Answering "Yes" to the question "Fancy seeing the new Michael J Fox movie?" usually means two itchy hours watching the ex-sitcom star go through his familiar routine in some lightly scripted, cutesy caper. But not this time. From rip-snorting opening to sensational climax, The Frighteners is not just Fox's most entertaining picture since Back To The Future, but one of the slickest comedy-horror movies you could hope to see.
Now 35, but looking all of 21, Fox tackles the lead (fraudulent ghosthunter and private dick) with uncharacteristic restraint: experience (or the director) has told him that the biggest laughs should go to his spectral sidekicks, a black dude (Chi McBride) and a nerd (Jim Fyfe), and to the nasty Grim Reaper figure who's bumping off the burghers of Fairwater..
The man we have to thank for this incredible movie is Peter Jackson. With the aid of more than a year's worth of digital sfx work, he creates some breathtaking sequences. The superb chase between Fox's beaten-up Volvo and the murderous wraith is topped only by the final, grisly showdown.
The supporting cast does itself proud. Trini Alvarado is endearing as a doctor in distress, as is Peter Dobson as the ghost of her lunk-headed hubby; Jeffrey Comb's crazed FBI agent leers like a poor man's Jim Carrey; and Jake Busey shows that he's inherited his dad Gary's gift for to playing wackos.
Other treats include R Lee Ermey once again repeating his Full Metal Jacket turn as the drill instructor from hell, and a dash of ectoplasmic nookie between an Egyptian mummy and the heavily decomposed corpse of a gunslinger (we jest not). The only (piffling) drawback to this inventiveness is that it's so relentless. At times, the technical wizardry wears thin - if the spooks melt through walls once, they do it 50 times.
Although you could run out of toes and fingers counting the bright ideas and images Frighteners borrows from other movies, Jackson and co-writer Frances Walsh whip these familiar ingredients together with such glee that you don't begrudge their wholesale raid on the horror genre's back-catalogue. The result is a film that provides so many laughs and bums-off-seat shocks you can safely forget about that fiver you wasted on Doc Hollywood.
Thrills, sight gags and tasteless one-liners abound as Michael J Fox, Trini Alvarado and assorted spectral allies take on an evil spirit. The plot is hokum and hogwash from start to finish, but the special effects and Peter Jackson's high-energy direction guarantee a happy, hairy ride. Go see it - it's great.