“We came ... we saw ... we kicked its ass!”
And much the same thing can be said about Ivan Reitman's comedy spook-fest, Ghostbusters, and the effect it had on the box office of 1984. With Ray Parker Jnr.'s funky title song shivering up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, merchandise from action figures to lunch-boxes lining the shelves, and that fabulous logo emblazoned seemingly everywhere you looked, it was a dead cert that this weird hybrid of chuckles 'n' chills, big budget visual FX and low-brow character slapstick would completely embed itself into popular culture. Spawning an entertaining, but somehow hollow sequel, an animated series, that hit song and enough iconic references across the whole spectrum, Ghostbusters has attained that elusive “timeless” quality that so many movies strive for and yet fail to find. With a lot of years having flowed under the bridge since we last saw the quirky oddball team of paranormal exterminators saving a demon-infested Manhattan, suddenly we appear to be getting deluged with them all over again. The original movie makes the more-than welcome journey to Blu-ray alongside a fabulous new video-game that plays almost like a sequel to the themes and the concepts dreamt-up in the first two instalments. And, as if that wasn't enough, there is the news that the classic team from both in front of and behind the cameras are reuniting to make a third movie.
Well, it's just funkier than a barrel-full of ectoplasm, isn't it?
So, who you gonna call?
Ousted from their cushy little number in the university - Bill Murray's sarcastic slob, Dr. Peter Venkman, torturing mop-topped students with electric-shock experiments whilst making sly psychological moves on clueless blondes not exactly supplying Lugosi-alike Dean Yager (Jordan Charney) the results he wants - three paranormal enthusiasts find themselves on the streets. But with Venkman's ceaseless verve, Dan Ackroyd's bubble-headed Dr. Ray Stantz and Harold Ramis' cerebral void, Dr. Egon Spengler, manage to hit the big time when they build their own company of ghost-hunters, investigators and pre-Hellboy demon-bashers. With their patented entrapment device - a thermo-nuclear-fuelled proton-pack conveniently mounted on their backs - and a customised containment facility housed in an adapted fire-house, the trio of oddballs soon find they have their hands full as the city becomes engulfed with paranormal activity. As their fame spreads and their workload rises, it seems clear that something major is happening - something of Biblical proportions that will threaten all of mankind.
“Oh, that's the bedroom. But nothing ever happened in there.”
“What a crime”
When Sigourney Weaver's musician Dana Barrett discovers a portal to another dimension disturbingly located inside her fridge, she enlists the Ghostbusters to check it out. It seems, as Stantz mildly puts it, that she “is living in the corner penthouse of Spook Central”. With the arrival of ancient Sumerian Gods, their hordes of undead followers and a persistent city bureaucrat (Die Hard's excellent William Atherton as the pencil-necked pest, Walter Peck) trying to shut them down, these boys are going to have to put in some overtime if they are going to save their beloved city.
“Okay, who brought the dog?”
The whole thing was Dan Ackroyd's idea, but his outlandish pitch needed some tweaking. Initially earmarked as a vehicle for both Ackroyd and John Belushi (together, they formed a quantifiable golden ticket after their cult smash with John Landis' The Blues Brothers), the project evolved after the untimely death of Belushi, into more of an ensemble affair, the locale changed from Wacky Dan's original space/time hopping theme to the sprawling Gothic metropolis of New York City and directorial duties fell to Ivan Reitman. Gathering a select group of Saturday Night Live stand-up heroes, Reitman, who had corralled Murray and Ramis previously in Stripes, was canny enough to know full well that if he wanted the film to be a success then he would have to trust his cast to produce most of the magic on their own. And having Ackroyd and Ramis conspire together to provide a screenplay that would serve primarily as a basic framework meant that it would be easy to improvise and experiment. And, in such a way, the creative team caught lightning in a bottle. Without such a devil-may-care attitude to a big summer blockbuster, we would never have bought Sigourney Weaver and a typically excellent Rick Moranis, as her boring accountant neighbour Louis, getting turned into bloated bull/dog combos, a “disgusting blob” chowing-down on hot dogs and “ectoplasming” people, a customised ambulance/hearse as an emergency spook-mobile, and a New York church getting stepped-on by a leviathan made out of marshmallow.
