The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘The Frighteners’

Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “The Frighteners.”

The info:

The Movie: “The Frighteners”

Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson

Director: Peter Jackson

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) After a tragic car accident that kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 66 percent

Our take:

Brown: So after watching one of the most terrifying movies in cinema history ruin the pea soup business last time with “The Exorcist,” I figured we needed some levity in this Halloween Month installment of the JOE-DOWN. 

So, why not dip our toe back into the waters of horror comedy with *checks notes* Academy Award-winning director Peter Jackson?

This actually isn’t foreign territory for Jackson, who helmed JOE-DOWN favorite “Dead Alive.” 

Seriously, go see “Dead Alive.” That movie (REDACTED) rules.

But instead of being a low-budget affair like “Dead Alive,” this movie had some weight behind it, with Robert Zemeckis as executive producer, Michael J. Fox in the starring role and a budget of $26 million. 

The result is… mixed? We’ll touch upon it. 

Froemming, give us your first thoughts while I drive my beater through a weirdo’s picket fence. 

Froemming: I had not seen this movie, and I never even heard of it. Which is weird, because of the big names behind it and the fact I love Jackson’s “Dead Alive” and “Meet the Feebles.” You know, the era before he decided to make boring movies about hobbits walking around doing jack (REDACTED). And he didn’t even make hobbits cool, like Led Zeppelin did. He made them boring, like Rush did.

Well, “The Frighteners” is, like you said, a mixed bag. It felt like the weirdest Tim Burton movie Tim Burton never made, with ghosts that look like the T-1000. But hey, I am getting ahead of myself.

Brown, as I ponder why there was a Hydrox Jim Carrey in this, because this character really adds nothing to the plot, why don’t you kick this off.

Brown: Our opening scene has us going to an old house where apparently a mother and daughter are arguing with each other.

But, the arguing quickly shuts down when the lights start flickering and some otherworldly stuff starts happening. 

Namely, we start seeing what looks like a body poking through the walls and, eventually the carpet. And this leads to an issue for the movie: high-definition screens do not help this movie.

Unlike “Dead Alive,” which excelled with practical effects, “The Frighteners” has a lot of CGI. And for a movie made in 1996… it looks very much like 1996 instead of something like “Terminator 2,” which still holds up. 

Hell, the wall effects looked better back in 1984 when “A Nightmare on Elm Street” did it. Frankly, it looks more like “Flubber.”

While this ghostly apparition is in the carpet, the mom shoots it and seemingly ends the threat as we end the cold open and go into the opening credits.

Froemming: After the credits roll, the movie takes us to a JOE-DOWN pet peeve in film: A print newsroom. Here we get some exposition about the town, where a suspiciously large amount of the population is dying of heart attacks. And since this is the mid-90s when America wasn’t consuming a diet of 90 percent high fructose corn syrup, this is not the norm. 

Brown: I dunno. For all we know, this town could have been inspired by Homer Simpson’s Space-Age Out-Of-This-World Moon Waffles.

Froemming: Also, the editor of this small town paper is British, which was confusing. Not that it doesn’t happen, I just never heard of this before. Though I did like the editor telling her dumbass reporter to not refer to death as a person. Words matter, people.

Brown: A little too inside baseball for our non-newspaper readers (all three of them), but were you getting angry watching them design the paper on what looked like Quark?

Froemming: Quark is like Voldemort in the JOE-DOWN. We don’t speak its name.

Anyway, we then get a funeral scene where we meet our conman hero Frank Bannister. Like home robbers used to do, he reads the paper to see who died recently and then meets the family at the funeral to get jobs. What sort of jobs? Well, he is a Ghostbus… Psychic Investigator. He hands out his cards at these places. He also hands them out at accidents. And he has his ghost buddies drop them in houses. Say what you will, this man knows how to network his name.

Brown: Well, Frank hands them out at accidents of his own doing. Because this dude drives the same way I do when playing “Grand Theft Auto.” You know, the road is more of a suggestion than an actual path for transportation. 

One of these accidents is driving through the lawn of Ray Lynskey, who is as fitness-oriented and seemingly fragile as Charlie Kelly when he’s taking steroids. 

Meanwhile, Ray’s wife, Lucy (Alvarado), makes a house call to the mother-daughter combo we saw in the movie’s opening. The daughter, Patricia, got her arm sliced during the haunting the night before. Lucy — or as I described her in my notes, Shasta Julia Louis-Dreyfus — wants to bring Patricia to the hospital for treatment but Patricia’s mom forbids her daughter from leaving the house. 

Froemming: Well, we sort of find out why in the next scene. See, we get these old TV news clips where a man named Johnny Bartlett (played by Jake Busey’s teeth) shot up a hospital in the 1960s (I think) trying to match the number of people that Charles Starkweather killed with his young love, Caril Ann Fugate. Patricia is basically the yang to Bartlett’s ying, and I said right away: Ghost sex caused the bruises and cuts. And also, Patricia will probably be the big twist.

