Despite a rushed post-production schedule, Universal was so impressed with Jackson's rough cut on The Frighteners, the studio moved the theatrical release date closer by four months. The film was not a box office success, but received generally positive reviews from critics. Despite its lackluster performance at the box office, the film has gained a cult following in more recent years.
In 1990, architect Frank Bannister's wife, Debra, dies in a car accident. He abandons his profession and his unfinished "dream house" sits incomplete. Following the accident, Frank gained the power to see ghosts and befriends three: 1970s street gangster Cyrus, 1950s nerd Stuart, and The Judge, a gunslinger from the Old West. The ghosts haunt houses so Frank can then "exorcise" them for a fee. Most locals consider him a con man.
Soon after Frank cons local health nut Ray Lynskey and his wife Lucy, a physician, Ray dies of a heart attack. Frank discovers there is an entity, appearing as the Grim Reaper, killing people, first marking numbers on their foreheads that only Frank sees. Debra had a similar number when she was found.
Frank's ability to foretell the murders puts him under suspicion with the police and FBI agent Milton Dammers, who is convinced Frank is responsible. Frank is arrested for killing newspaper editor Magda Rees-Jones, who had attacked him in the press. It was actually the Grim Reaper who killed Rees-Jones, despite Frank's attempts to prevent it.
Lucy investigates the murders and becomes a target of the Grim Reaper. She is attacked while visiting Frank in jail; but they escape with the help of Cyrus and Stuart, who are both dissolved in the process. Frank wants to commit suicide to stop the Grim Reaper. Lucy helps Frank have a near-death experience by putting him into hypothermia and using barbiturates to stop his heart. Dammers abducts Lucy, revealing that he had been a victim of Charles Manson and his "Family" in 1969.
In his ghostly form, Frank confronts the Grim Reaper and discovers that he is the ghost of Johnny Bartlett, a psychiatric hospital orderly who killed twelve people 30 years earlier, before being captured, convicted and executed. Newspaper reports reveal that his greatest desire was to become the most prolific serial killer ever, showing pride at killing more than contemporaries like Charles Starkweather. Patricia Bradley, then a teenager, was accused as his accomplice, although she escaped the death penalty due to her underage status. Lucy resuscitates Frank and they visit Patricia. Unknown to them, Patricia is still in love with Bartlett and on friendly, homicidal terms with Bartlett's ghost, and eventually kills her own mother, who had been trying to monitor her daughter's behavior. Lucy and Frank trap Bartlett's spirit in his urn, which Patricia has kept. The pair make for the chapel of the now-abandoned psychiatric hospital hoping to send Bartlett's ghost to Hell.
Patricia and Dammers chase them through the ruins. Dammers throws the ashes away, releasing Bartlett's ghost again before Patricia kills him. Bartlett's ghost and Patricia hunt down Frank and Lucy. Frank realizes that Bartlett's ghost, with Patricia's help, was responsible for his wife's death and the number on her brow, and that he is still trying to add to his body count (and infamy) even after his death.
Out of bullets, Patricia strangles Frank to death, but Frank in spirit form rips Patricia's spirit from her body, forcing Bartlett to follow them. Bartlett grabs Patricia's ghost, while Frank makes it to Heaven, where he is reunited with Cyrus and Stuart, along with his wife Debra. Bartlett and Patricia's spirits claim they will now go back to claim more lives, but the portal to Heaven quickly changes to a demonic looking appearance, and they are both dragged to Hell by a giant worm-like creature. Frank learns it is not yet his time and is sent back to his body, as Debra's spirit tells him to "be happy."
Frank and Lucy fall in love. Lucy is now able to see ghosts as well. Frank later begins demolishing the unfinished dream house and building a life with Lucy while the morose-looking ghost of Dammers is riding around in the sheriff's car. Frank and Lucy then enjoy their picnic.Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister: Although Jackson and Walsh envisioned The Frighteners as a low-budget film with unknown actors, Zemeckis suggested casting his Back to the Future star Fox in the lead role. Fox became enthusiastic about working with Jackson when he saw Heavenly Creatures at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Trini Alvarado as Dr. Lucy Lynskey: The character is named after Heavenly Creatures star Melanie Lynskey (who also cameos in The Frighteners).
