospective with some of the cast and crew about the movie, but as is, it's still a solid package that’s definitely worth owning.
- Tim Salmons