Friday, October 18, 2013

My years in horror: 1996

Horror changed in 1996. What was once just an in-joke among hardcore fans became the joke and the genre opened up to the Dawson's Creek crowd. Yes, I think Scream ruined a lot of the things I love about horror movies and therefore I can not name it the year's best horror movie. Thankfully, there are some other great choices.

Choosing one, of course, becomes a problem. I dig The Craft for its goth look and Fairuza Balk. Combined with Scream, however, I got sick of Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich (mostly Skeet). And The Craft isn't scary. As for low-budget fare, we have the Brian Yuzna-directed, Corbin Bersen vehicle The Dentist. What it lacks in quality acting, The Dentist makes up for in scares, especially if you suffer from dental phobia. And even though The Ghost and the Darkness has a great horror title and appears on horror movie lists, I don't think it counts. Good flick, though.

That leaves us with The Frighteners and From Dusk Till Dawn. Peter Jackson versus Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino. That's rough. As much as I love Tarantino and Rodriguez, I'm going with Jackson and The Frighteners for 1996's best horror movie.

A number of factors make The Frighteners great: revolutionary effects, effective comic relief, a total creep for a villain, Jeffrey Combs, and, of course, Michael J. Fox. But before we get into any of that, look at that poster. Even now it still looks like that skull could break through at any second.

Jackson employed what would become his standard for excellence in digital effects for this film. Live actors become green-tinted ghosts and engage in ghostly shenanigans. Sure, it took a year and a half for WETA to complete the effects, but it was time well-spent. Instead of some vague spectral form, we have monstrously human forms terrorizing the living. The primary bad ghost is Jake Busey and let's face it, he looks like a lunatic. He plays well against the "friendly ghosts" who assist Fox's character in solving fake hauntings. Yes, Fox plays that great stock character of the con man who must truly face his demons and become a hero. This was Fox's last leading role in a feature before returning to TV and then semi-retiring due to his Parkinson's diagnosis. He is somewhat nervous in this role, but it fits the character, so whether that is acting or early signs of the disease, one cannot judge.

Combs (Herbert West in Re-Animator) plays FBI agent Milton Dammers, a paranoiac with a grudge against Fox's Frank Bannister. Dammers has one of the worst haircuts in cinema history and it fits the character perfectly. Combs isn't the only genre favorite to appear here. Dee Wallace Stone (The Howling, E.T., and Cujo among others), John Astin (the original Gomez Addams), and R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake) all get roles here and each adds something special to the film.

Fox, however, remains the star. He straddles the line between his likable, childlike persona and a more jaded adult. He is strong in the role of Bannister and makes one wonder what he could have done with more serious roles during his adulthood. He's still working so maybe he'll surprise us.

The Frighteners received an R-rating and combined with a summer release instead of a planned Halloween release, likely caused the film to not make back its budget. That didn't stop Universal Pictures from giving Jackson the reigns to King King.

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