Peter Dobson as Ray Lynskey, Lucy's health-obsessed and comically hot-headed husband who dislikes Frank's tactics
John Astin as The Judge, a decaying gunslinger ghost from the Old West with a penchant for mummies and firing guns at random.
Dee Wallace Stone as Patricia Ann Bradley, Bartlett's mentally ill lover (escaping execution at the time of the original murders as she was underage) who is under strict observation by her mother.
Jeffrey Combs as Special Agent Milton Dammers, an eccentric FBI agent who has a vendetta against Bannister. A former undercover agent known for his work with cultists, which caused him to sustain multiple massive mutilations and driven to the brink of insanity. He has a problem with women screaming at him. Jackson opted to cast Combs as Dammers because he was a fan of the actor's work in Re-Animator.
Jake Busey as John Charles "Johnny" Bartlett, a mass murderer who continues his work in the afterlife, focusing on increasing his body count as a form of competition with other famous murderers. He returns from Hell, able to attack the living and the dead as the ghost of the Grim Reaper.
R. Lee Ermey as the ghost of Sergeant Hiles.
Chi McBride as Cyrus, a gangster who is one of Frank's deceased associates for his ghost-hunting business.
Jim Fyfe as Stuart, a nerd who is one of Frank's deceased associates for his ghost-hunting business.
Angela Bloomfield as Debra Bannister, Frank's deceased wife.
Troy Evans as Sheriff Walt Perry, a local law enforcement officer and ally to Frank.
Julianna McCarthy as Mrs. Bradley, Patricia's mother and former director of the psychiatric hospital, who is constantly monitoring her daughter.
Elizabeth Hawthorne as Magda Rees-Jones, the snooty British editor of the local newspaper.
Peter Jackson (cameo) as a man with piercings.
Melanie Lynskey (cameo) as a deputy, who is briefly seen standing next to Trini Alvarado's "Lucy Lynskey".
Peter Jackson and wife/co-writer Fran Walsh conceived the idea for The Frighteners in 1992, during the script-writing phase of Heavenly Creatures. Together, they wrote a three-page film treatment and sent it to their talent agent in Hollywood. Robert Zemeckis viewed their treatment with the intention of directing The Frighteners as a spin-off film of the television series, Tales from the Crypt (which he helped produce). Zemeckis hired Jackson and Walsh to turn their treatment into a full-length screenplay in January 1993. The husband and wife duo completed their first draft for The Frighteners in early-January 1994. Zemeckis was so impressed with their script, he decided The Frighteners would work better directed by Jackson, executive produced by Zemeckis and funded/distributed by Universal Pictures. Universal greenlighted the film to commence pre-production on a $26 million budget in April 1994. The studio also granted Jackson and Zemeckis total artistic control and the right of final cut privilege.
Jackson decided to film The Frighteners entirely in New Zealand. Zemeckis and Universal agreed on the condition that Jackson made New Zealand look similar to the Midwestern United States. Principal photography began on May 14, 1995 and lasted until November 16, which is one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Pictures. Six weeks into the shoot, cinematographer Alun Bollinger had a serious car accident. His replacement, John Blick, later alternated duties with Bollinger for much of the rest of the shoot. Location shooting primarily included Wellington and three weeks spent in Lyttelton. Interior scenes were compiled at Camperdown Studios in Miramar.
