I’m older as hell now. I’m not the same kid who first saw Ghostbusters loving the hell out of it in the 1990s. I’m wiser – I don’t generally care for Dan Aykroyd’s writing and rest in peace to Harold Ramis, but he eventually fell off as well (but not before giving us Caddyshack and Groundhog Day so he was a very talented individual). Their 1984 Ghostbusters – which they wrote and starred in – lives and breathes in the atmosphere of 1980s Hollywood comedies in that it’s blatantly a movie riding on it being a high concept – rather than the Bill Murray star vehicle it now gets retroactively read as – of a bunch of guys, y’know… busting ghosts. Paranormal exterminators, that’s it. That’s a logline summary of the film to be sold. Plus it came from the 1980s, pound for pound the worst decade in American filmmaking to me. In my mind, Ghostbusters had every possibility of being a lesser film than it is.
Instead, what we got was lightning in a bottle – a movie that is completely aware of the scale of itself (because if you have a movie about guys busting ghosts, you’re gonna need some great effects) but dismissive of that to the point of just feeling like a hangout comedy. Which in itself, shouldn’t be a surprise coming from the men who were involved Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, and Stripes – all shaggy comedies based in just putting characters in a location and interacting that had some kind of aimlessness to them – not just Aykroyd and Ramis, but star Murray and director Ivan Reitman. I can’t think of many movies that are able to take these two blatantly unmixable masters – the big damn sci-fi/horror spectacle and the dudes just being dudes – and even attempts to please them both (the closest I can think of is This Is the End, but man, the high-concept is such a fucking garbagefire that it only works by being a hangout stoner comedy). Ghostbusters accomplishes both elements with flying colors, plus Aykroyd and Ramis somehow discipline their episodic style of writing early in their careers (probably meant to allow improvisation of the Second City and Saturday Night Live alums that show up in their movies – something which is certainly present in Ghostbusters as well) to actually craft a plot that’s nothing dense, god forbid, but one where the conflicts and relationships develop and events have consequences and we can actually see how the movie builds itself up to a climax that is absolutely delicious in its ambition.
That plot being the startup of said Ghostbusters service after three professors in New York are ejected from their university as they regard their studies as useless with no application or ability to bring in sponsors. What were those professors studying? Parapsychology. Yep, I can’t really blame the university there, especially when our introduction to the most casual man in that trio, Peter Venkman (Murray), is of him using a ESP tests to court a girl and viciously torment another a guy. Fucking A, come to think of it, practically everything about Venkman as a person – this scene, the antagonistic attitude he gives to albeit a pretty huge jerk, the annoying relentlessness in which he pursues a client named Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), the fact that he brought 300ccs of Thorazine to a date – is odious by all means, he should be an immediately dislikable person. But hell, Bill Murray in all his casual sarcasm and deadpan attitudes to even the most alarming of situations is such a fun and frankly cool bringdown from the severity of New York’s imminent destruction that we enjoy his presence. Plus if the movie were really intending for us to find Venkman to be such a complete creep, he probably shouldn’t be having such dynamite chemistry with Weaver as romantic foils, even when it involves Barrett showing Venkman the door. It’s essentially the Ferris Bueller effect – the character is a complete shit of a person, but the performance to bring that character to life has too much charisma to even consider hating him. And this meant to be a compliment – we want to love these characters and Ghostbusters lets us.
Murray is obviously the guy who’s taking over the show, but Ghostbusters can’t maintain its hangout feel without at least the illusion of a strong ensemble and the strength of the supporting cast is not at all an illusion. Calling Ramis as Dr. Egon Spengler and Aykroyd as Dr. Ray Stantz as supporting characters is dismissive, since they are just as much involved in the particulars of the plot and they both pull off characteristics that make them pleasant presences – Aykroyd with his boy-ish naivete and enthusiasm behind each step they make in discovering paranormal activity (my favorite bit of acting here by him is his despondence at mortgaging his home by Venkman’s influence, followed one cut later by his excitement to use that money to buy a fire station) and Ramis, who was always limited in his acting (my god, ragging on the recently deceased fucking sucks, I wish this review existed pre-2014), using that wooden lack of expression to stress the completely deadpan focused nature of the character and especially illustrate his divide from humanity even in spite of his undisputed intelligence – but Murray’s feat-on-the-ground attitude is why we hover to that character and know him to be the real star of the show. Weaver is undoubtedly the most normal of the bunch and still brings inner life to Dana that makes her far from boring – ie. making it obvious she is somewhat charmed by Venkman is completely inner commentary, her lines are basically “get out”. Rick Moranis and Annie Potts are lovable caricatures, even in their limited screentime.
Ernie Hudson as later recruit Winston Zeddmore is the odd man out of the main cast and unfortunately it’s not through any fault of his own – as great as it is to have an everyman in the group (it actually adds to the low-key working class platform of the Ghostbusters’ existence – “if there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say” he tells Potts’ character shortly before an exhausted Venkman and Stantz waltz in with cigarettes dangling from their mouths; his interactions are no different from watercooler or lunch break dialogue intermingling personal life with work), the character feels entirely like a fourth wheel to what’s actually going on. This is as a result of the apparent shrinking of the role since he received the role in lieu of the original choice, Eddie Murphy leaving for Beverly Hills Cop. In all truth, the role just feels like it’s thankless and hanging there, something Hudson himself expressed dismay over. The poor guy was shafted here, but he still gamely exists in the film and makes himself known.
Anyway, the cast is not the only thing that lifts the movie to being such a classic standard of 1980s comedy that other 1980s comedies hardly came even close to, although they are singlehandedly the reason the movie is so compulsively rewatchable that I would dare to claim I am not the only person who has fresh as hell memories despite the last time I watched it being 2013. This is a movie about GHOSTS. We need GHOSTS. WE NEED THE SPOOKS, YO.
And y’know, horror maybe. And Ghostbusters especially seems eager to at least promise the atmosphere of a horror film between Laszlo Kovacs’ darkened lighting for moments where the paranormal is up and Elmer Bernstein’s genre-based darkness in his score. The movie takes its concept seriously which is honestly something of a compliment to its audience that we rarely see in this day and age of post-modern sarcastic quips and tones in the face of death (fucking Joss Whedon). I know that’s weird to say just after I complimented Murray for his attitude, but that’s kind of the thing… Murray almost derails that for the movie, while Aykroyd and Ramis and company all cover for him and it’s enough to provide dignity to the threat but not enough to spook me. I don’t think anybody could really walk away from seeing Ghostbusters as very scary and even as a child I didn’t find myself very shaken by it.
But that doesn’t matter to me, what matters is do the ghosts have weight and by word they do. Not only because they are taken seriously, but because the effects used to bring them to life is outstanding. There’s some dodgy puppetwork, but mostly it’s a hell of a fantastic bunch of monstrous designs and movements. I can’t figure out which is my favorite ghost – the translucent and jiggly Slimer (joked as the ghost of John Belushi by the cast and crew, so y’know, look! They rag on the recently deceased too!) or the absolutely hilarious contradiction of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. I mean, I guess I’d lean to Stay-Puft as he is the root of my favorite scene in the whole movie: a monster B-movie homage of giants crushing buildings and threatening everyone (all with a big smile on its face that can’t help feeling genial due to the character’s nature as a marketing mascot) and an explosive climax that the movie totally earns.
Altogether, Ghostbusters is a movie that doesn’t float on charm, it’s the super gorilla glue that holds all of its great yet contradictory elements together to be the entertaining and rewarding watch it is. It’s easy to believe a whole generation has tied themselves irrevocably to this film. The movie is likable and admirable on every front and one of the finer studio comedies in the history of a genre that doesn’t really get much visual love from being made by studios. I’d recommend it if it weren’t obvious everybody who would bother reading this review has already seen it and knows how damn good it is.
And hell yeah. A whole review without once naming the elephant in the fucking room. Y’know the one. That remake. The really shitty one. Ghostbusters II…