In 1984, I taught at Cal State Northridge, and I regularly discussed movies that I had seen or was looking forward to. One of my students engaged me in a conversation about the upcoming summer films and asked what I most wanted to see. I remember mentioning the “Indiana Jones” film and the new “Star Trek” movie as the ones I most wanted to see. When I asked him what he was looking forward to, without a moment of hesitation he said, “Ghostbusters”. I was a little surprised. I knew it was coming and I’d read about it in “Starlog” magazine, but I did not think there was that much “want to see” value there. Boy was I wrong. Opening weekend was huge, crowds were enthusiastic and the movie played like gangbusters (not ghostbusters).
The design on the poster is now iconic, the “universal no” symbol imposed on top of a cartoon ghost was graphic and funny but it looked a little childish to me so I had probably dismissed the picture a little. With my students enthusiastic thumbs up, I put this film on my list to see that summer and the rest is history. “Ghostbusters” was the number one film at the box office seven weeks in a row, the number two film for six weeks, and three other non-consecutive weekends returned to the number one position during the summer months. It was the biggest film of the summer and was the second biggest film of the year. For many of you it may be the one film from 1984 that you know well because it spawned a sequel, a cartoon series and incessant talk of a third episode for the last twenty-five years. If you read this post and have not seen “Ghostbusters”, I insist that you leave a comment below, explaining how you could be so negligent. This movie has played on cable/satellite/VHS/DVD/Blu Ray/broadcast/streaming for more than twenty-eight years. It is beloved by millions. There are as many lines quoted from this as there are from “Stripes” and “Cadyshack”. It is nearly impossible for me to believe that someone has escaped it’s gravitational pull. When I go to Vegas, I will always sit down at a “Ghostbusters” video slot machine because the sounds are hypnotic and the scene clips make me laugh, regardless of how many times I have encountered them.
While it was not quite at the level of gruesomeness that “Temple of Doom” and “Gremlins” had, the few scary bits in the film, coming at the same time as those other movies, probably made the PG-13 idea seem more reasonable. The tone of the movie is almost always comic but there are two or three sequences which could be disturbing to little kids. Big kids like me just ate it up. Horror and comedy are hard to mix together even though they can feed off of one another very effectively when the balance is right. Ever since “Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein”, film makers have been trying to blend the two genres. Then on a single day, the two greatest examples of that hybrid genre appear simultaneously. How Warner Brothers and Columbia starred down each other in a game of opening day “chicken” is an insider story that someone has yet to write. “Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins” are both after the same audience, using a similar mixture of scary and funny, and they have their movies scheduled to open the same day? Nowadays, one of the studios would blink and find an excuse to move to another date. It worked out fine here for both movies but it does raise some questions about how they might have done commercially if they had a bigger window between them. Opening day was not a conflict for me, since I’d already seen “Gremlins” at a sneak preview open to the public almost two weeks earlier.
The special effects and ghosts will get an appropriate amount of credit for the success of the movie. They made the project much more high status than it would have been otherwise. Let’s face it though, the real credit for the movie’s overwhelming popularity is Mr. Bill Murray. He walks through this film as if he owns every scene, every line and every joke. Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd wrote this movie but this is a movie akin to a piece of jazz music. The music and melody might be composed by others but it is the player who gets and deserves all the credit when they start riffing and make the song their own. That is what Murray does to this film. He follows the script but delivers the lines and improvises along the way to make it special. If you watch the scene where his character is introduced, conducting a reprehensible experiment primarily for the purpose of hitting on coeds, you will see comic genius at work. Murray smiles, smirks, winks and throws off sly lines like no ones business. His mostly dry delivery for the rest of the film, makes him the cynical member of the team, even after he has confronted enough spectral phenomena to convince anyone that ghosts do exist. At a certain point he plays it serious when the EPA agent confronts the “Ghostbusters” in their basement storage facility. His sincerity in the scene is great but no one having encountered him before is likely to believe him then. Sigourney Weaver’s Dana, resists his charms because of his manner. She rightly describes him as less scientist than game show host, and there are plenty of times that description is apt.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Generally you don’t see that kind of behavior in a major appliance.
He tosses these points off so casually and with little expectation of a response that the audience will anticipate almost everything he says. He is the class clown grown up but while he still mugs behind peoples backs, it is his direct line of attack that is so blisteringly funny. The late Harold Ramis knew how to write in Murray’s voice, so when a line works he keeps it. Murray however could go off on an idea with a dozen other ways of saying it or come up with something new and it would be perfect.
