Ghostbusters

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Ghostbusters was a preternatural hit back in 1984. It raked in $242 million dollars in gross domestic box office, established Bill Murray as a bonafide movie star, and was—for people of a certain age (cough, cough)—a legitimate cultural touchstone.

Released more than 30 years later, the remake—or reboot, if you prefer, considering there are likely to be plenty of sequels to come—does not rise to that level, but it is still fast-paced, consistently funny, high-quality summer entertainment.

The year is 2016, and New York City is grappling with an unusual spike in supernatural activity. Estranged academic collaborators Abby and Erin (Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig) find themselves reunited by circumstance to investigate a local haunting, and they come face-to-face (and then some) with a malevolent apparition that more or less proves their metaphysical theories. When the video of their apparently-phantasmagoric encounter hits YouTube, both are fired from their academic posts—Erin from Ivy League Columbia University and Abby from a low-rent NYC technical college—leaving them little choice but to go into business for themselves as private paranormal investigators. Abby brings her assistant Jillian (Kate McKinnon) along with them, and eventually they add a fourth ghostbuster, Patty (Leslie Jones), and an oblivious-but-hunky secretary, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), to their team. There is a modicum of political intrigue along the way and a forgettable human villain to be reckoned with, but mostly these gals spend the rest of this movie battling rampaging spirits from the great beyond.

Lest we forget the embarrassing, (let’s-just-call-it-what-it-is) misogynistic uproar over casting this film with four women instead of four men, Ghostbusters has been mired in hate-spewing social media controversy for the better part of the last year. A certain segment of the movie-going public found itself positively aghast that Ghostbusters 2016 would continue to prosecute the proverbial “war on men” that began when The Force Awakens planted a female character at the center of a galaxy far, far away. Angry trolls everywhere lashed out from their parents’ basements and filled online comment sections and social media timelines with vitriolic screeds of hate and disappointment, demanding that the filmmakers give them an XY reboot instead of the soft, fuzzy XX version that they were sure they’d get.

The irony of that, of course, is that in today’s Hollywood there is no comedian–male or female–with more box office clout than Melissa McCarthy, so why wouldn’t she headline a high-profile summer comedy? Add in Kristen Wiig—who single-handedly kept Saturday Night Live afloat for several seasons in the 2000’s and also headlined a little $170 million hit comedy called Bridesmaids—and you’ve got some serious juice behind this movie.

What’s interesting here, though, is that while McCarthy and Wiig anchor Ghostbusters admirably and do most of the heavy lifting in terms of plot development and emotional stakes, it is Kate McKinnon who delivers not only the lion’s share of the laughs but also the one true breakout performance of the film.

In a movie inspired by (kind of sort of) the Book of Revelation, McKinnon is a revelation unto herself.

Anyone who has watched Kate McKinnon on SNL over the past few years knows the raw comedic talent that she brings to the party. From her much-heralded take on Hillary Clinton to her smarmy imitation of Justin Bieber to her white trash alien abductee that forced character-breaking fits of laughter out of her fellow performers (hands-down the best sketch of SNL’s recent season), McKinnon has got the goods in spades.

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In Ghostbusters, McKinnon gets to spread her wings and experiment with a weird, probing performance that sets her apart from her costars in a way that really elevates the comedy. While McCarthy and Wiig get their laughs through more restrained performances and while Jones stays pretty much in the same box she has constructed for herself since coming onto the national scene, McKinnon gets to freestyle here, and the results are sublime. Like the background musician who suddenly overshadows the lead singer and brings the house down with an improvised guitar solo, McKinnon goes big and goes weird, making such interesting and unconventional choices with her character that you just can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next. More often than not, she gets it right and delivers.

Apart from McKinnon, one of the most notable things about this new Ghostbusters is its complete self-awareness and affection for its predecessor.

A parade of cameos throughout the film serve less as moments of comic inspiration than they do as endorsements from or tributes to the original Ghostbusters’ cast. Despite a flashy appearance by Bill Murray, the most affecting of these is a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it homage to Harold Ramis—co-writer and co-star of the original—who passed away in 2014 but appears here as a bronze bust outside Erin’s office at Columbia. Casual fans will recognize and appreciate the appearances by Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, and others; but only the true fan will choke up over that brief glimpse of Ramis’ unmistakable figure standing guard in the hallway. His is the one ghost we hope our squadron of wonderful women warriors don’t blast back into the other dimension.

Laughing at the Shadows

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“There’s tension in any—any—flatting situation.”

