The sixth and final (alas! lamentation!) season of Film Experience’s open-to-all-comers series Hit Me with Your Best Shot (watch a movie, pick shot, discuss it) picks up today with that evergreen classic of ’80s high-concept action/comedy, Ghostbusters. And as far as I know, Nathaniel didn’t even plan for the timing that this would be less than a week after the trailer for the new remake hit the internet and made lots of people somewhat unhappy for some diametrically opposite reasons (my take: I had accidentally shifted at some point from “recasting the four leads as women is the only thing that can possibly make this terrible idea interesting in any way” to “recasting the four leads as women is what it will make this good”, and I’m pleased that the hopelessly pandering, creatively bankrupt approach to selling this as a literal beat-for-beat retread only now they’re ladies has had the effect of disabusing me of my inadvertent optimism).
Some movies burn their shape right into your brain if you see them at a young enough age; Ghostbusters is beyond any shadow of a doubt one of those, for the generation of Americans with an age in the single digits somewhere in the 1980s. For myself, it was the first time I can recall seeing anything that was in any way “horror imagery” in a movie, setting aside Disney’s assorted villains, and even though watching the movie nowadays, I’m well aware that this is nobody’s idea of a scary movie, I can’t pretend that I don’t have just a flicker of sympathetic terror with my seven-year-old self when I come to… the kitchen portal to hell scene.
You know, the one where this motherfucker happens:
The entirely unsecret ingredient that makes Ghostbusters work is that it takes its concept 100% seriously (this underpins many of those high-concept genre hybrid comedies from the ’80s; think of Gremlins, or Back to the Future). This may be, in practice, an enjoyable exercise in quotable snark, general goofy weirdness, and Bill Murray at his most exquisitely smirking, but none of that is “inside” the movie. The characters treat the ghosts they’re busting with complete gravity – while they may or may not be scary to us, within the world of Ghostbusters, they assuredly are. Even, in bits and pieces, to the heroes.
Director Ivan Reitman accordingly treats the horror material of this horror comedy (and it only barely deserves that word; the balance is tipped wildly in favor of humor) with a sense of real stakes and real danger. Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), a character we like and identify with, perhaps more than any of the ghostbusters themselves (she’s “normal”, they’re not), is freaking the hell out at the dog beast whose disembodied hands have erupted from her chair to pin her down, as well she might. So in order to keep our attachment to her intact, we have to freak out. And hence this completely serious and unironic treatment of something very awful and inexplicable invading the most domesticated of all domestic spheres, the kitchen. It’s good for the character, good for the story – even, paradoxically, good for the comedy, since a movie with meat on its bones and actual incidents to build on and riff off of gets to be more funny than one that’s just dissociated quips being spat by madmen. Because Ghostbusters is real enough for this moment to happen, it’s real enough for even the flightiest gags to have weight. And because it can be a little scary, that makes it all the more rewarding and necessary that it can also be a whole lot funny. It’s like yin and yang stuff. Or at least gatekeepers and keymasters.