Who You Gonna Call? – 30 Years of Ghostbusters and the Joys of Comedic Horror

ghostbusters

Whenever we round out our favorite comedies of all time, the film Ghostbusters (1984) is almost certainly at or near the top of that list for anyone in my generation.  Crafted from the minds of writers and co-stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, and directed by Ivan Reitman, Ghostbusters is a classic in every way, and even 30 years after it’s initial release, it is still a strongly influential comedy.  That’s because of the fact that it takes a strong concept, that being a ragtag band of paranormal scientists forming a ghost extermination agency, and exploits that premise to it’s full potential.  That and it’s just incredibly funny.  The perfect casting is also what has made this movie so beloved.  Initially conceived as a follow-up to the popular Blues Brothers film, the movie was written to star Aykroyd and John  Belushi as a pair of titular Ghost Busters.  Unfortunately, Belushi’s untimely death forced a re-imagining of the script, which proved to be a blessing.  The team was expanded to include co-writer Ramis as the exceptionally nerdy Dr. Egon Spengler, as well as Ernie Hudson as the bewildered temp assistant Winston Zeddmore.  But, the true keystone to the whole cast proved to be the addition of Bill Murray in the role of Peter Venkman, the cocky one-liner spewing hot shot that Murray was tailor-made for.  Indeed, what most people love about this movie is just how well this cast works off each other, and just how funny they all are throughout.  Murray almost steals the movie away on his own.  But, what is interesting about the movie’s legacy after 30 years is how it modernized and redefined the way dark and scary themes can work as the basis for some hilarious comedy.

Though no one would ever define Ghostbusters as anything other than a comedy, it is interesting to note that there are moments in the movie that are downright creepy, and would feel at home in any authentic horror movie.  What’s more, nothing in the movie feels out of place.  Every scary moment works, and the hilarious comedic bits fit right alongside it, sometimes even helping to punctuate the moment.  None of the transitions in tone are jarring, and it all makes the film that more of a unique experience.  That fine line between horror and comedy can easily be mishandled if the filmmaker goes too far in either direction.  Ghostbusters is expertly crafted to the point where the movie crosses that divide effortlessly multiple times.  Case in point, the depictions of the ghosts differ primarily between the frightening and the goofy, depending on what the film requires at the moment.  The scene where the Ghost Busters encounter Slimer is more of a comical scene, so the look of Slimer the Ghost is obviously more cartoonish than scary.  However, when the movie shows the heroine Dana (Sigourney Weaver) being abducted and possessed by the demon Zuul, the creature is rightfully depicted as a terrifying monster.  Whatever the story calls for at the moment, the movie adjusts the tone and the scares accordingly, and Ghostbusters always seems to hit that tone perfectly.  It even gets a funny one-liner in every now and then during a terrifying scene, like Venkman’s quip about Zuul’s “lovely singing voice.”  But even though Ghostbusters modernized this kind of balance between the profane and the light-hearted, it was still one of many touchstones in the long history of Comedic Horror.

Mixing the two genres together actually has been around since the early days of cinema.  Even in some of the classic Monster movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age do you see some examples of adding levity to many dark films.  Universal’s classic adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Gothic novel, Frankenstein, was a notably dark movie with very few moments played for laughs.  However, when director James Whale was tasked with creating a sequel to his macabre classic, he chose to go in a very different tonal direction by injecting a lot of camp humor into the story.  The result was The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which has gone on to become a beloved classic in it’s own right.  The movie is still frightening for the most part, with Boris Karloff still menacing as the Monster, but there are decidedly more comedic moments in this movie as well, primarily with the dimwitted townsfolk who hunt after Frankenstein.  Mel Brooks would exploit that comical tone more when he made his own homage to the Horror classic, Young Frankenstein (1974), following James Whale’s own style, but removing all subtext and adding a whole lot more silliness.  This kind of campy horror would become more prevalent during the 50’s and 60’s when the B-Movie phase began to dominate the cinemas.  Just watch the works of Ed Wood and Roger Corman and tell me that their intentions weren’t to make their audiences laugh out loud between the screams of terror.  But, despite the intentions of the filmmakers, there’s no doubt that a light sprinkling of comedy helps to make the horror feel more rewarding.  That’s something that future Horror film master Sam Raimi definitely took to heart when he created his Evil Dead series of films, which skirt the line between scary and funny quite frequently.  Even today you see many films try to make that balance work, although few have pulled it off as well.