Wise words, indeed, but then wisdom does come with age. And at 862 years old, Jermaine Clement’s vampire Vladislav—from the pitch-perfect What We do in the Shadows—has had centuries to hone his personal flatting philosophy.

The particular flatting situation at the heart of What We Do in the Shadows (now streaming at a variety of venues) involves four undead roommates who share a gothic old house in Wellington, New Zealand. Seemingly mismatched—there’s the swashbuckling Vladislav, the prissy Viago, the chore-slacker Deacon, and the crotchety 8000-year-old Petyr—these vampires bicker and snarl at each other from time-to-time, but have clearly fallen into an easy, pleasant co-existence. They’re friends. But their comfortable arrangement faces significant challenges when Petyr turns their servant’s vacuous ex-boyfriend Nick into a vampire. Nick promptly moves in with the boys and upsets the whole dynamic. Lucky for us, there is a film crew from the New Zealand Documentary Board on-hand to capture the evolving conflict.

Think MTV’s Real World but set in Victorian England but actually modern-day Wellington—so maybe a sort of pseudo-Victorian Wellington?—and you will have a good sense of what to expect. Together, the vampire pals discover the internet and the wonders of video chatting. They negotiate the exclusive Wellington club scene. And when they want to keep a low profile, they eschew flying across the countryside and instead take public transportation out for their night on the town.

Clement and Taika Waititi (as Viago) both pull triple-duty here: co-starring, co-writing, and co-directing. Although American audiences will know Clement best from two hilarious seasons of Flight of the Conchords (well, one hilarious season, and then a follow-up), their previous cinematic collaboration was 2007’s Eagle vs. Shark. In that film, Clement starred and Waititi wrote and directed. Where Eagle vs. Shark was charming but uneven, their work on What We Do in the Shadows represents much more confident, effective movie making.

Their script is sharp. Their cast—from the central characters to the walk-on parts, especially Rhys Darby as the alpha male among a pack of personally-conflicted rival werewolves—is spot-on. And what it lacks in story the movie more than makes up for with intelligent, character-driven humor, terrific visual gags and asides, and an obvious affection for the classics of the horror genre.

What We Do in the Shadows succeeds due in large part to that palpable love and appreciation of horror classics. Its humor may be modern, but its roots and inspiration burrow through more than a century of classic horror cinema. More Young Frankenstein than Scary Movie 5, Shadows’ affectionate take on the horror comedy offers equal parts satire and homage, with dashes of genuine melancholy and dread thrown in for good measure.

That tone represents a welcome departure from the current trend in horror comedy.

Comedy and horror have been kissing cousins since the early days of cinema. Moments of humor have been the go-to safety valve that horror filmmakers use consistently to relieve audience tension and to provide a break from the suspense and terror. But then a subgenre emerged and fused the horror film with the movie comedy.

The dark humor of The Bride of Frankenstein, for instance, eventually evolved into movies like An American Werewolf in London, The Evil Dead 2, and Re-Animator: horror movies first but with a wildly comic spin at the same time. Early full-throated horror satires like The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (and the Mummy, and the Killer Boris Karloff, and on and on) eventually became Young Frankenstein and Ghostbusters.

But then something changed.

Over the past 20 years or so, any genuine appreciation of the genre has essentially disappeared from the horror-comedy. With the rare exception (say something like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland), the modern horror-comedy either wants you to know how very hip and smart it is…or doesn’t really care how stupid it becomes.

Scream introduced the concept of “meta” into the horror genre, primarily by telling its audience over and over and over again just how “meta” it was. It is unclear if more damage was done in Scream by knife-wielding maniacs or by the main characters (and filmmakers, included) breaking their own arms by incessantly patting themselves on the back. That is not to say that Scream is a bad movie or that “meta” horror is all bad. Funny Games, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and Cabin in the Woods are all interesting, fun (well, Funny Games isn’t fun at all), creative takes on “meta” horror.

At the other end of the spectrum is the brain-dead horror-comedy. The Wayans brothers are not entirely to blame here, but they have certainly done more to dumb-down the genre than any family in the history of cinema. Their Scary Movie(s) and Haunted House(s) take the lowest common denominator and somehow still manage to divide it by two. The audience isn’t so much expected to actually find these movies funny but simply to recognize that they are MEANT to be funny, and that is apparently good enough for them.

In that context, What We Do in the Shadows is more than a breath of fresh air.

It’s an instant classic.