The Frighteners is Supernatural on DVD

Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace-Stone, Jake Busey, Chi McBride. Directed by Peter Jackson. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (French). 110 minutes. 1996. Universal Home Video 20286. Rated PG-13. $24.98.

Director Peter Jackson gained notoriety in the US for his film Heavenly Creatures, but it was earlier films, like Braindead and Meet the Feebles, that earned him his reputation with horror-genre audiences. Jackson gets back to basics with The Frighteners, his first major "American" film made with an American cast in Jackson's native New Zealand. He effectively blends elements of the supernatural with black comedy in a Ghostbusters with teeth---sharp teeth.

The Frighteners stars Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a former architect engaged in a scam business that purports to eliminate spirits from haunted houses. But Frank really can communicate with the spirit world; instead of faking the hauntings, he has a couple of ghostly partners to do the dirty work. Things take an unexpected turn when Frank discovers that a recent rash of unexplained deaths is the work of an evil spirit that bears a striking resemblance to the grim reaper. Frank's special gift allows him to follow the homicidal spirit from one crime scene to the next. Unfortunately for Frank, his appearances at the crime scenes turn him into the number one suspect.

While exhibiting the same high energy level as in his earlier work, Fox really takes to the darker aspects of The Frighteners without losing his comic edge and leaves his more juvenile roles in the dust. Trini Alvarado portrays Lucy Lynskey, a young widow whose recently departed husband was a victim of the murderous spirit. Dee Wallace-Stone is cast against type as Patricia Bradley, the girlfriend of an executed serial killer. Wallace-Stone's work is simply amazing---she buries the goodie-goodie mother from E.T. once and for all. Genre favorite Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) delivers an appropriately over-the-top performance, as does Jake Busey. Peter Jackson's frantic visual style keeps the film moving along at a good clip as the story bounces back and forth between elements of shock and black humor.

Not shocking at all is the fact that the folks at Universal have created another demo-quality DVD. The anamorphic widescreen transfer puts almost all of the film's 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio on the screen. This DVD has detail to spare; "razor-sharp" doesn't do it justice. Color reproduction is supernatural: Strong, hot colors exhibit not a trace of distortion, and neither do their numerous cold counterparts. Flesh tones are natural---among the living, anyway---and MPEG-2 artifacts are well disguised by an excellent compression job.

Unlike many of the film's characters, the Dolby Digital 5.1-channel soundtrack is alive and kicking. Sound effects spring from all the discrete channels, while dialog emanates strongly from the center channel. The rich mix also manages to keep Danny Elfman's creepy-cool score in a position of prominence without overwhelming anything else. The simple interactive menus offer access to a theatrical trailer, production notes, and cast and crew biographies.