The Frighteners (Peter Jackson)

Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)

At last, a big-budget summer movie that actually delivers on its promise of entertaining escapist entertainment, without insulting the audience's intelligence in the process. While it's inevitably a bit of a disappointment, coming as it does on the heels of Jackson's staggeringly brilliant Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners is nonetheless first-rate goofy fun, marred only by a rather weak first act and a truly lame denouement (the final five minutes or so seem to have been imported from some other, considerably dumber summer movie...maybe that one with the tornadoes and Helen Hunt running around in a flimsy white tank top...can't remember what it was called...). And get this: the movie actually has a plot. You remember plots, don't you -- those sequences of events that keep you wondering what might happen next? (If you've forgotten, I can't say as I blame you, as it's been quite some time since a film with a budget this big featured one worth paying attention to.) Granted, it's a fairly derivative plot, incorporating elements from Ghostbusters, Ghost, The Shining, and various other supernatural flicks, but Jackson and his co-writer, Fran Walsh, manage to combine these influences into a surprisingly satisfying blend of over-the-top comedy and ghoulish horror. Ultimately, though, it's Jackson's inventive, kinetic, madcap direction that truly impresses; his visual panache, as always, is consistently exhilirating without ever becoming gratingly excessive. The film's climax, set in an abandoned hospital, is a tour-de-force of rhythm and motion, fluidly moving back and forth between past and present in breathtaking fashion. Best of all, Jackson knows how to use exciting special-effects technology without letting it run roughshod over the narrative; the effects are impressive, but they're also an integral part of a story that would still be of interest even with dime-store, cut-rate work in this department. (Would anyone have cared about Jurassic Park if the dinosaurs had been so-so?) Performances range from slightly-more-than-adequate (Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado) to dementedly inspired (Jeffrey Combs, whose fine low-key work in Re-Animator failed to prepare me for his hilarious histrionics as Milton, a very deranged FBI agent). Water in the desert, this one.