Jackson's Weta Digital created the visual effects, which included computer-generated imagery, as well as scale models (which were necessary to make Wellington look American), prosthetic makeup and practical effects with help from Weta Workshop. Visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor explained that effects work on The Frighteners was complex due to Weta's inexperience with computer technology in the mid-1990s. Prior to this film, Weta worked largely with physical effects. With so many ghosts among its main cast, The Frighteners required more digital effects shots than almost any movie made up till that time. For a special effects company that had been in existence less than three years, the eighteen-month period for completing The Frighteners was largely stressful. Some shots were handled by a small New Zealand company called Pixel Perfect, many of whose employees would eventually join Weta Digital. Rick Baker was hired to design the prosthetic makeup for The Judge, portrayed by John Astin (the detachable jawbone was later added digitally). However, Baker was not able to apply Astin's five hours of makeup himself due to his commitment on The Nutty Professor. Makeup artist Brian Penikas (Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) fulfilled Baker's duties.
The extended shooting schedule owed much to the fact that scenes where ghosts and human characters interacted had to be filmed twice; once with human characters acting on set, and then with the ghost characters acting against a blue screen. The two elements would later be digitally composited into one shot with the use of split screen photography. Such sequences required precise timing from the cast as they traded dialogue with characters who were merely blank air. The hardest challenge for the digital animators at Weta was creating the Grim Reaper, which went through many transformations before finding physical form. "We set out with the intention of doing the Reaper as a rod puppet, maybe shooting it in a water tank," Jackson commented. "We even thought of filming someone, dressed in costume, at different camera speeds." Test footage was shot with puppets and a man in a Reaper suit, but in the end, it was decided that using computer animation would be the easiest task. Another entirely computerized character called "the Gatekeeper", a winged cherub who helps guard the cemetery, was deleted from the final cut.
With digital effects work running behind schedule, Zemeckis convinced Wes Takahashi, an animation supervisor from visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, to help work on The Frighteners. "The shots Zemeckis showed me were pretty remarkable," Takahashi reflected, "but there were still about 400 shots to do, and everyone was kind of worried." Takahashi was quickly drafted as a visual effects supervisor, and began looking at the schedule, trying to work out whether The Frighteners could be finished in time. "There was no way we'd make the deadline. I figured out a concerted plan involving Jackson and Zemeckis to convince Universal it was worthy of asking for more money." The executives at Universal proposed splitting some of the shots to visual effects companies in the United States, but Jackson, for whom the film was a chance to show New Zealand filmmaking could stand alongside Hollywood, convinced Universal otherwise. Instead, The Frighteners received an accelerated release date, four months earlier than planned, and an additional $6 million in financing, with fifteen digital animators and computer workstations (some were borrowed from Universal and other effects companies in the US). Andrew Adamson was hired as a digital effects supervisor.
The film score was written and composed by Danny Elfman. It was released in 1996 on cassette and compact disc by Universal Records. The closing credits play a cover of Blue Öyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" performed by New Zealand alternative rock band The Mutton Birds. The Mutton Birds version of the song had been previously released as a B-side to their single "She's Been Talking" released in 1996. It plays also "Superstar", written by Bonnie Bramlett + Leon Russell and performed by Sonic Youth.
Critical reception was average; Jason Ankeny of album database Allmusic described the soundtrack as "imaginative" giving it three stars out of five. This was a lower rating on the site than Elfman's other scores of the era, such as Mission: Impossible, Mars Attacks! and Flubber. The soundtrack review website Filmtracks referred to the album as "lacking much cohesion or singular creativity".
The original release date was October 31, 1996, but after Universal studio executives viewed a rough cut of The Frighteners, they were impressed enough to move the release date to their "summer blockbuster slot" on July 19, 1996. In addition, Universal offered the filmmaker the opportunity to make King Kong, which was not released until 2005. Jackson often disputed over the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) over the film's rating. Aware that he was meant to be delivering Universal a PG-13 rating, Jackson tried his best to omit the amount of graphic violence as much as possible, but the MPAA still believed The Frighteners deserved an R rating.
The Frighteners was released in the United States in 1,675 theaters, and opened at #5, earning $5,565,495 during its opening weekend, averaging $3,335 per theater. The film eventually grossed a worldwide total of $29,359,216. The Frighteners ended up being a box office disappointment, mostly due to competition from Independence Day; in interviews conducted years after The Frighteners' release, Jackson commented he was disappointed by Universal's ubiquitous marketing campaign, including a poster which "didn't tell you anything about the picture", which he believed was the primary reason the film was not a financial success. Additionally, the film opened on the same day the Atlanta Summer Olympics began; when Jackson realized this and told the studio, they answered "'We don't think so; our research indicates that's not the case...' And I just thought how the hell do they know? There had only ever been three Olympic Games held in the United States in one hundred years!" Jackson acknowledged The Frighteners' tone made it hard to pigeon-hole and sell, and his experience on the film made him understand the importance of marketing.
The Frighteners received generally positive reviews from film critics. As of August 2017, 62% of the 37 reviewers selected by review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a positive review, certifying it "Fresh" with an average score of 6.2/10; the consensus states: "Boasting top-notch special effects and exuberant direction from Peter Jackson, The Frighteners is visually striking but tonally uneven."
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times stated "Director Peter Jackson, at home with all kinds of excess in New Zealand, keeps everything spinning nicely, not even losing a step when the mood turns increasingly disturbing." Janet Maslin from The New York Times enjoyed The Frighteners, but "walked out the theater with mixed emotions," she commented that "Peter Jackson deserves more enthusiasm for expert, imaginative effects than for his live actors anyhow. These lively touches would leave The Frighteners looking more like a more frantic Beetlejuice if Jackson's film weren't so wearyingly overcrowded. The Frighteners is not immune to overkill, even though most of its characters are already dead." Jeff Vice of the Deseret News praised the acting in the film, with the performances of Fox and Alvarado in particular, but said that there were also "bits that push the taste barrier too far and which grind things to a screeching halt", and that if "Jackson had used the restraint he showed in Heavenly Creatures, the movie could have "been the best of its kind". Critic Christopher Null praised the film, as he described it as a mixture between Ghostbusters and Twin Peaks. Michael Drucker of IGN said that although the film wouldn't make Jackson's top five of movies, it "is a harmless and fun dark comedy that you'll enjoy casually watching from time to time". The Frighteners received mixed reviews from critics from Jackson's native country, New Zealand.
Conversely, Todd McCarthy of Variety thought that the film should have remained an episode of Tales from the Crypt. Critic James Berardinelli believed that although The Frighteners wasn't "a bad film", it was "a disappointment, following Jackson's powerful, true-life matricide tale, Heavenly Creatures", and because of that "The Frighteners fell short of expectations by being just one of many in the long line of 1996 summer movies." Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, felt that Jackson was more interested in prosthetic makeup designs, computer animation, and special effects than writing a cohesive storyline. Ebert and critic Gene Siskel gave it a "two thumbs down" rating on their TV show At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, described the film's special effects as "ugly, aggressive" and "proliferating", saying that "trying to keep interested in [the special effects] was like trying to remain interested in a loudmouth shouting in [his] ear". Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle stated that "instead of moving the horror genre in new directions, The Frighteners simply falls apart from its barrage of visual effects and the overmixed onslaught of Danny Elfman's music score". The Austin Chronicle's Joey O'Brien, said that although the screenplay was "practically loaded with wild ideas, knowingly campy dialogue and offbeat characterizations", it "switched gears" too fast and too frequently that "the audience is left struggling to catch up as [The Frighteners] twists and turns its way unmercifully towards a literally out-of-this-world finale".
At the 23rd Saturn Awards, the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films honored Jackson with nominations for Best Direction and Best Writing, the latter he shared with wife Fran Walsh. The Frighteners also was nominated the Saturn Award for Best Horror Film, and for its Special Effects, Make-up (Rick Baker) and Music (Danny Elfman). Michael J. Fox and Jeffrey Combs were also nominated for their work.
The Frighteners was first released on DVD in August 1998, but included no special features.
To coincide with the release of Jackson's King Kong, Universal Studios Home Entertainment issued a double-sided director's cut DVD of the film in November 2005, which featured a version of The Frighteners that was 12 minutes longer. The other side includes a documentary prepared by Jackson and WingNut Films originally for the Laserdisc release. The director's cut was also made available in HD DVD and Blu-ray.