Killtoberfest 2 – #12: The Frighteners / Teen Wolf

In All, Movies by Kyu

My next pair of not-really-horror movies for Killtoberfest 2 are both Michael J. Fox vehicles. One of them is bad, but silly; the other is silly, but bad. How can you tell them apart?! Well, one is about ghosts, and the other is about teens. (And also wolves I guess.)

Reverse chronological order gives us Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996) to start with.

Let’s be clear: this is not a good movie. It’s not even a particularly fun movie. But then, I don’t like early Peter Jackson.

The Frighteners is the last movie Jackson made before Lord of the Rings, and it demonstrates a technical virtuosity that is staggering. The movie’s use of CG is seamless and effective, particularly when it comes to the movie’s villain, a creepy Grim Reaper-type character that carves glowing letters into the foreheads of its victims. Less convincing is the effects work on the ghosts, which are generally just composited actors with a blue glowy filter laid over them. (To be fair, whenever the ghosts shift their bodies around or whatever, that does look good.) Friends with some of these CG things and enemy to others is Fox, playing a scruffy semi-charlatan of an exorcist (his schtick is having his ghost buddies perform some poltergeist prestidigitation so that he can swoop in and save the day). It’s a rare movie when Michael J. Fox isn’t likeable, but there you go. It’s a shame, too; it’s a fine casting choice but the script gives him so little to work with that the character ends up extremely bland.

Essentially this movie is the quintessential FX-heavy but totally empty studio film. Jackson was clearly having fun, and his direction is energetic, but the movie isn’t about a god-damned thing and it shows in every frame. Most of the characters are boring as hell, although the script has a lot of fun with a very, very deranged FBI agent (best line in the movie: “You are such an asshole!” “I’m an asshole… with an UZI!” bang bang bang). The plotting is fairly complex, to the point where the film has multiple climaxes, each taking place on multiple planes of existence at the same time, Inception-style. (In one, two ghosts have a fistfight in the same physical space as, but unseen and unaffected by, a second pair of characters also having a fistfight. In another, five characters chase another through an abandoned mental hospital, ducking in and out of a hallucinated past in said mental hospital involving two of the five characters who mirror their present day actions in the past.) But all of this is, as I’ve indicated, completely boring on anything but a technical level. It’s like watching many different colors of paint drying all at once.

That said, other people may get more enjoyment out of this than I did. Like I said, I don’t like early Peter Jackson, or any of the times that guy bleeds through in the Lord of the Rings movies–there’s a corny goofball in that man only sometimes restrained by his better impulses. That spirit (no pun intended) is alive and well all throughout The Frighteners, which is just filled with weirdness and dumb jokes. One of Fox’s ghost buddies, an old West judge, is inexplicably depicted as a necrophiliac (or is it rape, given the existence of the soul?); I’ve already mentioned the crazy FBI agent, who decides that Fox is killing people with his mind and that the FBI agent can protect himself from that psychic attack with lead-lined body armor; then there’s R. Lee Ermey, the guy whose entire acting career is reprising his role as the cursing sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, doing that here but as a ghost with machine-gun arms; and on and on. Dumb dumb dumb.

I was going to say The Frighteners should have been half an hour shorter, but who am I kidding? It should have been 110 minutes shorter. But I cannot possibly be as mean to this movie as it deserves, so here’s Ebert:

Last year, I reviewed a nine-hour documentary about the lives of Mongolian yak herdsmen, and I would rather see it again than sit through “The Frighteners.”

Next up: he’s a teen! He’s a wolf! He’s a Teen Wolf (1985)!

It’s impossible to hate Teen Wolf, I’m convinced, because if anybody should hate Teen Wolf it’s me. (Exhibit A, my Frighteners review above, where I got angry at the very notion of humor in a serious movie about ghost fights.) But this is the kind of stupid I can get behind. I’m not in love with the movie, but it does feature a point where a werewolf plays basketball, and come on, I’m not made of stone.

In his review, Vern says that the movie feels like it’s an allegory, but that none of the metaphors you’d expect (race, sexuality, puberty) hold up. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean the movie isn’t about anything. It’s a story about celebrity–or, as we call it during high school, popularity–and identity.

As protagonist Scott, Fox is much more charming in this than he is in The Frighteners, although he doesn’t seem young enough to be a high school student. (Odd, because he’s perfectly acceptable as a teen in Back to the Future, which was released in the same year.) Not nearly as charming as the movie perhaps thinks he is is Jerry Levine as Scott’s friend Stiles, who I decided to see as a tragic figure desperately trying to be the center of attention because deep down he doesn’t believe he deserves it. Aw, cheer up, Stiles! People don’t hate and ignore you because you’re not a worthwhile human being; they do it because you’re fucking obnoxious. Rounding out the main cast is Susan Ursitti as “Boof,” a name so stupid you can forgive Fox for not trying to date her, despite the fact that she’s the typical hot, smart, funny best friend and that literally everybody else in the movie tells him over and over again to take her to the dance instead of psychotic blonde bimbo Pamela. Eventually the plot starts when one of these people finds out he’s a werewolf! (Spoiler alert: it’s the main character.)

At first Scott is nervous about revealing his weird secret and dumb-looking werewolf make-up to other people–there’s a particularly uncomfortable scene where he essentially comes out to Stiles, a subtext made text as Scott reassures Stiles that he’s no fag, just a werewolf. Then Scott becomes massively popular when it turns out that being a werewolf is exactly like finding a magic pair of sneakers that used to belong to Michael Jordan, ie, you suddenly become supernaturally skilled at basketball. (The movie tries to argue later that Scott’s newfound skills have nothing to do with his werewolfism, that he just needed a boost of confidence; but this is utterly ridiculous, even discounting the fact that it’s his lycanthropy that gives him the confidence boost in the first place. Dumbo, this ain’t.) What this middle portion of the movie goes to show is that, in America, there’s literally no abnormality that won’t be excused or even celebrated as long as it makes you good at sports. Immediately, Stiles co-opts his friend’s genetic affliction, branding him the Teen Wolf and selling t-shirts and souvenirs in the halls between classes. At first Scott is happy, because everybody likes him now! But then Scott is worried, because some people dislike him now, and also if people only like him because of his condition, does that mean they really like him, or what? This bog-standard teenage existential crisis is a metaphor for the movie itself: if Teen Wolf was just “Teen,” wouldn’t it be a shitty movie? Doesn’t that mean we only like it for the Wolf part? Does that mean we really like the movie, or what?

In conclusion, this is a bad movie, but it doesn’t feel good to kick it. So instead, feel free to enjoy this logical conclusion of the American cultural hegemony, a video clip in which a werewolf dances to the Beach Boys on top of a speeding van:

Hungry for more Killtoberfest? Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews.