Spooky? Not a ghost of a chance

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The Independent Culture
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