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A long, long time ago, back in 1996, a special effects laden film was released under the title Robert Zemeckis Presents: The Frighteners. Directed by a little known New Zealand director named Peter Jackson, whose previous works included the stunning Heavenly Creatures and a couple of low budget releases, Bad Taste and Meet The Feebles, the film was a huge failure, bombing at the box office and losing money for Universal Studios.

Remarkably, Jackson was allowed to create a special edition laserdisc of the film. Unfortunately, this ultimate edition of the The Frighteners, released under the Signature Collection in 1998, came out just as the laserdisc revolution was fizzling out. But it would become the stuff of laserdisc legend. Very difficult to find and if you somehow managed to find it, it would cost you an arm and a leg to own. Not to mention that it included a colossal four hour documentary about the making of the film. Luckily, Jackson wrote, produced and directed a hugely successful film trilogy and now finally The Frighteners gets the special edition treatment on DVD and this time around it’s A Peter Jackson film: The Frighteners

Frighteners: Director's Cut, The
In a small, picturesque town, Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), once a talented architect, now lives a fractured existence and works as a ‘ghost buster’ or psychic detective. After losing his wife in a car accident, in which he was the driver, he has been able to see lost spirits, who instead of taking the gateway to heaven or hell are roaming in the land of the living. His business relies on three such ghosts, Stuart (Jim Frye), Cyrus (Chi McBide) and Judge (John Astin), who haunt houses and conveniently leave Frank’s card for the owner to find so he come and take care of their ghostly problems. Frank has also been trying to drum up business at the local cemetery that has been filling up recently due to a number of bizarre deaths in the town. On the way back from one of his cemetery visits, Frank loses control of his car and ploughs into the white picket fenced, gnome inhabited garden of Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobson). With Ray threatening to sue, Frank dispatches his spirits to haunt Ray and his wife, Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado). Instead of paying for Frank’s services, Ray agrees to forget the damage to the fence in exchange for the ghost bust. But as he about to leave, Frank sees a glowing number thirty seven carved into Ray’s forehead. Initially disturbed, he eventually convinces himself that it was simply a joke by Cyrus and Stuart.

Things take a turn for the worse when Frank later encounters the ghost of Ray, who is jogging to his own funeral. As the twosome attend Ray’s funeral, his wife Lucy approaches Frank in the hope of making contact with her husband. When Lucy and Frank meet for dinner, the significance of the number carved into Ray’s head becomes clear. Frank encounters a man in the bathroom who also sports a number carved into his forehead. Frank watches in horror as a grim reaper type creature emerges from the bathroom mirror and reaches inside the man’s chest, literally crushing the life out of him. Frank becomes the prime suspect in the man’s murder and his reputation in the small town doesn’t help his case. But Lucy believes him and refuses to believe that Frank also murdered his wife years earlier, an accusation made by FBI special agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs), who has arrived in the town to investigate the strange events in the town and the role that Bannister has played in them. But Dammers, Frank and Lucy will discover that they are up against the spirit of serial killer Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey) who, along with the aide of his insane lover accomplice Patricia (Dee Wallace Stone), has extended his murderous urges beyond the grave.

Frighteners: Director's Cut, The
The Frighteners is an odd film to review because it shouldn’t work as well, or be as entertaining, as it ends up being. Granted, a hell of a lot of work went into the making of the film and Peter Jackson is a superb filmmaker, demonstrated by the haunting Heavenly Creatures and of course subsequently by The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the recent King Kong. But even a brilliant filmmaker can be hampered by the overuse of special effects, which often leads to poor characters and a non-existent storyline. The reason that this film shouldn’t work is because the special effects dominate almost every scene and are impressive even by today’s standards, and groundbreaking by 1996 standards. Some film critics lampooned The Frighteners as simply being a vehicle to showcase the abilities of the burgeoning effects wizards of WETA. But for fans of the film all the special effects are simply one part of a movie filled with comedy, drama, horror and engagingly flawed characters. Michael J. Fox plays his role as Bannister with a degree of kookiness seeping through his regular Joe persona, with just a dash of melancholy present for good measure. Trini Alvarado offers strong support as the confused yet resilient Lucy and Jeffrey Combs pretty much steals the whole film with his insane portrayal as Dammers, the damaged FBI agent who has been scarred by his many years undercover in a variety of cults. Without the superb efforts of all the cast, the delicate mixture of comedy and horror would fail hopelessly. As it is, it doesn’t always work, but the cast generally rise to the occasion and, I can’t say this enough, make the film work.

Now, I am not completely oblivious to the plot holes and the occasionally stupid humour of the film, but all the faults of the film are easily ignored when a film looks as interesting and is as entertaining as The Frighteners still is to this day. I am a biased reviewer, having loved this film from the first time I saw it and then renting it almost every week from my local video store when it was finally released on video. It didn't star an actor I really liked, I hadn't seen Heavenly Creatures and had no idea who Peter Jackson was, but I loved the film because it was different and funny and I just feel in love with the characters. I even cried when some of the ghostly characters were eliminated. Most of the core characters are developed well and Jackson has really taken the time to make sure they simply aren't vehicles to showcase the technology. How any critic could totally miss the appeal of the characters and how they make the film work is completely beyond me. The Frighteners is always connected in my mind to another supernatural comedy, Tim Burton's classic Beetlejuice. Although Beetlejuice is a better film and one of my all time favourites, there are obvious similarities in the subject matter as well as the style and execution of both films, which I guess partly explains why I was, and still am, attracted to the undead antics of The Frighteners.

Frighteners: Director's Cut, The
This ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film offers around fourteen minutes of extra footage inserted into the original theatrical cut. This small amount of footage makes The Frighteners a much more solid and complete experience. Having seen the original cut countless times it was easy to spot the extra minute here and minute there and really appreciate how subtly, but effectively, the extra material enhances the overall film.

This director’s cut edition presents the film in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio with 16x9 enhancement for widescreen displays. It’s a sharp looking image, but there are a few issues, although none of them are hugely problematic. Low level noise is present occasionally, making certain scenes slightly blurry and film artefacts are much more frequent that could be desired. However, sharpness and detail are excellent overall, with minute details particularly impressive. These issues, while slightly annoying, don’t damage the look of the film dramatically. Otherwise, the colours are wonderful, rich and bold with no visible colour bleeding, made all the more impressive by the constant lighting changes and extensive colour palette.

Two soundtracks are on offer for the film, a Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 package, while the commentary and extra materials get Dolby 2.0 Surround. The Dolby and DTS audio tracks are nothing short of superb, in fact I'm going to go as far as saying that both tracks are reference quality, especially the DTS track. Dialogue is crystal clear and audible every moment with no hint of any audio sync or any other issues. The surround is spectacular with masterful strength and sound effects spreading splendidly across all the channels. But what this wonderful audio mix really showcases is the creepy, yet slightly comical, score by Danny Elfman.

Firstly, there are newly filmed introductions to both the director’s cut of the film and the documentary by a slimmed down Peter Jackson. Next up is the commentary by Peter Jackson. If there is any director who could teach other directors how to do an entertaining, informative and down right brilliant commentary, it’s Jackson. There are only flickers of silence throughout this commentary, understandable so Jackson can catch his breath. He speaks with a film buffs enthusiasm about every aspect of the film, but amazingly doesn’t simply rehash a lot of the information or anecdotes he provides in the documentary. Jackson recorded this commentary in his own home and speaks about everything you could possibly imagine, even candidly discussing his feelings about the failure of the film. In particular the totally unwarranted R rating the film received and its release being postponed from the perfect release date, Halloween. It’s interesting that although there were a lot of problems with the rating of the film in 1996, it’s now on offer in an unrated edition in the US and only rated M for the region four market. I could go and on about how brilliant this commentary is, which is rare because I am not a huge fan of commentaries. I am usually disappointed by what I hear, but there are always exceptions and this commentary is certainly one of them.

Frighteners: Director's Cut, The
Beginning on disc two and continuing on disc three, ‘The Making of The Frighteners’ is a monumental four and a half hour documentary covering all aspects of the films production. Of course the exceptional thing about this documentary is that Jackson made a point of filming plenty of behind the scenes material and interviews at various stages of the production. He was a big fan of laserdisc and intended this footage to be included on a format that people could watch at home. With DVD not being in existence way back in the mid ‘90s, Jackson is amongst a handful of directors who were, unintentionally, preparing for the evolution of DVD. Bless him. One of the best features in the documentary takes a look at the storyboards. Running nearly forty five minutes, it's an excellent look at the storyboarding process with Jackson offering insightful commentary over the entire storyboard, complete with background music. As I said, the documentary is spread across two discs for the region four edition, but is also broken up into chapters.  But thankfully there are play all options for both discs, so the documentary can be watched as a whole. Lastly, there is a theatrical trailer tagged onto the end of the documentary before the credits roll.

Frighteners: Director's Cut, The
While the region one release of this film is identical in terms of content, it is presented on a DVD-18 (dual-sided disc in plain language) and so if you have problems with dual-sided discs, this three disc region four edition might suit you better. While The Frighteners has made its way to DVD in most regions in a bare bones release, this director’s cut really does the film justice. If you haven’t been exposed to this brilliant film then this release will certainly turn you into a instant fan. There is so much to enjoy in watching this film, from the sharp one liners and the still impressive special effects, The Frighteners is the kind of the film that DVD was invented for, a film that received little love when it released in cinemas, but has subsequently received a loyal fan base who have long been hanging out for this particular ‘director’s cut’ release which offers everything that anyone could possibly want from a DVD.