Too much of a ghost thing can be blunderful

Movie review

July 19, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

A witty friend once commented that Strindberg was Ibsen on speed. I thought of that when watching -- rather, trying to watch -- Peter Jackson's "The Frighteners," with Michael J. Fox. "The Frighteners" is "Ghostbusters" on speed.

A major headache in search of a large and bottomless bottle of Tylenol, "The Frighteners" takes "Ghostbusters' " subject of ghostly apparitions played for grisly laughs, and blows it through a cyclotron enlarger, transfers it to video and hits the fast-forward button. The movie will not get out of your face: It just keeps getting nuttier, louder, more spectacular, more overwhelming, sillier. I wanted to put in a call to Bill Murray to come and suck it off the screen into a little yellow box.

Fox plays an ex-architect named Frank Bannister who, having survived an accident that took his wife's life, has returned to reality with an odd gift: He can see and interact with a class of spirit that hasn't quite made it to heaven yet, though the film never bothers to make the spirit-world hierarchy clear.

Being of larcenous mind, Frank recruits three of these ethereal beings to haunt houses, which he then comes and de-haunts at $400 a shot. He ekes out a pathetic living from this scam and hangs out, after hours, with the three apparitions who are in various forms of comic rot. One, an old cowboy, keeps dropping his jawbone on the floor. These three creatures are imagined in great detail, but their part in the subsequent story never materializes into much.

At the same time, the town -- Fairwater, by name -- is suffering from an amazingly high death rate. People just die, for no reason and with no symptoms other than having had their hearts crushed in the rib cage. Frank, with his gift, finally sees what's going on: Some kind of ethereal spectre is racing down from the clouds, reaching in his victim's chest and squishing their hearts like vine-ripened tomatoes, then retreating back to the heavens while Danny Elfman's music provides all the energy the screenplay can't manage.

But all suspicions come to focus on Frank, particularly as engineered by a psychotic FBI agent (Jeffrey Combs) who has evidently seen too many episodes of "The X-Files." He thinks Frank is murdering the people by mind power.

One great difficulty is that Jackson, who also co-wrote with co-producer (and wife) Frances Walsh, never bothers to set any rules in his peculiar universe. You never know what's possible and what's not possible. Why are some spooks still locked into human locomotion and possessed with the ability to step through material things -- walls, people, but, to increase the inconsistency, never floors -- and yet can't interact with humans, while others can not only move at super speed and reach into people's bodies and kill them? If anything's possible, then nothing's believable.

There's also a sense of a budget gone out of control. Jackson is a New Zealander who broke through to a world audience two years back with "Heavenly Creatures." Even in that film, nominally a straightforward if ironic account of two delinquent high school girls who conspire to murder one of their mothers, there was a long fantasy sequence. But in his first American-financed production, with an evidently nearly unlimited budget, he goes computer-effect nuts. There are so many effects they cancel out each other. The movie wasn't directed, it was programmed.

Finally, there's the odd mixture of tone. The movie veers from "Ghostbusters' " benign con-man comedy to a much darker precinct. There, it ties in a squirrely natural-born killer played by Gary Busey's son Jake and re-creates, in Bannister's mind and in oppressive detail, his rampage with a shotgun 20 years earlier, as he roamed through a hospital blowing away doctors, nurses, nuns and patients, while his girlfriend carved numbers in their foreheads with an X-ACTO knife. Oh, fun.

'The Frighteners'

Starring Michael J. Fox

Directed by Peter Jackson

Released by Universal

Rated PG-13

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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