Ghostbusters (1984) is first and foremost a comedy. Even if you’ve never seen it, take one look at that cast list stacked with Saturday Night Live alumni and you’ll know it’s going to be funny. However, there are some horror overtones in the film as well. I mean, it is called GHOSTbusters. Ghosts are scary, and for a PG film, it does attempt to have its chilling moments. Neither one of these aspects alone make Ghostbusters great. But it’s a film that works so well that many people call it perfect. Why? What’s so special about this particular film that makes people get so up-in-arms about it being remade? It’s the way that comedy and horror mix that makes Ghostbusters the classic that it is today.
I remember growing up, one of my best friends saw Ghostbusters before anyone else in our class. He couldn’t stop ranting and raving about Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. He was talking about all of the comedy but didn’t touch on the horror. As we later discovered, some of the scenes frightened him a bit and he even had a nightmare about it later. Eventually my parents got a VHS and I sat down to watch the film as well. The opening scene in the library got my attention right away. The crew first comes across the spectral librarian and are discussing how they’re going to approach her. The librarian becomes annoyed and tells them to “SHHHHHHHHH”. The fellas are still unprepared at this point, of course, so Ray yells out to just “GET HER!!” They rush to grab the ghost and in a single shot she goes from cute old lady librarian to evil bitch of a ghost! And guess what? She looks frightening as hell! The tone is set for the rest of the film. You might be laughing, but this movie won’t pull its punches in trying to scare you as well.
I would have loved to have been old enough to see this movie in theatres when it first came out just to see an audience’s reactions. In July of 1984, the world was introduced to a new movie rating of PG-13. You can thank the surprisingly violent Gremlins and Indiana Jones… well the blame goes to Mola Ram for ripping a man’s heart out and chanting as it burns in his hand. Just a bit much for a PG movie, you think? The MPAA did as well and now we have PG-13. Ghostbusters came out in June, just one month shy of the new rating. Which makes me wonder, would Ghostbusters of 1984 be re-rated to PG-13 today? Well, it does have a ghost performing oral sex on one of our heroes, so it seems likely. The reboot is PG-13. Though judging by the trailers, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters seems to be a bit tamer than the original in my opinion. The content we deem acceptable to let our kids see has changed.
The key is balance. For everything that makes you laugh, Ghostbusters also tries to add in a thrill. The horror in this film, like many great horror films, is based on fear of the unknown. Ghosts aren’t yet a known quantity in the Ghostbusters universe, and something as mundane as a librarian can reveal itself to be horrifying in the end. Even Slimer, a fan favorite, appears menacing when he is first introduced. The Ghostbusters get a call to go to a big fancy, upscale hotel because a ghost has been seen there. At this point in the film, this is the team’s first real, solicited call as a business. “WE GOT ONE!!!!!!” exclaims Janine in one of the film’s most iconic lines.
The Ghostbusters arrive at the hotel, get a quick debrief from the hotel manager, and with that, we are searching for our ghost. The trio split up and each of them takes a different path down a hall in this classy hotel. Scenes like this can easily remind you of The Shining with its similar horror-in-a-hotel aesthetic. They cautiously walk the halls looking for signs of the supernatural; you don’t know what to expect. What does this ghost look like? Is it violent? The fear of the unknown as well as the music makes these scenes work. Elmer Bernstein provided a score that played each scene perfectly, both bouncy and dramatic, a razor-thin edge between emotional extremes.
Everything the film is doing sets us up for horror when Ray (Akyroyd) turns a corner and sees Slimer downing some wine and raiding a food cart. And you know what? Slimer is pretty damn cute! He isn’t scary at all, just an overweight lump of ectoplasm that definitely makes us think of John Belushi. Ray tries to catch him but Slimer makes his escape through a wall. A slime trail left dripping down the wall serves as a reminder of what we’re dealing with. Slimer appears in front of Peter (Murray) after making his escape from Ray and stares him down as he questions Ray on what he should do next. Slimer can hear the conversation between Ray and Peter on their walkie talkies and rushes Peter with his arms outstretched and making a horrific growling sound. We don’t see the impact, just Peter screaming as Ray is rounding corner after corner in an effort to save his friend. Is he dead? When we get to him, Peter is laid out on the ground, doused in slime.
“He slimed me,” says Peter, still laying on the ground.
“That’s great!” is Ray’s response to Peter’s attack.
And it’s funny! It works! It lightens the mood again where things were suspenseful moments before.
