By Ken Tucker
Updated July 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

A smart, subtle movie disguised as a dumb, noisy one, The Frighteners grabs you by the hair and drags you along. Michael J. Fox plays Frank Bannister, a ”psychic investigator” who’s burned-out — literally world-weary. Years ago, Frank was in a car accident that ended in his wife’s death; as a result of that traumatic experience, Frank can see the ghostly forms of spirits risen from the dead. Lonely and cynical, Frank’s only companions are a trio of comical ghosts (including an unrecognizable John Astin) who, invisible to other humans, invade innocent households with noisy hauntings. In cahoots with the ghosts, Frank works a con: He hires himself out as a psychic detective who will clean your house of the phony poltergeists.

Frank is shaken out of his complacency by the arrival of (a) a ragingly murderous spirit and (b) Lucy Lynskey, a charming doctor played by Trini Alvarado (Meg in Little Women). Lucy’s husband is killed by the bad spirit, and the smitten Frank can’t bring himself to bilk the beautiful widow — instead, he tries to redeem himself by doing some real psychic detecting for a change.

The Frighteners, which starts out like a screwball comedy with ecotoplasm, then deepens into a movie about redemption, is directed by Peter Jackson, best known for 1994’s marvelous Heavenly Creatures. But viewers who loved that film’s air of quiet menace may be put off by the cranked-up pace and volume of The Frighteners; this movie is much more like Jackson’s wacky 1992 horror film Dead Alive. Which is to say, the relentless Frighteners is overloaded with jokes (including references to scads of modern horror films from Carrie to Gremlins) and unsettling special effects (the villain surges through walls, mirrors, and rugs with shocking speed). The Frighteners is also that rare horror film that actually gets better as it proceeds; this scare machine has a heart and a brain.

The script by Jackson and Fran Walsh teems with subplots, including one featuring Dee Wallace Stone (E.T.) as the girlfriend of a serial killer played by Jake Busey (a toothy ringer for his dad, Gary). At one point, Stone has a violent ball with a shotgun, perhaps letting loose all the homicidal impulses she may have over her fumbled movie career.

It’s Fox, however, who holds this sprawling movie together; he’s funny, touching, and tough. This fall, he’ll be in the highly anticipated new TV sitcom Spin City; you can catch him in top form before that, right here. B+