“Ya know, it's just occurred to me ... we really haven't had a completely successful test of this equipment.”
“I blame myself.”
“So do I.”
“Well, no sense worrying about it now.”
“Why worry? Each of us is wearing an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.”
Plot aside, Ghostbusters is made up of wonderful mini-moments of daftness. Such improvisation as the little tickling of the ivories in Dana's apartment. “They hate this,” Venkman assures the perturbed cellist as he moves around the place pumping a bogus squirting contraption at nothing in particular. “That's right, boys, it's Dr. Venkman!” he then warns the heedless ether around them. Murray excels at such controlled lunacy, his face draining the apparent absurdity out of the most ridiculous of situations with deadpan solemnity. Little dances, acerbic put-downs and unexpected ditties are his hallmarks but, more often than not, it is simply his face that gets the laughs. “Anyone see a ghost?” he calls to a busy hotel lobby, but check out his mixture of embarrassment and lechery as he scans a woman gliding past them. Or his withering threat to the head of the library when his interrogative methods are questioned - “Back off, man, I'm a scientist.” Murray is one of those immediately implacable personalities. Like John Wayne, Dean Martin, Cary Grant, Jack Nicholson and a few select others from the movies, he doesn't actually need to do anything for us to get a complete handle on his character, yet what he does do is so inimitable and personable that we don't care if every character he seems to play is just him all over again. I adore the moment when he creeps up on Egon in the library - Egon listening through a veritable stethoscope for spectral activity - moaning his name in a ghostly voice and banging a book on the desk beside his head.
“I want you inside me!”
“Oh, it sounds like you've got at least two or three people in there already.”
Weaver, famous for Alien, had then swerved genre for the more dramatic sensibilities of the romantic thriller, Peter Weir's The Year Of Living Dangerously, opposite a smouldering Mel Gibson, but her comedy chops had not yet been proven. Statuesque and slightly intimidating, she is, nevertheless, sexually liberated perhaps more so in Ghostbusters than in the arms of the mighty Mel. Having been possessed by the demonic Gozer's influence and turned into Zuul, the Gatekeeper, she flashes her legs, pants like a dog and becomes the sultry spearhead for her Master's entrance into our world. What the script and Reitman very beguilingly do with this element is skirt around the fact that the ritual to summon Gozer actually involves the Gatekeeper and Moranis' possessed Keymaster, erm, getting it on. In fact, the film is full of sexual innuendo and often alludes to the more primal instincts. Plus, you had some swearing and a few crude jokes at Walter Peck's expense. All this combined with the dark fantasy of the story made Ghostbusters one of the ripest and most envelope-pushing of family films. Trust me, I know, having just shown this to my movie-savvy son for the first time, he's picked up on a few references and naturally enquired about a couple of others - such as the librarian's “menstruating”, Ray's flies getting undone by the dream-ghost and the point of getting Mr. Staypuft “laid” in order to save the city. You don't get this sort of stuff in Night At The Museum, do you?
“It's a sign!”
“Yeah, it's a sign, all right ... we're going out of business!”
As the GB receptionist, Janine Melnitz, Annie Potts was a delectably curvy little Bronx-kitten, although it was easy to see why her scripted romance with Stengler was cut short. With Murray busy pushing his lumpy nose into Weaver's life, there was little room left for poor Egon's emotional side to be coaxed out of his buffoonish cocoon. Besides, this was a film about ghosts and demons and the mushy stuff didn't really belong. Ramis' Egon is a rare treasure, though. Whereas Ray is simply a likeable goon, Ernie Hudson's Zedmore the audience conduit (“I only work with these guys!”) and Venkman is, well, Bill Murray (or the Murricane, as he is known), Ramis' Tefal-headed curio is a man of science gone horribly wrong. He is like the result of his own botched experiment, or someone who has had one too many lightning bolts to the skull. Although his brain is filled with knowledge, his eyes inform you that none of it is actually workable. If he stumbles onto the anything that is going to help, you can bet that it has been by sheer accident. Living inside his spirit guide-books and endlessly fiddling with gadgets, he is the foil to the main three stalwarts. Ray has to actually do or say something stupid to earn his idiot's badge of honour, but Egon just has to look at the camera with that combination of intellectual desolation and unemotional confusion.