I was right. Though she is not as cool or interesting as this other character inspired by Caril Ann Fugate.

Brown: See, I never saw “Natural Born Killers” or know about Caril Ann Fugate, so I didn’t make that correlation for later in the movie. 

So after this strange encounter, Ray and Lucy get ready for bed. But, the lights start flickering and the bed starts levitating, which I did not expect to have happened in back-to-back movies. 

There’s a haunting a-happenin’. So, who you gonna call?!
GHOSTBUS… oh, wait. I guess we’ll call a schlubby Marty McFly. 

… That’s not as fun. 

Froemming: Frank shows up with his tools, including a weird thing he puts over his eye that looks like something from “Ghostbusters” and a toaster/radio that pops a plastic bag out of the top instead of bread.

He throws around a lot of mumbo jumbo, to confuse his marks into thinking he has great scientific knowledge. But a lot of his questions to them come back with a “no” which he seems confused by.

Turns out, he has ghost buddies who haunt homes by shaking beds and making plates float so he can scam people. If the afterlife is this, it sounds horrible.

Brown: Was it just me, or did one of Frank’s ghost friends look like Cousin Kyle from “South Park?”

Froemming: I liked the other guy, who died in the 1970s so he is forever trapped in a leisure suit.

Well, Frank basically trades his services so he won’t have to pay for (REDACTED) up these fine people’s yard and garden gnome, so he broke even on this. Except on his way out, he sees a flaming number on Ray’s head. 

We also get some bad CGI T-1000 ghost here too. And on my 4K TV, it looked really horrible.

Brown: Frank and his good-time ghost pals do another haunting at a wealthy woman’s house that involves making the babies levitate and tackle their mother. Apparently, the baby in the bouncer that starts floating was Peter Jackson’s kid. 

Frank shows up to do his schtick, but finds out that the local newspaper did an A1 CP on how he’s a fraud and had crashed a funeral for business. So, he’s booted from this job. 

Now, I certainly think this story is front-page worthy, but an A1 centerpiece with a way-too-long headline? Dunno about that choice. 

Froemming: Not since Ben Wyatt being taken down by the headline “Ice Town costs ice clown his town crown” has a newspaper hit piece amused me in popular culture.

On his way out of this house, he bumps into Peter Jackson dressed like Sid Vicious. So, there was that Hitchcockian cameo.

Brown: Also, let’s make mention that Frank’s life is a living hell.

See, when Frank is run out of the wealthy woman’s house, he sees Lucy in a funeral procession. Turns out, Ray died of an apparent heart attack at the ripe age of 29. Frank drives Ray to his funeral, and on his way through the graveyard, Frank sees spirits everywhere. One of them is R. Lee Emery’s character from “Full Metal Jacket,” which bummed me the (REDACTED) out since we lost Emery back in 2018. 

Basically, Frank Bannister is that creepy kid from “The Sixth Sense” all grown up. And I don’t envy his life. 

Froemming: At the funeral, Ray falls into his own grave and can’t get out as the dirt is filling in. Which made no sense to me. This movie plays fast-and-loose with the physics of ghosts. Also, Lucy chats with Frank about his profession and if he can speak with Ray. Considering how much of a tool Ray is, she should be happy she got this “out” from that doomed relationship. And the police chat with Frank, as he was one of the last people to see Ray alive and had a confrontation with him.

This seems like a weird lead for a cop to follow when the victim died of a (REDACTED) heart attack. But these are not normal heart attacks, we learn. The hearts are crushed, like the world’s most boring “Mortal Kombat” fatality. But there is no suspicion that Ray died of murder.

Also, the cop sees Frank pulling air from the grave, because he had to help this moron Ray out of it. 

Brown: Frank helps this moron Ray out further by *checks notes* taking Lucy out to dinner, finding out Ray lost Lucy’s savings, hearing that Lucy was unhappy in their marriage and watching Lucy and Frank hold hands?

… Does it count as getting cucked if you’re a ghost?

Frank goes to the bathroom and sees someone in there have a number on their forehead like Ray did in their previous encounter. 

And it’s here where Death comes down from the ceiling and kills this poor stranger post-piss.

Frankly, I’m just glad to see Death back at work after he won that free Hearse after killing the band Mastodon. 

Froemming: And Frank rushes out of the bathroom and chases this thing that at one point is called The Soul Crusher, which was a solid White Zombie song.

Also, can we address the fact Frank brought Lucy to a Middle Ages themed restaurant? Where the waiters dressed like knights and I imagine there are no utensils for the food, you just eat it with your bare hands like an animal.