I think the reason why Hollywood has become accustomed to the idea of mixing Horror and Comedy together is because they have the same effect on the audience.  For the most part, these are the kinds of movies that must be seen with a crowd, because the reactions you get out of the theater during a comedy or a horror film is also part of the entertainment.  If a horror movie makes someone in the audience scream out loud, it will almost always get a laugh out of someone else and that usually is why most people love the communal experience of watching Horror movies.  It’s the same kind of reaction we get out of a comedy movie too, and indeed sometimes the most laugh out loud moments we’ve seen could have come from a movie that was trying to be scary.  Case in point, in Friday the 13th Part 8, there’s a scene where Jason faces a championship boxer whom he wears down by being  un-phased by all the blows he delivering.  When the boxer says he’s had enough, he asks Jason to “take his best shot,” which he does by knocking the boxer’s head off in one punch.  It’s a hilarious moment in a place you didn’t expect it, and yet it doesn’t suddenly make the movie into a comedy.  A recent film like Gone Girl also has a moment that goes from horrific to hilarious in the blink of an eye, showing just how much those two emotions work well together.  It doesn’t work all the time, and indeed it more or less has to do with how well the tone is managed in a movie.  For one thing, none of the films in the Scary Movie franchise are particularly scary; or for that matter funny.  But it has been a formula that has proven itself countless times mainly because these are the kinds of movies that are perfectly geared to drive up box office numbers.

The movies that we commonly associate with this formula are Dark Comedies.  They are not primarily built around Horror tropes, but nevertheless they revolve around darker themes like death and suffering, while still playing moments and situations for a laugh.  Again, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series is so outlandish, that you could argue that they were made to be comedies first and horror films second, especially with Army of Darkness (1992).  But subtler dark comedies also manage to present that fine line in interesting ways.  The Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996) is a great example of comedy and horror working together to create a truly memorable experience.  I mean, you had to have chuckled when you saw Steve Buscemi’s disembodied foot poking out of that wood chipper, just before you felt the dread of what that situation was actually meant.  Human behavior gone horribly awry is what characterizes most dark comedies, with movies like Mary Harmon’s American Psycho (2000) and Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things (1998) also showing hilariously over the top moments of horror on screen.  But, what makes these movies memorable is not by how outlandish they are, but by how effective they’re shocking moments elevate the rest of the film surrounding them.  Sometimes the best way to do that is to subvert the audience’s reactions, and make them appreciate the unexpected.  If you’re too predictable, and add humor or horror in places that didn’t need them, then you have confused and unpleasant messes like Jennifer’s Body (2009) or Death to Smoochy (2002), both of which didn’t know what the hell they wanted to be.

But, not all comedies need to be dark in order to have scary moments.  Ghostbusters never actually stops being funny throughout it’s entire run-time, and it underlines every genuine scary moment with something hilarious.  It’s something that I think Ghostbusters defined better than any movie before and since, and most Horror comedies today follow along a similar tone that the movie established; giving us genuine frights while never missing the opportunity to crack a joke.  If I could point out a movie of this current generation that has become the Ghostbusters of it’s time, it would probably be Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), which itself is celebrating a 10th anniversary this year.  Shaun managed to do for zombie flicks what Ghostbusters did with haunted house movies, and that’s by making a acceptable entry into the genre while at the same time lampooning it at every turn.  Like Ghostbusters, Shaun is built more around the hilarious interactions of the characters, with the horror setting used mainly as the backdrop for all of their goofy antics.  Stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost clearly have an affection for zombie movies, and their inept buffoonish characters work very well in this setting, which is depicted in a very straight forward way.  But, at the same time, the movie never falls into true horror, and is laugh out loud from beginning to end.  Plus, it’s the only movie I know of with a zombie attack choreographed to the music of Queen.  Most Dark Comedies can sometimes be mistaken as quirky Dark Dramas, but there’s no mistaking movies like Ghostbusters and Shaun of the Dead for anything other than a Horror Comedy.

So, 30 years have gone by and Ghostbusters is as fresh as ever.  Very little in the movie feels stale or dated.  Even today, it is still the highest grossing film ever made by Saturday Night Live alum, and that’s quite an achievement.  Considering that the movie started out as an excuse for the two stars of the Blues Brothers to team up again, it’s amazing to see how it has evolved since then.  It spawned a less effective, but still entertaining sequel, as well as an animated series and a lucrative toy line.  I think I remember there being a glow-in-the-dark Stay Puft Marshmallow Man doll in home many years ago, showing just how wide a range of audience this movie reached over the years, even becoming a part of the lives of the youngest viewers out there.  There have been rumors of a third Ghostbusters film for years now, which I don’t think will ever see the light of day, especially now with the recent passing of co-star Harold Ramis.  To be honest, there’s not much that can be improved upon; the original is just a perfectly crafted movie and it’s hard to recapture that same kind of effectiveness.  For one thing, Ghostbusters was groundbreaking in how it took the Horror Comedy to new heights, especially in terms of the level of it’s hilarity, and also in the scale of it’s production.  It’s easy to reach the goal, but rarely can you top it’s impact.  Shaun of the Dead manages to follow in the movie’s footsteps with it’s level of effective humor, but done on a much smaller scale with a different kind of sub-genre.  For Ghostbusters, it was a product of it’s time and became a definite touchstone that would define the look and feel of both comedies and horror movies for years to come.  It’s often imitated, such as with similar toned movies like Gremlins (1985), but few have ever managed to come close to it’s ambition.  And most importantly it still remains a great cinematic experience.  Can it be scary?  Absolutely, but in a very fun way, because after all, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost.”

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