“Er, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you want.”
With a screenplay that seems to rocket along and yet still finds opportunities to meander, the film establishes the main trio and the supporting cast within no time at all. But whereas a follow-on would usually be the episode that would introduce fresh meat into the mix, Reitman's go-for-broke attitude makes room for Ernie Hudson's rookie, Winston Zedmore, to come on-board, and although he is hardly a major player in the grand theme of things, he still gets some choice lines of dialogue and becomes the crucial attitude of the normal guy thrust into the weird dynamics of this gang of ghoul-chasers. Which, once again, expounds the ensemble character of the film. Bill Murray rules the roost, but everyone gets more than one moment to shine.
John Landis, another member of the SNL crowd, had already found success with Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Schlock!, but he made his most emphatic impact with 1981's awesome An American Werewolf In London, for which he turned to genius composer Elmer Bernstein to provide its evocative and eerie score. Tipping the wink to Reitman's own horror/comedy, it seemed only right that Bernstein should perform similar duties and even if the film always brings to mind Ray Parker Jnr.'s upbeat title song, the score he produced is widely regarded as another classic. Jazzy, character-led motifs suffuse the film, a lush romantic melody embraces the mismatched union of Venkman and Dana, dark and eerie harmonies dance about the supernatural moments and the whole thing swirls with infectious wit and breezy panache.
“Egon, Ray's gone bye-bye. What have you got left?”
“Sorry, Venkman, I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought ...”
Whilst much of the effects work looks badly dated and fake - some of those see-through creature shots looked pretty woeful even back in 1984, especially after we'd already had the likes of Poltergeist - I actually love those vast 360-degree painted cityscape backdrops. There is something unique about the New York skyline - brownstones, high-rises, the canopy of Central Park all arranged together to create one of the most iconic of vistas - and this translates well to that semi-Gothic ambience that Reitman wants. The architectural delights guarantee some captivating compositions and those lusciously demonic cloud patterns unfurling above them all look simply wonderful. Arch-beast Gozer's billowing blue and purple thunder-heads are like the supernatural equivalent of Close Encounters' Mothership arriving. The resulting light-show when the Ghostbusters do battle with Gozer is like Star Wars crash-landing on top of the film-set. Reitman is also incredibly adept at placing us within the movie. He likes those prosaic location shots, of course, but when he has us probing the aisles of the library, or charging around the corridors of the hotel, there is an appreciable sense of unease and visual dexterity. You've got to love that shot of our boys climbing the endless staircase to Dana's floor - it's like one of those paradoxical paintings disappearing into infinity. His staging of the big finale is also wonderfully sublime. We have the team being blasted and pummelled about on the rooftop-set and then we have those fantastic Kong-inspired shots of Mr. Staypuft striding down the street. Reitman even fits in a great image of a giant marshmallow head fleetingly glimpsed as the jolly behemoth passes behind buildings as a sort of semi-surreal impression before the big reveal. Airborne shots that track away from Dana's high-rise, or those taken from the ground and looking up into the spectral chaos fizzing-about in the heavens give Ghostbusters a uniquely epic quality. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs creates a vibrant milieu of the otherworldly and the esoteric, yet he is also brilliantly able to paint a quintessentially appealing New York vogue. When the supernatural isn't causing havoc, this style fits perfectly within the gritty, but scenic aesthetic that many 70's movies set in Manhattan used to employ, which is why Ghostbusters comes across as so authentic, despite that massive stage-set finale filmed at the Burbank Studios in LA.
“All right, this chick is toast!”