Brown: We should mention that during dinner, we find out how Frank got this ability to see dead people. Apparently years ago, he was in a car accident that killed his wife, Debra. 

For you see, as we’ve seen throughout this movie, Frank’s driving is very much like Toonses, the Cat Who Could Drive A Car.

And well, a traumatic experience can sometimes give you powers, I guess?

Froemming: We will get to the rest of that story in a bit. Because I have one big issue with that.

Anywho, Frank chases The Soul Crusher in his beat-up car, which I am not sure can go as fast as a ghost. He loses it, of course. But he tried?

Lucy is brought in, because she was on the world’s worst date at a theme restaurant with the guy who is now linked to two heart attack deaths. I guess he can be called the…

Well, she goes over how he was speaking to her dead husband, whom they were on the verge of savagely cucking, when he got up and vanished.

Enter FBI Agent Milton Dammers, a cross between Great Value Crispin Glover and Hydrox Jim Carrey. This agent is perhaps the one element of the movie I just hated. He is goofy. He mumbles, but not in a cool way like Columbo. And he vomits when a woman yells at him, like how my armpits gush sweat when a woman just talks to me. I don’t need reminders of my own quirks in movies.

Here we get the full story of how Frank’s wife died. See, a construction guy was working on the house the two of them were building. A dream house, except it was more Frank’s dream house, what with the one-basket basketball court and all.

The guy saw Frank drinking and the two arguing before the car accident, and a knife went missing too. But Frank was drinking and driving, so in my mind, he did kill his wife. Not the ghost of Jake Busey’s teeth and his girlfriend, it was reckless driving while under the influence. 

Brown: Yeah, Frank’s never been a good person. But given the choice of a basketball court or a flower bed, I’m going with a basketball court, too. Plus, there’s a lot of room on that plot of land; they could have built a flower bed elsewhere. 

As for Agent Dammers, I put in my notes that he looked like John C. McGinley with a Richard Spencer haircut.

Following Death to a party at a museum, Frank notices that the newspaper editor has a ghostly number on her forehead, marking her for death. So he does what anyone that’s a potential murder suspect should do: points a gun at her. The cops show up and point their guns at Frank. 

So with their pal in trouble, Frank’s ghost friends cause distractions, which include moving artifacts while *checks notes* a Wild West cowboy ghost has sex with a mummy…

So does a ghost having sex with a dead body count as necrophilia? 

I’m asking some weird (REDACTED) questions in this review thanks to “The Frighteners.”

Froemming: 

You know, those are the decisions that're best left to the suits on Washington.

Yeah, the Judge basically rapes a mummy and says he likes it when they lay still….

And when Death arrives, the Judge starts shooting at it with his guns, and it reminded me of Kemosabi’s last stand.

Well, Frank takes off with his kidnapping victim to try and escape Death, but since he drives like Brown does playing video games, it does not end well for anyone. 

With a MAGA wet dream of the murder of a newspaper editor, now Frank is in real trouble. I mean, he crashed his car and got another person killed. He’s not Ted Kennedy, he can’t keep getting out of these jams scot free. 

Brown: Frank’s car crashes haunt him like Barney Gumble’s experience with Mrs. Buttersworth. 

Frank and Lucy meet up and Frank decides the only way to end this is with a one-on-one encounter with Death. So Lucy takes him to the hospital and gives him a shot that’ll slow down his breathing and heart rate. Then she puts him in the freezer as a makeshift cryogenic freezing process. 

While Frank goes through this, Lucy gets abducted by Agent Demmers. He eventually takes her to a quiet spot where he reveals a bunch of scars and a pentagram on his torso for reasons?

Look, according to Wikipedia, Dammers reveals that he was a victim of Charlie Manson and his Family, and I clearly missed that. However, I hope Dammers enjoyed what Cliff Booth did to the Manson Family as much as I did. 

Froemming: I don’t remember him mentioning it once. And he took her to a cemetery, I guess to make it spooky? He is like Marilyn Manson: He tries too hard. He is like a goth kid in junior high, not an FBI agent. 

Well, Frank’s ghost starts driving the car, causing Dammers to think he is doing it with his mind. Seriously, I don’t buy for a second a guy like this got into the FBI. He isn’t qualified to stock shelves at Walmart.

Also, at one point he says he has the power to do whatever by the president of the United States. So, a Trump appointee.

Anywho, Lucy escapes because she needs to pull Frank out of his drug-induced coma or whatever the hell she did to him. 

Brown: Before she can revive Frank, our hero disrobes Death and discovers that it’s Johnny Bartlett, who is killing from beyond the grave in order to become the most prolific serial killer in history.

… But how is he supposed to enter the record books when killing the living can’t be attributed to him? These are all being counted as suspicious heart attacks. Frankly, he’s just working on being a legend in his own mind.

