Dead Alive, were glorified cartoons, equal parts slapstick and violence created for surreal, comic effect. The Frighteners (1996), which followed his critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures, finds Jackson trying to balance the comedy with a more dramatic mystery and character-driven story, but unfortunately, the two styles don't mesh in a completely successful way. Too often, Jackson goes for a joke, and too often, the joke just isn't funny.
Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is a paranormal investigator in a town with an ongoing murder spree. Frank has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts, but he's the one who sends them into houses to cause trouble so he can clear them out. Because he's often the last one seen with the victims, he becomes the primary suspect, especially in the eyes of a crazed FBI agent, Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs), who doesn't believe Frank when he says the killer is a grim reaper-lie specter. Teaming with Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado), the widow of one of the victims, Frank tries to figure out the both the mystery of his past and stop the real killer.
The Frighteners seems unsure if it wants to be a thriller or a comedy, and in trying to be both, it doesn't really succeed at either. There are a number of elements that are admirable. The effects work is impressive; ghosts pop out of walls, mirrors, and the carpet, and the hooded killer swoops and flies across rooftops, grabbing the living by their hearts and slicing up other ghosts with his massive scythe. And because the other living characters can't see the ghosts, the movie occasionally shows us objects moving on their own before cutting to a new shot that reveals some ghosts are manipulating them, most notably in a museum involving some mummies.
The problem is every other character is a shrill, one-dimensional caricature: the newspaper editor out to destroy Frank, the batty old woman who keeps her troubled adult daughter locked up in a gloomy mansion, Dammers (Combs is a great genre veteran, but Dammers is an idiot who only stretches out the movie's length), the exercise nut husband of Lucy, and the goofy ghosts aiding Frank: an old west judge played by John Astin, a bespectacled nerd, and an afro-wearing, 70s-garbed black guy. The more time we spend with these characters, the more irritating they get.
Jackson also never really establishes the rules of his world. Frank's ghosts complain about being sore and tired physically even though they're spectral beings. The climax comes when Frank and Lucy try to take the killer's ashes to a chapel, and I don't why that would do anything; I can buy that giving him a funeral or some other ceremony would send him to Hell, but there are dozens of ghosts in the graveyard who presumably got funerals and were laid to rest. Ghosts fall through floors when it's convenient or supposed to be funny.
The central problem of The Frighteners is how busy it is. Every scene is packed with special effects, slapstick gags, comic relief characters, flashbacks to both Frank's wife's death as well as an insane asylum massacre, the budding romance between Frank and Lucy, and after a while, it's just tiring. Jackson is throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. With better discipline and better focus, The Frighteners could have really been memorable. Instead, it's fitfully amusing.