The movie progresses and the real villains arrive in the form of the two Terror Dogs named Zuul and Vinz Clortho. The pair of dogs are the servants of a pretty wicked looking lady who looks like she belongs in an 80’s new wave club instead of a destroyer of worlds. That’s right I’m talking about Gozer! But let’s take a look at the dogs first. Zuul first appears in Dana Barrett’s (Weaver) refrigerator. We divert from the comedy once again. There is no comforting catch phrase or cute anecdote after this. Dana comes home to her apartment and undresses while talking on the phone. She’s in a vulnerable state, sitting in an easy chair. A ring of light glows behind her kitchen door. Suddenly the Dog’s arms violently rip straight through the chair Dana is sitting in and carry her away. It’s Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s Hellraiser. Sigourney Weaver screams like she’s back in Alien. When we see Dana again… well, there is no Dana. Only Zuul. It’s one of the most violently jarring scenes in the film and, taken out of context, it’s pure horror from the word go.
Next door, her neighbour Louis (Moranis) isn’t doing so well either. He’s having a party for some of his accounting clients when Terror Dog Vinz is awaiting him in his bedroom. He throws a guest’s coat in the bedroom and it lands on top of the dog’s head in a comedic fashion. Vinz shakes off the coat and bursts through the door after Louis. He’s chased through town and Vinz appears towering before his victim before he strikes. But as with Slimer and the chair stealing away Dana, we don’t see the actual horrific action that occurs to the character. That stays left to your imagination. This scene, clearly comedic when compared Dana’s encounter, is exactly the counterpoint the film needs at this time.
Back to Dana, Peter visits her and clearly things are not right. She asks if he is the Key Master. After getting the door slammed in his face, Pete smartens up, gives her the answer she’s looking for, and he gains entry to her apartment. Dana’s apartment is dark, completely redone in slime and looks very creepy. “There is no Dana, only Zuul” Dana says when Peter asks to talk to Dana. Zuul doesn’t appear to be amused by Peter asking the question again and shows her true side when she repeats the line once more in a more demonic voice. A voice reminiscent of The Exorcist. Once again, we are skating on the side of horror. She rises to the ceiling of her bedroom, Peter still talking to her, and she growls real loud as the scene cuts away in an all too familiar way in the film. We aren’t going to see past the initial scare!
Before I move on to the climax, I want to touch on one of my favorite scenes in the film. The EPA has been trying to get inside to see the Ghostbusters’ containment unit that stores the ghosts. EPA inspector Walter Peck has gotten an order to shut the containment unit down. He is warned one too many times the consequences that will result from his actions, but come on, we have to build up to the end! So we shut down the containment unit, the room flashes bright red, and a very nasty alarm sounds that basically says, “You done f***ed up!” The ghosts are freed, including one that looks like he stepped out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and there is a brilliant shot of the New York skyline. Spirit orbs are gliding around buildings to the tune of Mick Smiley’s I Believe It’s Magic. It is such a good scene and adds to the suspense. It has a very eerie feeling to it, the aptly titled song presenting more of a fantasy vibe than horror or comedy, a third ingredient that’s welcomed for this single scene, like a garnish. Zuul wakes up and you know things are about to go down.
So let’s move on to the end of the film. We have the big showdown between Gozer and the Ghostbusters. Our heroes are acting like complete badasses going into the building to stop the major threat that is for sure going to destroy everything and the only thing standing in their way is 22 flights of stairs. It is a funny scene that works and is playful. They get to the 22nd floor and Dana and Louis Tully are opening the gate for Gozer. The two transform back into the dogs and join Gozer at her side. After a failed attempt at negotiation (remember boys and girls, when someone asks you if you are a God, you say YES!) the boys decide to show the prehistoric bitch how they do things downtown. The proton packs have no effect on Gozer, at which time she says that between them, they will choose the form of the destructor. Peter explains that whatever they think of will appear, so everyone clear their minds, don’t think of anything. BUT… the form of the destructor has already been chosen.
The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Good ol’ Ray didn’t clear his mind and thought of something that brought him happiness. Horror and comedy combined work so well here because you have certain death in front of you but you never would have thought of death as a big white marshmallow man! Even Ray says, “I tried to think of the most harmless thing, something that could never destroy us.” It works on both levels, you have the momentary suspense of what is coming around the corner and then the reveal of a big marshmallow mascot. We all know how this ends, our heroes cross the streams on their proton packs, blow up the gate, and the Ghostbusters become the heroes. They’re covered in marshmallow, but nobody’s perfect.
Ghostbusters is a classic. The film is a comedy. There is no denying that, but it does add some flavors of horror as well. It certainly wasn’t A Nightmare on Elm Street or C.H.U.D. that were also released in ’84. But Ghostbusters tried to serve up an entertaining mix of horror and comedy. What made it work was it took a terrifying situation for the characters and almost immediately had a punchline behind it. Most importantly to me, the music carried the film and set the tone at the right moments. At no time did you ever feel that a character was truly in danger, but the possibility was there. But to be truthful, the horror represented in the movie would only possibly scare a small child. Which leads me to question… Will this new Ghostbusters reboot mix the two genres together as well as the original? It’s impossible to tell from a trailer, but one thing’s for sure. I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts.