Who Ya Gonna Call?

8 Jul

Despite being almost thirty years old, Ghostbusters has weathered well and still has the ability to elicit a wistful smile from a generation old enough to remember the likes of Madness, Reaganomics, legwarmers and the glory years of Liverpool FC. That’s because Ghostbusters, being made in the middle part of the decade that taste forgot, is as Eighties as it is possible to get. You would think that in the cold, cynical world of 2012 the film would be a bit like an old Status Quo album – so many good memories, but is it wise to revisit, in case you realise it is actually a load of rubbish? Okay, for those too culturally snobbish and those too young to have ever experienced the Ghostbusters phenomenon, here’s the spiel: three young(ish) paranormal investigators are sacked from their positions at Columbia University and decide, once armed with a fireman’s pole and an old ambulance, to set up a ghost-busting service. Meanwhile, Dana Barratt (Sigourney Weaver) is having trouble with her fridge, possessed, it seems, by the spirit of – bear with me – Zuul, an ancient Babylonian and follower of Gozer, the Destructor. Ooh Er.

The concept was inspired by Dan Aykroyd’s own fascination with the paranormal and it was conceived as a vehicle for himself and friend John Belushi, fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus. The original story, as written by Aykroyd, was very different from what was eventually filmed; in the initial version, a group of ‘Ghost-smashers’ travelled through time, space and other dimensions combating huge ghosts (of which the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was one of many). Also, the Ghostbusters wore SWAT-like outfits and used wands instead of proton packs to fight the ghosts: Ghostbusters storyboards show them wearing riot squad-type helmets with movable transparent visors. Aykroyd pitched his story to director/producer Ivan Reitman, who liked the basic idea but immediately saw the budgetary impossibilities demanded by Aykroyd’s first draft. At Reitman’s suggestion, the story was given a major overhaul, eventually evolving into the final screenplay which Aykroyd and Harold Ramis hammered out over the course of three weeks in a Martha’s Vineyard bomb shelter in May–June 1982. Aykroyd and Ramis initially wrote the script with roles written especially for Belushi, Eddie Murphy, and John Candy; but Belushi died during the writing of the screenplay, and neither Murphy nor Candy would commit to the movie, so Aykroyd and Ramis made some changes and polished a basic, science-fiction-oriented screenplay for their final draft. In addition to Aykroyd’s high-concept basic premise, and Ramis’ skill at grounding the fantastic elements with a realistic setting, the film benefits from Bill Murray’s semi-improvisational performance as Peter Venkman, the character initially intended for Belushi.

Although the film boasts atmospheric cinematography and detailed art deco-influenced production design, Ghostbusters is really carried by the performers. Wisely, scriptwriter (and star) Harold Ramis resists imbuing the three initial leads with identical characteristics, which is so often the miscalculation of knuckle-headed screwball comedy makers. Bill Murray as Peter Venkman plays the only character Bill Murray has ever mastered – bitter, cynical and ironic (but all in a likeable way); Dan Ackroyd is boyish and enthusiastic (but not yet tubby) as Ray Stantz; and scriptwriter Ramis is furrow-browed and serious as Egon Spengler. Grounding the film in some kind of reality are Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddmore and Alien star Weaver, who is sensibly understated as Dana. This provides an all the more dramatic contrast when she is possessed by Zuul and goes wildly over-the-top and vampish. But while the film delivers a few genuine thrills, they are not much to do with ghosts. Somewhere down the line it must have been decided to make the apparitions more like traditional monsters than spooky spirits and it robs the film of the horror backbone from which it might have benefited. The gluttonous Slimer, for example (based, so one DVD commentary tells us, on the late John Belushi), may be vaguely amusing, but the blobby sprite merely looks like a character from Wizbit and never feels like a ‘real’ ghost (so to speak).

The sometimes cruel clarity of modern DVD/Blu-ray/Widescreen HDTV technology also means that the special effects, so impressive in 1985, now appear occasionally crude. The ghostly apparitions are fine but there are some mildly offensive matte lines surrounding the three-dimensional creatures. However, buying a special edition DVD of Ghostbusters is sort of like buying a deluxe version of a Rubix Cube or a collector’s edition of Guess Who? – you can enjoy yourself in the comfort of feeling that it wasn’t that bad a decade! The success of Ghostbusters is best illustrated by its legacy. The film was followed by a sequel, Ghostbusters II in 1989, and two animated television series, The Real Ghostbusters (later renamed Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters) and Extreme Ghostbusters. As of February 2012, a third feature film remains in development hell. Perhaps more significantly, the cultural influence of Ghostbusters can be seen in everything from The X-Files to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Supernatural. Oh yes, and there’s that theme song – altogether now: “Who Ya Gonna Call?”

12 Responses to “Who Ya Gonna Call?”

  1. Patrick July 8, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    Ohhh thank you for this! 🙂 It has been years since I watched it, but I loved it growing up! Absolutely nothing to do with what I do as a paranormal investigator, but I will never forget Sigourney’s fridge! Or the eggs that fried by themselves. Or the Gargoyles on top of that freakishly tall building! 🙂

    • anilbalan July 8, 2012 at 8:44 am #

      Ah, so many great memories 🙂

  2. Genki Jason July 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    I re-watched this a few months ago and I turned into boy grining inanely at the action and comedy all over again. I had no idea that it could have been so different!

  3. ksgarvin July 8, 2012 at 7:17 pm #

    We actually saw this in the theater when it came out. I can remember the uproar when the Stay-Puft man made his appearance. The audience laughed so loud that we couldn’t hear the next few lines of dialogue.

  4. Nancy July 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    I loved Ghostbusters. Takes me right back. By the way, I’m really enjoying reading your movie critiques. Love the way you break things down and analyze. It’s a good read.

  5. lowestofthekeys July 9, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    As a parallel, I can imagine this film getting butchered to death by Hollywood if it had been released post 2000. It would have become a classic case of sacrificing good script for an over-abundance of CGI (we can all thank George Lucas for that).

    I still feel nostalgic when I watch it. The chemistry between all the actors (I think Ernie Hudson is a very underrated actor and was heavily under-utilized in Ghostbusters, but I think he was a better choice than Eddie Murphy) is superb, and it managed to combine movie genres in a generally entertaining way. It just makes me feel wistful for a time when movies were actually good quality.

  6. katie July 11, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    One of my earliest memories is receiving Ghostbusters toys for Christmas. I had to have been 3 or 4, so 1988ish?

  7. atothewr July 14, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    One of my favorites. Great post.

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