The controversy surrounding the film has made it pretty hard to miss the fact that this weekend marks the release of Paul Feig's reboot of GHOSTBUSTERS. With such a huge event ahead of us, the 1984 GHOSTBUSTERS had to be part of this week's theme, and I'm putting that Ivan Reitman-directed supernatural horror/comedy up against another ghost-filled horror/comedy, Peter Jackson's 1996 film THE FRIGHTENERS.
Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) may be a parapsychologist, but he's initially skeptical about the paranormal, he's really in the field just to score with chicks. He's dragged along on investigations by the gleefully enthusiastic Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and science whiz Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), and when the existence of ghosts is proven to him, dollar signs fill his eyes - now he's in it for chicks and riches. It's Venkman's idea to start the ghost busting business. Although Venkman overshadows his associates, they do have excellent chemistry with each other. The trio is later joined by the working class Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), who really doesn't get a chance to do much because the character was reduced to put more focus on Venkman.
The ghost busting services provided by Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) are a total scam. That's not to say that ghosts aren't real; they are, and Frank has been able to see them ever since having a near-death experience. Busting them just isn't usually necessary. So with the help of a few ghost companions, Frank makes money by faking hauntings and busts. He's a very conflicted guy, scraping together anything he can to make ends meet and tormented by the death of his wife in the accident that gave him his ghost-seeing abilities years earlier. When a true supernatural threat invades his town, Frank and his ghosts team with recently widowed potential love interest Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado) to do some real ghost busting.
There are some awesome creatures in this film, including floating, glowing apparitions that take on a monstrous appearance when riled up, living gargoyles, a voraciously hungry slimeball, and of course a kaiju-sized sailor made out of marshmallow. These things were always cool, but now they have a nostalgic retro charm that makes them all the more entertaining to see in action.
Most of the spirits in THE FRIGHTENERS are just glowing blue people who look like they did when they died and can pass through solid objects. The main ones are Frank's pals; '70s-era Cyrus (Chi McBride), '50s dweeb Stuart (Jim Fyfe), and rotting gunslinger The Judge (John Astin). The local cemetery is packed with ghosts and guarded by R. Lee Ermey in total FULL METAL JACKET mode.
You may be tempted to say that dickless wonder Walter Peck of the EPA is the main villain of the film, but it's actually an ancient god called Gozer the Destructor. The Ghostbusters first become aware of Gozer through the haunting of an apartment inhabited by cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), who Venkman instantly falls for. As it turns out, the apartment building was designed as a superconductive antenna for spiritual turbulence to summon Gozer and end the world. There's a lot of ghostbabble about this evil entity, but when Gozer shows up on the screen it's as a superpowered "nimble little minx" played by Slavitza Jovan. Who quickly disappears to make way for Stay Puft. Gozer really doesn't come off as being anything special.
An alarming number of people in Frank's town are dying from a mysterious heart condition which makes it look like their hearts were crushed in their chests... and they have been, squeezed by a figure that looks like the Grim Reaper (and wields a scythe that can kill ghosts). Death is eventually revealed to be the ghost of a 1960s spree killer, Jake Busey as Johnny Barlett. Inspired by Charles Starkweather, Johnny killed with the aid of his teenage girlfriend Patricia Bradley (Dee Wallace), and thirty plus years later Patricia is still on board to help him kill a record number of people. The Grim Reaper aspect is cool, despite being brought to the screen through mid-'90s CGI, and I like the grounded real world serial killer twist.
The banter among the Ghostbusters is highly amusing, and Rick Moranis also has a fun role as a nerdy little guy who has a crush on Dana Barrett and ends up getting possessed alongside her. But when you have Bill Murray in your cast, he tends to take ownership of your film, and that's exactly what he does with GHOSTBUSTERS, strolling through scenes with total irreverence and tossing out laugh lines left and right. Without him, this would have been a completely different movie. There's a reason GHOSTBUSTERS 3 never happened simply because he wouldn't sign on: he is GHOSTBUSTERS.
THE FRIGHTENERS has a strong sense of humor that comes through in the character interactions and some sight gags. Some of the comedic dialogue isn't really to my taste, but it tends to be amusing and charming. My favorite gags involved the Judge character, who leaves the film too soon. Horror icon Jeffrey Combs also shows up to provide some uncomfortable laughs purely by being an awkward creep as socially dysfunctional FBI agent Milton Dammers. This film doesn't have a Bill Murray or the number of laughs GHOSTBUSTERS does, but it wasn't trying to be a comedy to that degree.
With the film's humor safe in the hands of the stars, Ivan Reitman crafted a delightful comedy adventure around them, keeping things moving along at a breezy, pop music-infused pace. He showcases the special effects without going overboard and masterfully balances the tone - we feel the weight of the threat of Gozer, but at the same time things never get too dark or heavy. Reitman delivers a lot of great moments in here, my favorite being the scene where the authorities have set loose the captured spirits on New York City and Mick Smiley's "Magic" kicks in on the soundtrack.
This was the Hollywood bridge between Jackson's horror/comedy roots and the big adventure films he does now. It proved that he could play in the big leagues. It's a terrific looking film, and Jackson did a fine job mixing the comedy and the horror, with a slightly heavier lean on the horror side of things. While it's quite different from BACK TO THE FUTURE, the influence of producer Robert Zemeckis can be felt, especially with Michael J. Fox in the lead. The BTTF spirit was so present on set that Fox repeatedly flubbed his lines by referring to The Judge as "Doc".
Bill Murray strikes again. He almost single-handedly pulled off the win for GHOSTBUSTERS, receiving an assist from that film's unforgettable supernatural creatures. Stay Puft takes the victory lap with Murray on his shoulders. THE FRIGHTENERS is a great movie, but in a battle of ghostly horror/comedies GHOSTBUSTERS is just really hard to beat.
Do you agree, or would you rather call THE FRIGHTENERS than the GHOSTBUSTERS? If not THE FRIGHTENERS, is there a movie you think could beat GHOSTBUSTERS? Leave a comment and share your thoughts on these films. Suggestions for future Face-Offs can be sent to me at CodyHamman@joblo.com and are always welcome.