Romantic comedy-horror doesn't work on any level -- great FX, though

BRUCE KIRKLAND

, Last Updated: 12:18 PM ET

Stretch your mind to the breaking point and imagine jumbling up the crassest elements of Ghostbusters and Natural Born Killers.

That's the bizarre trick in the new Michael J. Fox supernatural romantic-comedy-horror flick The Frighteners.

Jammed with awesome special effects but laboring under a convulted and often nonsensical story about psycho serial killers, marauding ghosts and the Grim Reaper, The Frighteners tries to be hip and even heavenly but ends up as a mess.

It's a fascinating failure, perhaps, but it's still a mess.

Set in some unnamed American coastal town, Fox stars as a seedy paranormal expert who has his own stable of ghosts rescued from the beyond. Only he can see them.

He sends them into houses where they wreak invisible havoc. He then gets hired to ghost-bust them out of there. Things go awry when another ghost, cloaked and armed with a scythe, keeps killing people, leaving Fox as the prime suspect. [[+3]] [[-3]]

The Natural Born Killers reference has to do with the identities of the real killers and there are grisly Oliver Stonish flashbacks to their first bloodbath in a hospital some years before.

Meanwhile, Fox, a widower who lost his wife in a car accident, hurtles into a quickie unbelievable romance with Andie MacDowell lookalike Trini Alvarado, herself newly widowed.

John Astin, Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe play Fox's trio of motley ghosts, Dee Wallace Stone and scenery-chewing Jake Busey (Gary Busey's replicant son -- and that's scary!) play the mad, monstrous villains while Jeffrey Combs creates the weirdest FBI agent this side of Twin Peaks.

The Frighteners is the work of New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson, who created this weirdo wonder with his Heavenly Creatures and Braindead partner Fran Walsh.

While their surprise Kiwi hit Heavenly Creatures was one idea executed in traditional narrative style, The Frighteners owes more to the underground shlock spectacle Braindead.

It tries to be hysterically funny, screamingly scary and absolutely fantastic all at once. Which doesn't work. The mood changes in a gasp. Long bits self-implode into stupidity. Not for nothing is this movie from a company called Wingnut Films.

For example, Combs desperately tries to do some strange pseudo-Kafka thing as the FBI agent, as if that's supposed to be amusing. When he gets his head blown off, recalling the exploding cranium in Scanners, the audience cheers in relief.

Nevertheless, there are those sensational FX here. If eye candy fills your churning tummy, The Frighteners is a feast.


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