Since Ghostbusters was released over 30 years ago, many — including its original creators — have tried to recapture its spirit (pun intended) in sequels, remakes and other forms of media such as comics to video games. While many of these enjoyed success, they didn’t quite reach the heights of the original. Just why is this? The answer is as simple as it is unexpected. Many forget just how scary the movie is.
Ghostbusters is the story of four paranormal investigators and eliminators, played by pop culture titans Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson. With their trusty proton packs, the four protect the Big Apple from various ghosts and ghouls. This is creative and comedic gold, but when it comes to the supernatural elements of the film, most don’t prove quite so humorous. Ghostbusters wasn’t just a comedy; it was just as effective as a horror film.
Most comedies are filled with bright, vibrant colors and move at a fairly brisk pace. Ghostbusters, by contrast, approaches its material like a supernatural thriller. The film is not bright but dark, filled with black and gray gothic imagery. This is not a colorful world, but a place of dark shadows, long hallways and closed doors with very real horrors on the other side. According to director Ivan Reitman, this was intentional.
I wanted it to be funny, but I also wanted it to be scary. And I wanted to be able to buy into the science fiction of it.
Even the climax of the film, where the comedy should reach its apex, takes a more reserved approach. The final act doesn’t throw a slew of comical ghouls on Manhattan for our heroes to scoop up. Instead, the entire city is cast beneath a dark cloud, shrouding all in blackness as Armageddon draws near. Our heroes scale the steps of a Gothic apartment building, up to what may be their doom.
When the music of Ghostbusters comes to mind, most think of the hit song by Ray Parker Jr. However, classic composer Elmer Bernstein has an arguably far greater presence in the film. Bernstein is a veteran of classic film scores, including To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and many others. Listening to Bernstein’s score on its own, one finds that like the imagery, it doesn’t really speak of comedy.
The sequels to Ghostbusters tried to make their ghastly ghouls as bright and colorful as possible, but the original moved away from the comedic and into the grotesque. These ghosts are not bright or lively, instead portrayed with muted colors and rotting flesh.
The notable exception to this is Slimer, dubbed Onion Head by the original cast and crew. Slimer is very brightly colored, and his eating disorder is played more for comedy than anything else. However, he’s the only ghost the film treats as such. According to associate producer Michael A. Gross, that was always their intention.
All he was was a big smelly thing going around and was horrible to look at. But that was also, because of where it was in the film, one of the few creatures we thought could be humorous.
Other ghosts are another thing entirely. They could (and did) prove very frightening, sometimes more than the creators intended. The horrifying library specter is a perfect example. Her transformation was achieved via the same special effects used in films like The Howling and An American Werewolf In London, and according to Reitman, really made the audience scream.
Right from that very first screening that we had that day the audience really screamed in a legitimate way. I’ve since heard, you know, from hundreds of people who’ve seen the movie about that. Much more frightening than I ever expected it would be.
The main villain is hardly comedic. A cultist designs a building intended as a gateway for an otherworldly entity known as Gozer the Gozerian. Once the door is opened, Gozer will walk through, allowing mankind to chose the avatar it will use to destroy us all.
Gozer is aided by two monstrous hellhounds, creatures that rampage through the city in search of human hosts. Once these hosts are found, the two hellhounds act as conduits to open the door for Gozer, hence their names of “The Keymaster” and “The Gatekeeper.”
Gozer fits nicely into the genre of cosmic horror pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft. Cosmic horror deals with mankind’s insignificance and entities beyond our comprehension. Even in the context of Ghostbusters, these entities are seldom played for laughs, and create a real sense of impending doom.
Gozer was originally intended to be far more frightening. Various concept drawings reveal Gozer’s true form as a terrifying creature. Perhaps most unsettling of all was a post-Stay Puft form of Gozer. Originally, when the Ghostbusters attack the entity, it slowly dropped its mask to reveal the unspeakable horror beneath. This was cut largely due to budgetary reasons, though concept art of it does survive. Even with these cuts, Gozer still proved a very tough, and terrifying foe.
Many scenes in Ghostbusters have the power to frighten. Throughout the film Sigourney Weaver’s character of Dana Barrett is relentlessly pursued and harassed by Zuul, who has chosen her as its human host.
Barrett’s character is at the center of a straight horror plot, suffering from frightening visions of other worlds before being forcibly abducted and possessed. The scene where Dana is taken is often cited as the scariest moment in the film. There’s not a single laugh to be found.
Even when the Ghostbusters face Gozer, their final confrontation is mostly played straight. With its dark apocalyptic imagery, there are no comedic elements apart from the dialogue. One of the most successful scares comes when Ray accidentally choses Gozer’s form to destroy New York. The creature is not seen right away, only shown in brief glimpses between buildings. There’s a solid buildup of several agonizing moments of genuine dread that only come to an end when Gozer steps around the corner.
The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Ghostbusters took a genuinely spooky moment and turned it into a laugh. Were it not for the genuine fear this moment evoked before, the reveal wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.
That’s the real talent of the film: To be an effective horror film one moment, and genuinely funny the next. The only comedic element is the Ghostbusters themselves, and even then it’s more their dialogue than actions. They often seem to have been injected into a straight end-of-the-world supernatural thriller, turning some legitimately frightening material into comedic gold.
That may be the major failing of both the 1989 sequel and the 2016 reboot. Both movies are bright and colorful, putting the audiences in safe, well-lit environments with villains that just don’t seem as menacing. Vigo was just some guy in a painting, and the 2016 film has the heroes nearly defeated by an angsty geek. Neither film is that bad, per se, but they both weren’t focused enough on the fright factor to match the original. Director Ivan Reitman says it best.
I think it’s what gave the comedy its foundation. That the movie was truly scary, and truly funny.
So, when another Ghostbusters inevitably comes along, let this be a lesson to anyone willing to take up the task. It’s OK to make the audience laugh, as long as you don’t forget to make them scream.
[Sources: Monster Legacy]
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