It’s Time to Put the Horror Back in the Horror-Comedy of Ghostbusters and Gremlins

To put it mildly, conventional wisdom regarding the relationship between horror and comedy in cinema is mixed. Most everyone agrees that the two genres share commonalities. Chief among those is the idea that timing is everything, as a good joke and a good scare need to be deployed in the right manner for maximum effectiveness. Yet just as many pundits as well as filmmakers bristle at the idea of mixing horror’s chocolate and comedy’s peanut butter, for no better reason than they believe that neither genre is fully served when blended; Knock Knock director Eli Roth told me exactly that just last year. It’s for this reason we continually get naysayers who scoff at such a mash-up, or blowhards like Ryan Murphy, who believe they’re pioneers in even conceiving of the notion.

Fact is, the horror-comedy is not only a well-worn subgenre, it’s also a highly successful one. The trouble is that our conversations about great horror-comedies tend to favor one genre over the other, thus diminishing the lasting effectiveness of what made their blend of the two work so well together in the first place. As history would have it, not one but two all-timer horror-comedies were released 40 years ago this month, on the exact same day. On June 8, 1984, Ghostbusters and Gremlins hit theaters, and both films went on to become hugely successful, a victory that wouldn’t have been reached as easily had either film been just a horror movie or just a comedy.

To be fair, the category positioning of each film began well before either movie hit theaters. In the case of Ghostbusters, the combination of stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis, along with producer/director Ivan Reitman, clearly indicated the film’s comedy bonafides, with Aykroyd and Murray still flush with Saturday Night Live fame, while Ramis and Reitman were then most associated with the National Lampoon brand, their movies Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, and Vacation in particular being benchmarks for studio comedy films as a whole. 

Most everyone involved with Gremlins was unknown; anyone who recognized director Joe Dante’s name would’ve thought of his The Howling, a horror-comedy with the emphasis on the former instead of the latter. The biggest draw was producer Steven Spielberg, whose E.T. was such a juggernaut just two years prior (eclipsing Spielberg the producer’s other 1982 offering, the horror classic Poltergeist) that Warner Bros. began assuming Gremlins would act as a follow-up. Thus, a massive marketing machine was put behind Gremlins, with the film’s hero Gizmo positioned as a cuddly, furry mascot who could sell breakfast cereal and lunchboxes. 

However, Gremlins and its treatment of Gizmo is the origin for the film’s eventual horror-comedy blend. Writer Chris Columbus’ original vision for the film was as a hard-R horror satire, wherein Gizmo wouldn’t inadvertently give birth to his Gremlin nemesis, Stripe, but actually transform into him once fed after midnight. While that subversion was nixed by Spielberg, who sought to make the film more all-ages friendly, its roots remain in the finished movie. To wit: Gremlins is a horror fairy tale from top to bottom, complete with a foreboding (if folksy) narrator storyteller in the form of Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton), who buys his teen son Billy (Zach Galligan) the Mogwai, Gizmo, for Christmas. Billy, along with just about everyone in the small, ‘50s-coded town of Kingston Falls, fails to heed the three simple rules for Mogwai maintenance, resulting in every Mogwai (except Gizmo) mutating into Alien-like eggs before hatching into devious, mischievous, and certainly potentially deadly Gremlins. 

Sure, most of the deaths within Gremlins are deliberately downplayed if not exaggerated, with only one major character clearly expiring on-screen while others, like the xenophobic Murray Futterman (Dick MIller), are resurrected via a background news report voice over. Yet there’s no denying that the creepy-looking creatures pose a definite threat, a quality that gives their Looney Tunes-esque antics more dramatic heft then a purely comedic approach would have. By the time Stripe is defeated, his body disintegrating after being exposed to sunlight in a manner akin to Hammer’s Dracula or even the Deadites of The Evil Dead, it’s clear that Spielberg, Dante and company didn’t eradicate all of the script’s horror content, and the film is stronger for it. 

Although Dan Aykroyd’s infamous original script for Ghostbusters wasn’t necessarily more horrific as Gremlins’ was, it was reportedly a whole lot stranger — one need only look at Aykroyd’s other horror-comedy hybrids (especially Neighbors and Nothing But Trouble) for proof of that. After Reitman and Ramis convinced Aykroyd to make the film more manageable by making the titular exterminators more affable, aspiring scientist types, Ghostbusters became the latest in a long tradition of ghost-themed horror comedies, reminiscent of ‘40s supernatural gag machines like Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers and Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost

Despite its clear and intentional debt to such tradition, Ghostbusters’ horror bonafides tend to be downplayed. This could be largely due to Aykroyd’s genuine belief in the paranormal; it’s he who pointedly describes the movie as “a fine science-fiction comedy spectacle” in a promotional reel. Yet it also could be a byproduct of the horror genre’s ghettoization during the early 1980s, as the massive popularity of the slasher film and the hysteria surrounding the “video nasties” in England inspired moral majority groups and critics to give scary movies a bad name. 

Whether Ghostbusters, then or now, is directly referred to as horror or not, it certainly contains a great deal of spectacularly eerie and uncanny horror imagery. A good portion of these visuals were begun by artist Bernie Wrightson, who was hired to illustrate some truly unsettling ghost concepts and key moments from the script that the film’s crew and visual effects artists would work from. Those effects artists (which included Richard Edlund’s Boss Film company, who would go on to do the effects for Fright Night and Poltergeist II) ended up bringing to life such kindertrauma icons as the Library Ghost, the Terror Dogs, and even the green blob known as Onionhead, a more odious and aggressive spook than the cuddly cartoon Slimer he eventually became. 

In the case of both Gremlins and Ghostbusters, the horror tropes and imagery baked into their DNA makes their comedy work that much better, without sacrificing the eeriness or stakes that people like Roth believe deflate the horror. After all, a large part of how comedy functions is as a tension reliever, and the threat that the Gremlins and ghosts provide heightens the tensions in each film to a degree that the eventual release of laughter is much greater. In fact, the stakes in both escalate so high that the sequels which followed saw proceedings become much more cartoonish — to the point where both franchises have been adapted into literal cartoons. 

For any horror franchise that remains popular for decades, the iconography becomes diluted and absorbed into pop culture, thereby making it less horrific. So, both Gremlins and Ghostbusters are generally regarded as family classics these days more than groundbreaking, subversive works of cinematic horror fantasy. It’s all a byproduct of that aging process as well as how of their time these movies were; the most recent entries in each series, the animated Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai and the live-action Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, most closely resemble the output of Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company while trying to stay all-ages at the same time. Though I’d argue they do a decent job of walking that tightrope, It’s indicative of the usual nostalgia cycle where IP is concerned, where the aim is to gain new fans while making sure that no older fan is excluded (which, of course, can be a losing battle). 

Of course, there would be no IP if the original films didn’t work as well as they do. Gremlins and Ghostbusters remain popular to this day, and what helps make their iconography linger is the fact that both films effectively tap into irrational fears that can still read as comedy. Each is filled with bizarre, incongruous things like, say, a monster hidden inside a Christmas tree or a pink, transforming ghost in the stacks of some library’s basement. These are images and ideas we might laugh about once our rational minds take over, yet we still shudder a little at the thought of. The fear-laughter relationship is a real one, and it’s one that works as its own ouroboros. The best horror-comedies, like these two films, understand that implicitly. 

Bill Bria is a writer, actor, songwriter, and comedian. "Sam & Bill Are Huge," his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill's acting credits include an episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and a featured part in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He lives in New York City, which hopefully will be the setting for a major motion picture someday.

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