Cinematic Soulmates: Ghostbusters and The Frighteners

There is a long tradition of films that mix horror and comedy, going at least all the way back to the Harold Lloyd film Haunted Spooks (1920).  Sometimes it works (An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead), but quite often it doesn’t (Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Evil Toons).  The reason so many films that attempt to mix the two genres fail is due to the fact that there is a very delicate balance that must be struck between them, otherwise one will simply overshadow the other.  If the film is too focused on the comedy, it won’t be scary.  If it’s too scary, the audience may not find themselves laughing as much as they would have otherwise.  Very few films manage to successfully strike this balance, but the ones that do often pay great dividends for both horror fanatics and fans of comedy.  The films I’ll be looking at today manage to hit that sweet spot that exists right in the middle of both genres, and are funny and frightening in equal measure.

In director Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984), a trio of wacky parapsychology professors (played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis) are fired from their cushy university jobs, so they decide to put their rather specific skills to use as paranormal exterminators.  Calling themselves the Ghostbusters, they quickly set about eliminating the numerous spooks, specters, and ghosts that plague New York City.  They are eventually contacted by the lovely Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), who has been the victim of a particular nasty haunting.  While investigating her case, the intrepid trio learn that the ghosts infesting the Big Apple are being controlled by Gozer the Gozarian (Slavitza Jovan), an ancient Sumerian god who is hell bent on taking over the world.  With the help of their beleaguered secretary Janine (Annie Potts) and new recruit Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson), the Ghostbusters grab their gear and leap into action against Gozer and its army of evil spirits.  Unfortunately, the boys in gray soon realize this is easier said than done, and they’re going to have to pull out all the stops if they want to take this prehistoric bitch down.

Director Peter Jackson, meanwhile, puts a different spin on similar material in The Frighteners (1996).  Confining the action to a small, unnamed town somewhere in America (but really New Zealand), Jackson introduces viewers to Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox), a small time conman who possesses actual psychic abilities.  Bannister conspires with a trio of madcap ghosts (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) to swindle unsuspecting people out of their hard earned dollars.  The group’s fortunes take a turn for the worse when the learn that an evil spirit is killing people from beyond the grave, framing Frank in the process.  Now Bannister must race against time to save his comely client (Trini Alvorado) from the clutches of this ghostly grim reaper, all while avoiding the attention of obviously insane FBI Agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs, in a delightfully over-the-top performance).

While the similarities between the two films exist mainly at the surface level (the melding of genres and the concept of “ghostbusting” are the main through lines between both movies), there are nevertheless a handful of connections that run a bit deeper.  For instance, Michael J. Fox’s Frank Bannister takes more than a few cues from Bill Murray’s Dr. Peter Venkman.  Both characters are cut from the same cloth, employing the same sort of made-up technical jargon and unknowable ghost-hunting equipment to bamboozle their clients into believing they actually know what they’re talking about (it’s the same sort of pseudo-scientific bullshit  that can be seen weekly on the SyFy channel series Ghost Hunters).  They both approach the job with the same sense of world-weary cynicism and sort of worn out sarcasm that is meant to keep the rest of the world at bay, otherwise they actually start to care about someone or something other than themselves.  Ultimately, though, both Venkman and Bannister are just overgrown boys playing at being men, and their bravado is only there to mask their insecurities.  Eventually, only one of them grows up, as Bannister is forced to face his fears head on, while Venkman is able to remain safely within the walls he has spent a lifetime building up around himself.  One reason for this might have to do with the fact that Bannister’s battle is much more personal than that of Venkman or any of the Ghostbusters, as the spirit Frank comes into conflict with is linked to his wife’s death.  This more than anything motivates Bannister, and it is for this reason that he has chosen to segregate himself from the living in favor of keeping company with the dead.

Furthermore, while both films feature the rather nebulous concept of ghostbusting, they approach the subject in very different ways.  The Frighteners presents the activity on a small scale, restricting the danger to a single small town.  Bannister’s mission is an important one, and there are many lives at stake should he fail, but he doesn’t face the same world-shattering consequences as those the Ghostbusters find themselves up against.  Whereas Bannister is battling a decidedly evil spirit, it is nevertheless a shortsighted and narrow-minded one, content to murder just enough people to secure its record as the most prolific serial killer of all time.  Gozer, on the other hand, will be content with nothing less than total world domination, and the very fabric of reality itself is threatened by the ancient god’s craving for destruction.  This is not to diminish Bannister’s quest to put a stop to the mad phantom’s rampage, because ultimately he does save quite a few lives (nearly at the expense of his own), but it does sort of pale in comparison to the Ghostbusters’ mission to save the entire world from destruction.

Another way in which the films are similar but ultimately different is in the particular tone that is emphasized in each film.  In Ghostbusters, more weight is given to the comedy, which is no doubt a result of the comedic sensibilities of writers Aykroyd and Ramis.  Both men honed their abilities as comedians on Saturday Night Live and SCTV respectively, and they put their substantial talents to good use on the script of Ghostbusters.  However, there are a handful of scenes that do provide some genuine scares scattered throughout the film, most notably when Dana is attacked by the demon dog Zuul in her apartment.  Peter Jackson, on the other hand, made a name for himself in the world of low-budget horror films like Bad Taste (1987) and Dead Alive (1992), both of which are quite funny, but feature a much greater emphasis on gore and shocking horror.  This tendency to focus on horror is reflected in The Frighteners, which is toned down considerably from those earlier efforts, but still features a number of spine-tingling sequences that leave the viewer feeling slightly on edge throughout the film’s running time.  For instance, the opening sequence, featuring the character of Patricia Ann Bradley (played by legendary scream queen Dee Wallace Stone) being terrorized by an unseen spirit is quite harrowing, as is a sequence late in the film when Bannister is exploring an old hospital while experience visions of a past massacre that occurred there.  In spite of this, both films manage to strike the perfect balance between the two genres, providing an equal number of laughs and scares throughout.

Despite their differences, both films nevertheless manage to complement one another quite nicely, as they both cover a lot of the same ground.  Jackson even acknowledges this at one point, tossing in a “Nice shootin’, Tex!” as a nod to one of the most famous lines from Reitman’s comedic masterpiece.  It’s obvious that Jackson holds at least a little affection for Ghostbusters, and The Frighteners is his way of paying homage to Ivan Reitman.  Therefore, if you are looking to spend an evening alternating between laughing hysterically and recoiling in fear, you should give these two Cinematic Soulmates a shot.  You will not be disappointed.

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