In July 1996, Universal released a small film called The horrors Directed by Peter Jackson and with Michael J. Fox. Despite generally positive reviews, the film was a flop at the box office, grossing just $ 29.3 million on a budget of $ 26 million.
It’s a shame because The horrors is actually pretty awesome and suggests Jackson’s filmmaking genius.
For those who don’t know, here is the plot summary: “Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), once an architect, now poses as an exorcist of evil spirits. To bolster his facade, he claims his “special” gift was the result of a car accident in which his wife was killed. But what he doesn’t expect are more people dying in the small town in which he lives. As he tries to decipher the supernatural secret of these murders, he falls in love with the woman (Trini Alvarado) of one of the victims and has to deal with a crazy FBI agent (Jeffrey Combs).
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It’s strange to think that there was a time when Peter Jackson’s name was only pronounced among die-hard cinephiles. His work beforeFear maker consisted of movies like Bad button, Meet the weak, Dead alive, Heavenly creatures and the television movie Forgotten silverwhich is why so many scratched their heads when he was announced as a director Lord of the Rings. Peter who? Yet Jackson’s horror sensibility is exactly what made him the perfect man to direct JRR Tolkien’s classic novels as he leans into filthy, violent, supernatural Middle-earth with infectious glee, and fantasy, gothic, and adventure perfectly come together a spectacular whole.
When I look at Jackson’s pre-LOTR Work afterLOTR is a fascinating exercise because all of his pictures, right down to the cheerfully disgusting ones Brain dead, contain elements that would appear during Sam and Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring of Power.
In the case of the The horrors, Jackson’s affinity for wacky, Sam Raimi-esque recordings, exaggerated violence and black humor comes into its own, because his enthusiasm for the creative mixture of unique visual effects with live action ala Robert Zemeckis (who acts as producer here).
Check out the opening scene of Dee Wallace Stone running from a psychotic demon:
I love the extreme angles, wild close-ups, and cartoonish character of this sequence, which Looney Tunes owes as much to George Romero and Sam Raimi. Sure, the FX are pretty dated, but since much of the mess includes practical props – dishes, shelves, etc – and was designed around the frenetic feat of Dee Wallace Stone, the bit still works as a solid, attention-grabbing intro.
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Later, in one of the best scenes in the film, Frank goes into the spirit realm to fight the demon while Trini Alvarado’s Lucy takes on Jeffrey Combs’ insane Milton Dammers in the real world.
Jackson’s love affair with ghosts, ghosts and spirits is unparalleled; and the ghosts in The fear makers very similar to the army of the dead in return for the king. And yes, the grim reaper-style antagonist wields a massive scythe and shows the director’s penchant for oversized, cartoon-like weapons.
There are other great sequences in which Jackson uses humor to scare people off. In this play, Frank rummages through a bathroom looking for the demon while a nervous onlooker watches in confusion.
The admittedly mild jump scare only works because the moment literally cuts through the lighthearted nature of the scene – a simple but effective technique Jackson would use Companions of the Ring during the hobbits’ first encounter with a ringwraith.
The scene “A Shortcut to Mushrooms” begins happily, optimistically, but quickly gives way to total horror when the ring ghost pursues our little heroes. Again, a simple tonal shift goes a long way in creating tension for the audience.
Similar to LOTR, The horrors also offers a very distinct struggle between good and evil. Frank has his problems, sure, but he’s a good guy in need of personal redemption, while the play’s villains – Patricia Bradley and Johnny Bartlett – are terrible monsters with no redeeming properties. That makes it easier to swallow her terrible ending at the climax of the story:
The horrors also features a range of deliciously theatrical characters, none of which are more memorable than Special Agent Milton Dammers, who is a cross between Jim Carrey and Grima Wormtongue The two Towers.
This scene is wild. What could have been painful exhibition rubbish comes to life thanks to Jeffrey Combs’ scene-consuming performance and Jackson’s manic camera work. Similar, Companions of the Ring begins with a history lesson that could have felt dry and lengthy if not Jackson’s decision to mix a big spectacle into Cate Blanchett’s dialogues.
Actually, a better example would be opening up Return of the king, which successfully combines all of Jackson’s techniques – shrill tone shifts, exaggerated violence, extreme camera work, memorable characters – in an exciting sequence that perfectly reveals Gollum’s tragic background story and at the same time sets the tone for the intense journey that lies ahead.
Anyway, 25 years later The horrors remains far from perfect. After a solid 90 minutes the film gets a little too crazy in its final role; and the ending where Frank goes to heaven isn’t nearly as adorable as it thinks.
Still, as a wild horror comedy The horrors entertaining largely due to Jackson’s solid directing and impressive mid-90s FX. If anything, the film can be valued for the role it played in Jackson’s historic legacy of filmmaking.