Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Seeing Ghosts Double Feature: ParaNorman (2012) and The Frighteners (1996)

I'd been pretty psyched for ParaNorman for quite some time, ever since I saw a trailer for it last year and became instantly smitten with its Coraline/Tim Burton-y aesthetic. Stop-motion has this effect on me, it's one of my favorite art forms and certainly my favorite type of animation. When accolades for the film began pouring in I was nodding my head along with them before I'd even had a chance to see it, just so elated that a non-CG animated film was receiving such widespread recognition. Then I finally saw the damn thing and guess what? IT RULES. The general premise reminded me strongly of The Frighteners, aka the only Peter Jackson movie I own, so I went home and watched that right after. It was a wonderfully spooky, funny, generally ghost-tastic double feature!

Norman is a weird kid, a self-made loner with poofy hair, a love of zombie movies, and the ability to see and talk to ghosts everywhere. No one believes him of course so he finds solace in his ghost friends, especially his caring grandma. But when a centuries-old witch's curse (he lives in a Salem, MA stand-in) threatens his whole town, Norman takes matters into his own hands, joined by some unlikely companions- including his vapid sister, the school bully, and eventually, his gabby parents.

This movie is soooo fucking good you guys, sorry to cuss but GODDAMN. The visuals, as expected, are absolutely stunning. I want to drink in everything I see so I can make it a part of my being, or something. I'm really into how it looks, basically. The animation is fluid and the character design is great, with strong elements of caricature and emphatic expressions. The sets are fantastic and I loved the ghostly effects. Seriously, that witchy storm-cloud sky? MY GOD, MAKE THAT MY SKY.

While I could gush about the visuals for hours (isn't that what you want?) I have to say that the script is completely great, too! It's funny and interesting and surprisingly progressive. At first I was like "Ugh, witch's CURSE, really? Shouldn't we be teaching these kids how shitty the pilgrims were and how young girls were being killed needlessly?" But then the plot develops into something much more nuanced and I was really happy with how it all turned out. No one is the all-out "villain", here, everyone has understandable motivations and eventually they all realize their wrongdoing. The biggest threat is the mob mentality of the present-day townspeople, who ransack the town center the second a few zombies walk harmlessly into their midst. What dicks.

ParaNorman stresses acceptance and open-mindedness, so it's like the opposite of Cars 2. There's even an out gay character, which for a kids movie is pretty cool, right? Has that happened in a mainstream family film before? I was sure early on that Mitch was gay, mainly because there was a point made about how he totally wasn't into Courtney and her very obvious advances. I figured I was wrong, because how could that happen, but there's a cute reveal at the end that confirms it. At first I was frustrated that a character's sexuality was used for a joke, but it's not mean-spirited, and revealing this big super-jock as a gay character at the end is probably the best way to make it easily acceptable to any kids who aren't familiar with the idea- the character reads as stereotypically straight and you come to like him as this sort of dumb jock guy, but then he's revealed as gay and you realize you were buying into that stereotype and you shouldn't assume things about people. Right? I hope that's how it works for anyone who didn't realize right away, and everyone is cool with it.

Anyway I'm really in love with this movie, I hope that's obvious. It's got lovely little horror references and a good story and strong voice acting and drop-dead-gorgeous visuals and I LOVE IT OK.


So Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) is probably what Norman would grow into if he wasn't such a well-adjusted kid to begin with. A former architect, he's been seeing ghosts since he witnessed his wife's mysterious murder years prior, and now he employs his ghost buddies to haunt local houses so he can exorcise them for cash. A number of healthy people in his community keep dying of mysterious heart attacks, and it's up to Frank to stop the ghostly Death Specter who seems to be the culprit. After teaming up with Lucy (Trini Alvarado), a doctor whose asshole husband is among the victims, he realizes that the deaths are connected to a serial killer (Jake Busey) thought long-dead.

This has long been one of my favorite horror movies, but it had been a good few years since I'd last seen it. Luckily it totally holds up as a movie, even if the effects reeeeeally don't. The Frighteners is from the mid-90s and it definitely looks it, from Trini Alvarado's hilarious Andie MacDowell complex to the super dated CGI. Some of the imagery is quite scary- especially the house that comes alive with killer Johnny Bartlett's haunting- but it's so fake-looking it's hard to be really affected. This was made during that interim period when CG effects were a hot new thing that everyone wanted to use, but they hadn't developed the technology enough to actually look good. Just a few years after this Jackson would knock it out of the park with the visuals of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so I guess this was kind of like a practice run. The first pancake, as it were. Some great ideas, not the best execution.

Dated visuals aside, this movie is pretty swell. I love Fox in the more serious role of Frank (this is his last starring film role to date, actually), where he's able to combine his sarcastic delivery with a more tragic character. Supporting stars Chi McBride, John Astin, and Jake Busey are all having fun, but it's Dee Wallace as Johnny's committed girlfriend Patricia and Jeffrey Combs as disturbed FBI agent Milton Dammers who really steal the show. The former switches between childlike innocence and sociopathic mania with chilling ease, while the latter is his usual darkly wacky self, only covered in weird tattoos and a Hitler hairdo. Ugh, Jeffrey Combs! The best guy. This is the first time I ever saw him, actually, though it took me a while to connect him with his younger Re-Animator self.


I seriously recommend The Frighteners to any ParaNorman fan, and vice versa. Not only are both about dudes who see ghosts, they've also both got freaky flashback visions, long drives through forests, great soundtracks (Danny Elfman and Jon Brion!), historical mysteries, supernatural comedy, tragic pasts, and lessons in friendship. And while the effects are at times distracting in the former, they don't detract enough from the film as a whole to make a huge difference. The ghosts looks pretty good, actually, it's the Death Specter that doesn't work so well. Oh also even though it's filmed in New Zealand, I'm pretty sure The Frighteners takes place in New England? So that's another connection. What a good pairing.


  1. Yay for this!

    There were a lot of things about ParaNorman that reminded me of The Frighteners. Yes, they both see ghosts, but visually, the idea that the main character kept accidentally slipping into a vision of the past was very reminiscent of the hospital sequence at the end of The Frighteners. Oh, and the ultimate showdown with the antagonist without all the bells and whistles - also a very nice touch. A very loving homage to all horror film, but one slightly more than others, methinks.

  2. LabSplice: Yeah I saw a strong link in the hospital sequence and Norman's visions of the witch trial, as well! That's exactly what I meant when I said they both had "freaky flashback visions" haha.