‘The Frighteners’ (1996): 35 Fascinating Film Facts and Trivia

The Frighteners (1996) brings together horror comedy one-liners, convincing ghostly CGI, and a final feature film performance from Michael J. Fox.

The Frighteners (1996) was the boost Weta Digital needed to become a big-name special effects company.

When a small California town has a stream of unexplained deaths, psychic investigator Frank Bannister, played by Michael J. Fox, is a prime suspect. The whole town thinks he’s a fraud, preying on grieving families in order to get a quick buck from their fake hauntings. They’re partially right: He’s a grifter, but he can also see ghosts thanks to a brush with death. In The Frighteners, a ghostly horror comedy, Frank has to fight a ghost intent on giving the townsfolk mysterious heart attacks. Perhaps the ghost has something to do with legendary local serial killer Johnny Bartlett?

Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe bring ghostly comic relief to this otherwise spooky horror movie.

Written and directed by Peter Jackson, best known for his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, The Frighteners was monumental when it comes to computer generated special effects. It brought together old horror legends with the loveable quirkiness of Michael J. Fox to create a well-reviewed movie that bombed at the box office. Read on for some behind-the-scenes trivia and facts about The Frighteners. But be warned: There are massive spoilers ahead.

Finding the Cast and Crew

Michael J. Fox was the only one who could play con man/psychic investigator Frank Bannister.

1. Michael J. Fox was the only actor considered for the role of Frank Bannister and no other auditioned for the part.

2. Although Michael J. Fox was the first choice for Frank Bannister, there was still a chance that he might decline the role. If he did, the filmmakers had a few others in mind, including Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Matthew Broderick, and Danny DeVito.

3. Michael J. Fox turned down a role in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) for this movie, which is probably for the best considering how much of a disaster that movie was to film.

4. This was Michael J. Fox’s final role as the lead in a feature film. After The Frighteners, he decided to work on the TV show Spin City to stay closer to his family.

You may recognize Dee Wallace, who plays Patricia Bradley, from Cujo, Critters, and The Howling.

5. Hollywood legend Dee Wallace was chosen for the role of Patricia Bradley because Peter Jackson wanted an actor so sweet no one would ever suspect she could be a murderer. He figured her role in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) helped with that.

6. You might recognize Jeffrey Combs, who played Agent Milton Dammers, from his role as Herbert West in Re-Animator (1985). Peter Jackson loved him so much in that creepy role that he sought Combs out specially for the role of Dammers.

7. Peter Jackson, now known more for his Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, wasn’t the only possible director for The Frighteners. Tim Burton and Sam Raimi were also in the running.

R. Lee Ermey played Hiles, a ghost keeping the cemetery in line much like his character of Drill Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket.

8. Danny Elfman asked to score this movie without even knowing what the movie was about because he was so impressed by Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.

Behind the Scenes

9. Screenwriters Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson–who are also married–devised the script while working on Heavenly Creatures (1994).

10. The story was originally written as a Tales from the Crypt feature. When executive Robert Zemeckis read it, he realized it was too good and need to be a movie on its own.

11. As is usually the case for writer/director Peter Jackson’s movies, most of The Frighteners was filmed in New Zealand.

Jake Busey, son of Gary Busey, plays serial killer Johnny Bartlett.

12. Throughout the film, Johnny Bartlett references Starkweather and his 11 kills as inspiration for his own murders. Fictional Johnny Bartlett’s killing spree was very similar to Charles Starkweather’s. Both had a girlfriend help in the slayings and both were convicted and sentenced to death by the electric chair. Starkweather’s girlfriend, Caril Fugate, was sentenced to life in prison but got out after 17 years.

13. Johnny Bartlett was named after Charles Starkwearther’s second and third murder victims, Velda and Marion Bartlett.

14. Patricia Heart’s character, played by Dee Wallace, was named after Patty Hearst. Hearst was famously taken hostage by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 and brainwashed into helping them rob banks.

We have Jeffrey Combs to thank for the look of Milton Dammers. You may recognize him from Re-Animator.

15. Actor Jeffrey Combs had a hand in what his character Milton Dammers looked like. He suggested the Hitler-esque hairstyle, appliances to make his ears stick out, and some of the chest tattoos.

16. Filming had to take a break for a week. Michael J. Fox broke his foot while filming a nighttime forest scene so Peter Jackson used his recovery time to polish the script more.

Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister in his final role as the lead in a feature film.

17. Michael J. Fox has a history of crashing through white fences in his movies. Before crashing through the Lynskey’s fence in The Frighteners, he also crashed with the DeLorean in Back to the Future (1985) and a Porsche in Doc Hollywood (1991).

18. Michael J. Fox needed many takes to get his scenes with John Astin right. Rather than calling him “Judge,” he’d accidentally call him “Doc” like the character from the Back to the Future trilogy.

While Weta Digital provided the computer-based special effects, practical effects were also used to make John Astin’s The Judge so convincing.

19. Fans of John Astin’s The Judge will be disappointed to learn that his character was supposed to be in the film a lot more. Although he gets sliced in half during the museum scene, they filmed multiple scenes with him and his dog for the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, those scenes were cut to improve pacing. This does explain why The Judge didn’t show up in the heaven scene toward the end of the film since he hadn’t actually moved on.

20. The crew presented Trini Alvarado with a Barbie dressed as her character, Lucy Lynskey, at the end of filming. This was a little in-joke at the fact that her character wore the same outfit for the entire latter half of the movie.

21. Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s special effects company, needed a lot more computing power to handle the ghost effects in The Frighteners. They went from one computer to 35. Those extra computers came in handy since Jackson’s next feature films were the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

22. Peter Jackson wanted the film to receive a PG-13 rating, but the MPAA insisted on R. He changed the movie based on their recommendations, but they still refused to lower the rating. In the end, he reversed the changes and made the Agent Dammer’s death more graphic so the R would feel deserved.

23. Universal Studios was so impressed by the movie, they offered Peter Jackson King Kong, which finally released nearly a decade later in 2005.

Goofs, Gaffes, and Easter Eggs

24. 21 minutes into the movie, you may have spotted Frank Bannister eating cereal. Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed it’s Boo Berry, a ghostly-themed Halloween cereal from General Mills.

25. There’s a little Easter egg for Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. When Lucy is watching a video about Johnny Bartlett, you can see an image of Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey on the cover of the VHS she’s holding.

See the equipment under the bed? It was used to mechanically levitate the bed during the haunting scene.

26. When the bed begins to levitate under Lucy Lynskey, you can see the equipment used to raise and lower the bed in several shots.

27. Did you notice a statue of Elvis Presley float in front of Ray during the Lynskey haunting? This is a nod to actor Peter Dobson’s role as Elvis in Forrest Gump (1994).

28. If you look closely at the background of Ray’s funeral scene, you can see Frank Bannister’s house burning down. By this time in filming, they were done with the house so the crew was actively burning it.

29. The guards in the museum scene end up getting off over 40 shots with their guns without ever reloading.

30. Peter Jackson played a cameo role as the bearded punk Frank bumps into before being knocked down by a ghostly Ray.

Release, Reactions, and Reviews

31. The movie didn’t get a theatrical release in Tasmania because of its similarity to the Port Arthur Massacre, which happened shortly before the movie came out. The mass shooting, perpetrated by a murderer who was very proud of the number of people he killed, felt too similar to the events of The Frighteners for the comfort of those in the area. They did release it on video and TV afterward, however.

Perhaps The Frighteners would have been better off if it came out on Halloween.

32. The Frighteners didn’t do so well in theaters, and that could be blamed on when it was released. Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis wanted it to come out during the week of Halloween, but the studio opted for a summer release instead.

33. The Frighteners had to compete with Independence Day and the Summer Olympics, which may have also contributed to its poor box office sales. In the end, it grossed just $29.3 million worldwide, making very little back on its $26 million budget.

34. Despite the poor box office results, The Frighteners still gets good reviews from critics and fans. It currently has a 67% critics rating and a 71% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

35. Though many critics like the movie, Roger Ebert wasn’t a big fan. He did have a pretty good prediction for Peter Jackson’s career, though. He said in his review:

But all of that incredible effort has resulted in a film that looks more like a demo reel than a movie–like the kind of audition tape a special-effects expert would put together, hoping to impress a producer enough to give him a real job. Peter Jackson […] qualifies on the basis of this film for any special-effects movie you can imagine, just as long as it’s about something.

Roger Ebert

Meet The Author

Trisha Bartle

Trisha has been watching and loving horror movies since the ’80s and is happy to write about them. She loves slasher and campy horror movies best of all and her favorite of all time is A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. She holds a “Halloween Movie Month” every October.