David Bowie-alike supermodel, Slavitza Jovan, with that structurally perfect high flat-top, made for a scintillating climactic demon. Incredibly glamorous and bedecked in silvery, web-like, ecto-mesh, she cuts a fine, fine figure of phantasmagoric fantasy. Yet that make-up is so weirdly off-putting once we see her up-close, and her gravel-pit, Mercedes (The Exorcist) McCambridge-inspired hag-witch voice so soul-scratching that you find it distinctly uncomfortable fancying her, don't you? Still fit, though, you have to admit. And this nimble little minx then transforms into the jolly white giant, Mr. Staypuft, the film typically making the gorgeous both grotesque and amusing, continually undermining the genre's conventions. Even Annie Potts is forced to scuttle about in those massive Mr. Magoo-style goggles, Ackroyd, Ramis and Reitman never allowing anyone any pride or glamour for long.
“Choose the form of the Destructor!”
I remember, just after the time of the film's theatrical release, a late-night talk show discussing the impact of its theological ramifications on the supposedly gullible minds of cinema-goers. A priest prattled on about the film being dangerous and, besides the obvious knee-jerk reactions that the media has to something successful in that they always like to stir things up a bit and provoke negative reactions from different circles of the community, I can also believe that the Church probably did resent the casual and, indeed, flippant representation that the film gave them in the form of the rather smug, streetwise Archbishop Mike (played by Tom McDermott) who makes the most preposterous bowing-out of the situation that you could imagine, literally handing-over command to the Ghostbusters with an airy, know-it-all smile playing about his hallowed face. When Biblical incidents pile up, you would expect the Catholic Church to be proactive, at least in a “told you so” sort of way, but this guy just washes his hands of the whole matter with the stock excuse of “we can't get involved in this”. Ackroyd and Reitman, once again, are taking pot-shots at the established order, having already laughed-off city officialdom and academia.
“That's a big Twinkie!”
A nicely eerie and ominous scene takes place in Ecto-1 as Ray and Winston (huh, Ray Winston's in Ghostbusters?) are cruising across the bridge and Winston is pondering on the reason why they've been so busy of late. Somewhat reminiscent of Dan Ackroyd sitting in another car in another film (1982's Twilight Zone The Movie, when he decided to show us something really scary) in that we know things are about to get heavy and something nasty is going down, but there is that irresistible tingle of excitement going along for the ride, as well. The classic police cell sequence does much the same thing, despite Murray's attempts to derail it with impromptu additions and a little appearance by Die Hard's Christmas copper, Reginald Veljohnson. But the film is hardly a scary experience once we meet the big bad villains, although that howling librarian is a bravura delight and I've always loved the look of actual ferocity on Mr. Staypuft's face once his manic glee has been turned to fiery anger.
“Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.”
“Right. That's bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.”
Beyond its comical swerves and skilfully embroidered anarchy, I still think that Ghostbusters is a strangely conceived movie. It is jaunty, but ineffably sarcastic. It plays with ghosts and manifestations, but it really wants to make us consider the possibility of the existence of older gods, mingling Lovecraft's obsessive dominions from other realms with the accepted paranormal shenanigans of the likes of Caspar. Personally, I think that I would have preferred it to have had a quieter style, and one that built up in incident slowly and, perhaps, more intimately with successive hauntings as the guys learned the tricks of their trade. Reitman and his cohorts thought differently and used a simple montage-cum-pop-video to convey the experiences of the team as their fame and their celebrity grew. Yet I still wonder how things would have turned out if that massive downtown-showdown had been reserved for a sequel that was bigger themed and bigger budgeted. As it stands, the sequel that did come along, in 1989, followed a similar sort of path - the gang are forced to start from scratch again, city bureaucrats are hounding them once more and, this time out, we get a possessed Statue Of Liberty standing-in for Mr. Staypuft - but it lacked the same flavour, tone and long-lasting appeal of its predecessor.
Ghostbusters, however bizarrely put together it proves to be, is a classic film that manages to break all the rules of the genre and, like Landis' American Werewolf before it, is one of the best examples of comedy-horror around.
Can't wait for part 3!
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