Froemming: Look, sometimes people need to achieve personal goals, Brown. I aim to hit 10,000 steps a day on my days off. Bartlet wants to murder more people than anyone in history outside of war. It is not always for the masses. It’s sometimes for yourself. 

Frank pounds death into goo and that becomes Bartlett, which how did he get that power and cowl and whatnot? No idea. All we know is Frank nearly kills an already dead person before he is sucked back into the living world again.

So, Bartlett is still on the loose. And, frankly, I liked him better dressed like Death instead of being over-the-top Jake Busey’s teeth. 

Brown: Yeah, so before Frank can finish the job with Bartlett, he’s revived by Lucy. Frankly, I feel like we were cheated in this unfreezing process. I thought you needed a warm liquid goo phase to do that. 

Noting that Bartlett is still around, Frank and Lucy haul ass to the home of Bartlett’s girlfriend Patricia and her overprotective mother. 

Instead of being the panicked character we sympathized with earlier, Patricia is eerily calm during this visit from Lucy. And here we find out that Bartlett is communicating with her from beyond the grave, telling her to kill Lucy. When Lucy checks on Patricia’s mother, it turns out that Mom has been stabbed to death in a rather grizzly fashion. 

Patricia and Bartlett, using poltergeist powers, give chase to Lucy, who is rescued by Frank via shotgun.

I will say, the last 10 minutes of this movie takes a HARD left turn into slasher/stalker territory.

Froemming: Also, Patricia’s bruises imply she has rough ghost sex, which is creepier than loud James Bond sex.

Well, Frank traps Bartlett’s ghost in his urn, and they somehow know to throw him to the other side, they need to get to a church, and the nearest one is at the abandoned hospital, where Bartlett and Patricia cut down doctors and nurses in their prime because they are wild and crazy guys!

Brown: So not only are Frank and Lucy being stalked by Patricia as they enter this abandoned mental hospital, Frank’s ghost visions are giving him flashbacks to when Patricia and Bartlett had their killing spree at said hospital. 

Which reaffirms my previous point: Frank’s life, thanks to these “powers,” is a living hell. I’d feel bad if he hadn’t, you know, killed his wife via his choice of drinking and driving. 

And to add more drama to this situation, Dammers enters the hospital looking for the two. 

So now, we have two stalkers: a crazed lover of a serial killer and a cop that looks like a Hitler youth. 

Froemming: You could take Dammers out of this movie completely and it would barely affect the plot. 

So, Dammers gets the urn and dumps out Bartlett’s ashes because reasons, causing this homicidal ghost with personal goals to accomplish for a balanced afterlife to run amok once again.

So, we get to a point where Frank is stuck between a rock and a hard place, as Dammers has a gun pointed at him, and then Patricia shows up with her shotgun. And I am here thinking people who are this mentally ill should not have access to guns, because I am a dirty lib. 

And because of plot armor, he is able to fall in a hole in the floor, allowing Patricia to blow Dammer’s brains out. Which, I won’t lie, was a satisfying kill in this movie.

Brown: Didn’t think I’d ever see a movie involving Robert Zemeckis and Michael J. Fox have a scene where a man gets his head blown off with a shotgun. 

But Frank’s gamble to avoid getting shot results in his falling through several stories of the floor like he was Homer Simpson going through the Stonecutters’ initiation rituals. 

Now a ghost, Frank grabs Patricia’s spirit just as she discovers Lucy, saving our female lead. But as Frank and Patricia are being sucked up into the blue light into “This Is the End” heaven, Bartlett grabs a hold to save his girlfriend. Eventually, Frank reaches heaven while Patricia and Bartlett seemingly escape. 

Froemming: Well, they think they are escaping, until they are swallowed up by a sandworm from “Dune,” or a sandworm from “Beetlejuice,” or a sandworm from “Return of the Jedi“…..

Too many sandworms in popular culture.

Brown: In heaven, Frank is reunited with his wife. You know, the one he killed due to his poor choice? 

Their meeting is brief when it’s decided that it’s not quite Frank’s time yet. He’s allowed to go back to Earth to be with Lucy after getting his wife’s blessing to “be happy.”

… How the (REDACTED) isn’t it Frank’s time? He fell through AT LEAST three stories in a dilapidated building. He could have been impaled by something. And if not, this isn’t a video game; there’s fall damage in real life.

But nope. He gets to live. And have a picnic with Lucy while they demolish his crappy house to seemingly start a new life together, cucking Lucy’s deceased ex-husband from beyond the grave. 

Froemming, let’s get to recommendations so I can get Jake Busey’s porcelain toilet teeth out of my brain. 

WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?

Brown: I thought this movie was OK. I really like its ambition, but the execution is lacking. And the plot is kind of all over the place. If you’re curious, give it a watch.

Froemming: Nah, it is not that good of a movie.

Here is what’s coming up for the next JOE-DOWN

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