When you think of horror movies made in the '90s, a few big titles likely immediately come to mind. Misery, Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense are just a few of the movies that dominate the conversation, but I happen to be partial to a little '90s horror movie called The Frighteners . Directed by Peter Jackson and starring Michael J. Fox, The Frighteners is a horror comedy that is constantly overlooked despite it being a fantastic entry into the horror comedy canon.
Fox plays Frank an architect turned exorcist who gains the ability to see ghosts after he is involved in a fatal car crash that takes the life of his wife. Frank is miserable with his new reality, and he uses his gift to scam people out of money. With the help of his three ghostly friends, Frank orchestrates hauntings and then cashes in when the homeowners are forced to call him for help. Things only begin to change for Frank when a new ghost enters the picture intent on becoming a serial killer from beyond the grave.
Sounds kooky, right? Well, it is. Frank's three ghost friends — one who is played by the great Chi McBride — are walking caricatures, and the special effects are not so special anymore. The Frighteners is not a perfect movie, but it is a fun one that despite its comedic undertones, is unafraid to grapple with the damaging effects of grief.
I have always been a big fan of horror movies designed to make a viewer laugh and get a serious case of the goosebumps. The Frighteners excels at blending silliness, like Frank's ghost friends making babies appear to fly around a room, with the true horror of having a monster on the loose only one person in the town can see. Frank has checked out of life at the start of the movie, but once he realizes it is up to him to save the people in his town, he finds a new sense of purpose.
Fox is terrific as a reluctant hero. He has to balance the comedy with the all too real mix of fear and malaise haunting Frank in the aftermath of his wife's death. Ultimately, he plays every note of the snarky, disillusioned Frank perfectly, and he takes the character on a journey that is 100 percent believable despite the fantastic setting. If you need help picturing how this mishmash of tropes works then think of The Frighteners as Ghostbusters with a darker backstory.
The movie isn't just about laughs and pathos, though; there is actual horror in the ghost who presents himself as the Grim Ripper. The ghost marks each of his future victims with a number on their foreheads only Frank can see, making Frank the only person who has any hope of stopping the murder spree. At the same time, the town turns on Frank because his precognition feels suspiciously like the cover story of a killer.
The best kind of horror movie is one with layers. The Frighteners deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as all of those other iconic '90s horror movies because it manages to do so many different things at once and it does them all well. It's funny, it is heartbreaking, it is one of Fox's best performances, and somehow it retains the ability to make you jump on top of all of its other qualities. There is no '90s horror classic more underrated than The Frighteners, and if you have never seen it then you owe it to yourself to check it out this Halloween. It is the perfect spooky confection for a chilly autumn night in.
Images: Universal Studios; fyeahthefrighteners/Tumblr