backstories

How Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners Brought the Personification of Death to Life

The Grim Reaper and Trini Alvarado in The Frighteners. Photo: Universal Pictures

Back before Peter Jackson was slinging rings into the mountains of Mordor, he made a name for himself as a gritty genre director, churning out exploitative B-movies like Dead Alive, Bad Taste, and, most notably, a dark comedy called The Frighteners. In the 1996 cult classic, a widower named Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) uses his “altered perception” to scam customers into believing that their houses are haunted, and then rids his patrons’ homes of said haunting. See, ever since Bannister recovered from a car accident that took his loving wife, he’s been able to communicate with the dead. Being a con artist works out pretty well for Bannister — that is, until he comes face-to-face with the Grim Reaper, and everyone around him starts dropping dead.

The Reaper, played by Jake Busey, preys upon the living and snatches souls from the dead, floating dreamily from one location to the next, waiting for his opportunity to pounce. It was a unique tale that presented grief in a relatable, but surprisingly lighthearted, manner. The only problem was, back in 1996, nobody knew how to capture death visually onscreen.

“The Grim Reaper was a cloth character,” Jackson explained, “and that was a time when nobody knew how to do cloth on a computer and make it look realistic. They originally tried to create him as a puppet, which you could shoot on a green screen. “But the puppets looked silly — they looked like stupid puppets,” said Jackson, who wanted the Reaper to appear supernatural, but believable enough to have the character in the room interacting with real, live actors. “So, we just decided to scrap that.”

Instead, the Frighteners team ended up writing a new code to bring the character to life. Jackson recalls VFX artist Gray Horsfield, one of his 30-member crew on the film, saying, “Let me try and do something in the computer, let me try and solve this.”

“He took on the challenge of doing flying cloth,” Jackson says. “As far as I’m aware, that was the first time that anyone had done it on the computer. He created it, he wrote the code. Compared to our puppet one, his CGI one was so much better.”

According to Horsfield, it was more of a hack than a code. He used multiple computer  programs to create the Reaper, each for a different function. “We would kind of hijack parts of data so we could do very specific things with it,” explains Horsfield. “The cloth really came about by tricking a particle system.”

The visual-effects team on The Frighteners would go on to form Jackson’s renowned Weta Workshop, arguably paving the way for some of the supernatural characters in The Lord of the Rings. “I would go into [the] Weta Digital area and check on their progress because it was exciting to watch,” recalls Busey. One day, he offered to do some moves on tape for them, which they could reference when animating the Reaper’s physical movements. “So, they filmed me,” he says, “and I don’t know how much of it they used, but I can tell you when I saw Lord of the Rings, I thought, ‘Well now those Ringwraiths look kind of familiar!’”