Spooky? Not a ghost of a chance

The Frighteners

Peter Jackson (15)

With his last film, Heavenly Creatures, New Zealand director Peter Jackson seemed to be leaving the horror genre in which he made his name (with Bad Taste, Braindead) in favour of more respectable material - though, since the film dramatised a famous crime from the 1950s in which two schools girls' obsessive and delusional friendship led to matricide, respectability is a relative term. His new offering, , shows that he has retained visiting privileges to his old territory. The film is a highly successful hybrid of a supernatural thriller and black comedy.

At some stage in the past couple of decades, film-makers realised that the ghost story is not actually a serious genre. It gives comfort under cover of its terrors. By claiming to know of things worse than death, it offers at least the reassurance that there is something other than death. So it becomes possible to have a ghost story that is really a sentimental love story (Ghost) or an account of personal growth - will the characters of Flatliners be able to rise above the traumas and guilts of their past? It becomes possible to threaten the living and the dead, as in Beetlejuice, as if they were different races or sects that need to get along.

All these films are echoed by , but without quenching the tiny spark of originality that is all a genre product needs to set it apart. The story, written by the director with Fran Walsh, starts from the supremely stock situation of the fake psychic confronted by a real manifestation. Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) is a conman who sets up hauntings and then dispels them with bogus science, his main tool being something that looks like a cross between a 1950s industrial toaster and a valve radio. He gives his spiel - persistent residue of the departed (always a problem at this time of the year) - and up pops a little sealed packet that purportedly contains the ectoplasmic entities.

The twist is that he stages the hauntings with real spooks. After a car accident in which his wife was mysteriously killed, Frank can see and hear ghosts, and has gathered an entourage of them - there's a hanging judge from the Wild West, there's a timid phantom almost like an undead Stan Laurel, and there's Cyrus (Chi McBride) who had the misfortune to die at the height of blaxploitation pimp chic, and has plenty of time to re-create the fashion choices that became permanent with his death. He keeps up with the news, though, and has plans for a Million Man March of his own, organised by the "African-American Apparition Coalition".

Despite such thoroughly American touches, was made entirely in New Zealand. The film's executive producer, Robert Zemeckis, seemed surprised, not so much that the actual filming could be transposed, as that the special effects "heavy" post-production work could be accomplished so far from Hollywood - though, if particular landscapes, towns and studios can be substituted, it shouldn't seem too startling that one computer can stand in for another.

Zemeckis himself as director made a disastrous attempt at this genre area, with Death Becomes Her. Where Peter Jackson scores in the layering of his various unrealities. The tame ghosts are semi-transparent, inherently comic even before the various indignities that are visited on them - scrunched up, corrugated, passed through car engines, scattered like puddles. The ghost that haunts even the ghosts - the Soul Collector, as they call him - is different.

We first see him rampaging through a ginger-bread gothic house, home base of his hauntings, bulking out of walls, ceilings and carpets, in pursuit of a character played by Dee Wallace, remembered by the world as the mom in ET, and by horror movie buffs as the heroine of the original Howling. Away from the house, he appears as personified dying Death with a scythe, face unseen, flowing rather beautifully across the landscape in a cape looking as if it might be in this year's fashion colour, chocolate brown (even Death likes a change from basic black). At one point he bursts out of a mirror - death's doorway since Cocteau's Orphee - but a mirror that is pure shimmering mercury.

The film's cosmology is borrowed from Ghost, as is one particular scene, of the hero having dinner with a recent widow (Trini Alvarado, who has some of the inert radiance of Andy McDowell) with the dead man playing gooseberry. Those who die but cannot move on stick around, some of them developing the ability to interact with the physical world. Under certain paradoxical circumstances ghosts can die, and then they are digested upward to Heaven along a pulsing gut of light or down to Hell.

There are huge gaps of logic in this and every other part of the film. If inexperienced ghosts, trying to lean against walls, fall through them, why don't they fall through the ground? If the Soul Collector does what his name says, why do his victims go to Heaven anyway? Why, if he marks a number on the forehead of his next victim, and Frank sees such a mark on his beloved, does he not watch to see if it fades, while he tries everything to defend her? The answer to the last question may be that this device would be too close to the fading self-restoring photograph in the first Back to the Future, and would be perilously like an in-joke in the presence of the same star - Michael J Fox.

None of these flaws matters, nor does a terrible performance, weirdly encouraged by the director, by Jeffrey Combs as a paranoid FBI man. proves that there's life in the afterlife yet.

On release from tomorrow. Ryan Gilbey interviews Peter Jackson on page 8

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test