Welcome to Funny Bones, Nightmare On Film Street’s look at horror comedies. Each month, we’ll examine the skeletal structure of a horror-comedy, how the film connects it’s unique brand of funny and creepy, as well as the metaphorical fleshy details laid over that skeleton which bring the movie to life!
We’re nearing the end of “The Return” month here at Nightmare on Film Street where we’ve examined the phenomenon of the horror remake. Some of the reimaginings we’ve looked at have been of small and forgotten films. Others, have been of larger and very popular movies. For this month’s Funny Bones, I’ve chosen an example of the latter. In fact the original film is so big it’s a cultural institution beloved by multiple generations that’s inspired a sequel as well as a multitude of cartoons, toys, video games, table top games, comic books, and theme park attractions.
I’m of course talking about director Paul Feig’s 2016 remake of the most popular horror comedy of all time, 1984’s Ghostbusters. Want to know how and why this movie got made? What it does well? What it does better than the originals? And what moments I feel should have been left on the cutting room floor? Then read on, dear reader!
Ghosts have been a popular phenomenon for horror comedies as far back as the silent film era with the 1914 and 1922 adaptations of the farcical stage play, The Ghost Breaker. That continued in 2016 with the release of Feig’s Ghostbusters and director Oliver Irving’s Ghost Team. Feig’s Ghostbusters though wasn’t bore out of a desire to capitalize on any societal trends involving the paranormal or to parody things like ghost hunting shows. No, it came about because of two things.
One was the 2014 death of Harold Ramis who co-wrote the ’84 Ghostbusters and its ’89 sequel with Dan Aykroyd, and who played the team’s chief scientist, Dr Egon Spengler, in both films. The second was Colombia Pictures frustration over an inability to get a third Ghostbusters film made that the entire original cast would agree to do. So, in 2014 it was announced that Feig and his co-writer Kate Dippold, who wrote Feig’s 2013 action-comedy The Heat, were working on a script for a Ghostbusters remake.
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“The 2016 Ghostbusters does have some flaws […], but casting and characters are not something it got wrong.”
Like the best remakes Feig’s goal was to use the familiar ideas and tropes of the Ghostbusters’ world to tell a story that moviegoers hadn’t necessarily seen before. So, he and Dippold chose to make their titular cast all female. It allowed them to bring a new angle to the familiar series, since in the first two films none of the female characters were allowed to don one of the Ghostbusters’ signature proton packs and attempt to save the world. Plus, it would allow Feig to spotlight some incredibly funny female comedians and actors. This decision aroused the ire of a multitude of misogynists and some people who were vehemently opposed to the idea of a Ghostbusters remake, especially one that dared to do something different. Unfortunately, those people used the internet to make their voices loud, and drown out any discussion of the film based on it’s own merits.
The 2016 Ghostbusters does have some flaws, and we’ll get to them, but casting and characters are not something it got wrong. For the film’s two leads, physicists and former best friends Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates, Feig chose Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy who had both worked with him on 2011’s Bridesmaids. Wiig and McCarthy’s characters delivered some funny one-liners, some nice physical comedy, and were believable as scientists and former best friends. However, they were not the standout characters of the film. No, the film’s three best characters were eccentric engineer Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon), newcomer Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) (both Saturday Night Live veterans) and himbo receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth).
Those three characters and the film’s two leads all have some great and funny scenes, especially Holtzman and Kevin. So, one thing Feig’s Ghostbusters does better than the original is it makes the most of its hilarious ensemble cast. Whereas in the original movies, much of the comedy is driven by Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman character. Even the 2016 film’s side characters like New York City’s image conscious Mayor Bradley (Andy Garcia) and his aide, Jennifer Lynch (Cecily Strong), have some funny and memorable lines.
The Plot of Feig’s Ghostbusters revolves around a very angry man, Rowan North (Neil Casey), whose machinations and technology (which mirrors the Ghostbusters’ own tech) are riling up and super charging New York City’s ghosts. It’s a nice angle, but the film stops just short of making Rowan genuinely scary with some plot twists I can’t reveal. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of genuinely scary things in the 2016 Ghostbusters. Sure, it has a few unnerving scenes like a spirit that brings a mannequin to life and a ghost that possesses one of the Ghostbusters and uses them to attack the others. Those scenes are mostly played for laughs though. The film lacks a flat out, scary moment like the abduction and possession of Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett in the original film.
“One thing Feig’s Ghostbusters does better than the original is it makes the most of its hilarious ensemble cast.”
I’m of two minds on the movie’s spectral characters. They’ve got some really great and creepy designs, especially the convict subway ghost and the phantasms of the climatic Times Square battle. They’re all very much CGI creations though. The film could have benefitted from some practical effects. They might have added the scary edge the film is lacking.
While we’re on the topic of how things appear, I should note that the 2016 Ghostbusters is a lush and incredibly beautiful film to look at. Part of that stems from the movie’s color palette. The ghosts are given vibrant hues of blue and ethereal green that just pop and add a layer of wonder to a scene. The movie also has a lot of fun with the look of New York and the Ghostbusters technology. The film’s climax revolves around an old hotel and a ghostly reappearance of some of the structures of Time Square’s past. Those scenes have a fun atmosphere and a look and feel like they’ve been lifted out of a spooky theme park attraction. Plus, the Ghostbusters employ all sorts of new and imaginative devices like sidearms, grenades, and a glove for hand-to-hand combat with ghosts.
So, 2016’s Ghostbusters provides a more colorful and imaginative look at New York than the somewhat grounded version of the Big Apple in the original film. It’s not necessarily a better take. It’s just a different one, and that’s what remakes should do; take familiar things in new directions. Remakes also pay homage to original films, but they often do that just by existing. Things get tricky when those homages become part of the story. They can develop a wink-wink nudge-nudge feel. They can also derail a scene especially a comedic one.
That’s what happens with the cameo appearances by the original Ghostbusters cast in this film. Bill Murrary, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Annie Potts all have brief scenes in the movie. Their appearances range from distracting to cringeworthy (especially in Murray and Aykroyd’s case). So, ultimately paying homage to the original film in such a direct way hurts Feig’s Ghostbusters more than it helps it.
“[2016’s Ghostbusters is] not necessarily a better take. It’s just a different one, and that’s what remakes should do; take familiar things in new directions.”
Those moments and a few others are really the biggest flaws of the Ghostbusters remake. The theatrical cut was about 12 minutes longer than the 1984 film, and when the movie first became available for a home audience it didn’t help matters by releasing an extended cut of the film, which was over two hours. That length makes the film’s flaws stand out just as much as all of the things it gets right.
So, unfortunately a cloud of controversy and a bloated run time kept the 2016 Ghostbusters from being seen as profitable enough to merit a sequel. It’s a shame too because the film featured some great performances and characters that could shine even brighter in a tightly written sequel. If you rewatch the movie and find yourselves missing those characters, like I did, you’ll want to checkout the Ghosbusters: Answer the Call graphic novel from IDW publishing by writer Kelly Thompson and artist Corin Howell. It’s a fun and great looking story that pits the ladies from Feig’s reimagining against a ghost that can conjure up illusions of their greatest fears.