When Dana is possessed by the Gatekeeper, she and Venkman have a dialogue that plays on the characters, the situation and the behaviors of the possessed so well that it is a highlight of the film for Sigourney Weaver. She had been known primarily as a dramatic actress but those comedy genes start to show here. If you want to see them come to their full fruition check her out in “Galaxy Quest“. She plays off Murray in earlier scenes but in the possessed scene in her apartment, she ignores most of his banter and imposes her own physical presence into the scene. Murray reacts to her, but she, in character, ignores his previously irritating to her manner. I don’t know if she gets as much credit for Murray’s performance as she deserves.
Dan Aykroyd has written himself a part that is much more traditionally comic. His double takes and pratfalls are more typical of the broad humor of the film. The pseudo scientific babel that fills the script is all his. He delivers lines with a sincerity that makes it sound like what he is talking about is legitimate. A single example of many:
Dr Ray Stantz: Sir, what you have there is what we refer to as a focused, non-terminal, repeating phantasm, or a Class Five full roaming vapor. Real nasty one, too!
Ray is effusive in describing the things the Ghost Busters see and the equipment they use. He is like the kid in the candy store who has been told he can have his choice of anything and all he can think is he wants everything. The firehouse they adopt as their headquarters and the ambulance that needs more fixing up than Joan Rivers face has ever had, are two easy ways to see why Gameshow host Venkman at one point introduces Dr. Ray Stantz as the heart of the Ghostbusters.
If Bill Murray is dry with a smirk, Harold Ramis is dry without it. His character name is Egon Spengler, which is funny by itself but is never made fun of in the picture. He is so serious at times that one might wonder if he can see how silly it all is. The answer of course is that he sees all and is indifferent. He doesn’t have to tell people he is a scientist, his whole character is the embodiment of every stereotype of scientists up to that point. He is pre-nerd science stereotype exhibit A. He almost never breaks character and smiles. There is one scene when he does get a little carried away and that’s when we know how serious the ghost crisis has gotten, because Egon raises his voice. Most of the time he is low key and even when using a twinkie as a prop, he stays nearly stone faced.
I’ve mentioned the main stars, there are several performers who were not leads but added so much to the picture that it would be hard to imagine it’s success without them. Annie Potts as the receptionist/administrative assistant for the Ghostbusters has the perfect combination of sardonic indifference combined with a smouldering lust for Egon of all people. She is saucy and frustrated and plays off the other characters exactly as needed for a workplace based comedy. Ernie Hudson as the fourth Ghostbuster was underused but his introduction in a job screening interview was very amusing. He has a nice moment of drama in the film as he discusses theological issues with Ray as they are out in the ambulance, chasing ghosts. His role is another one that requires someone to be a reactor rather than an initiator and he was solid.
The two characters that do the most to add atmosphere to the story are Louis and Walter Peck. Rick Moranis has his second feature part in as many weeks in this film. In “Streets of Fire” he was more prominent as a figure of the establishment and the Ralph Bellamy character in the story. He was destined to be a second fiddle character despite the amount of screen time he might get. In this movie, his screen time is less prominent but his part is amazingly memorable. As the clingy nerdy neighbor of Dana, he carries a torch for her that will go unlit, until the forces of Gozer are unleashed and he becomes the keymaster that that the gatekeeper seeks. This was a part that was originally written with John Candy in mind. He took a pass and when Moranis came on board, he added not just a unique persona to the film but also a lot of his own dialog. The running commentary and introductions that he does at his party are all ad-libbed by him and if you listen they define his character perfectly. Once he too is possessed, there are some grand pieces of dialog that sound live poetry in his marbled delivery.
Louis: “Gozer the Traveler. He will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldrini, the traveler came as a large and moving Torg! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!”
William Atherton earned his bread and butter in the eighties by playing , ironically given one of the great Murray lines in this film, a dick. In “Real Genius” he is a self absorbed professor exploiting his whiz kid students to make himself rich. In “Die Hard” and “Die Hard 2”, he is the insufferable reporter who endangers the McClane family in multiple ways. Here he is an officious EPA agent, determined to shut down the Ghostbusters for violations of Environmental Regulations. The character epitomized the bureaucratic mind that was under attack by the Reagan Administration at the time. Here is a representative of the government, anxious to close down a small business, based on nebulous fears for the environment. It’s as if the president’s staff had an insider on the writing staff. Walter Peck is a devastating example of the Washington that the conservative administration opposed. Atherton plays him as imperious and smug in his administrative powers. In a scene foreshadowing “Die Hard”, he orders a Water and Power worker to shut down the electrical system used to contain the ghosts. Like Robert Davi’s FBI agent Johnson, he wields the power of his position over blue collared workers in disregard to their more reasonable advice, with unforeseen consequences. When the loathsome Mr. Peck is tossed out of the Mayor’s office and the Ghostbusters are allowed to work, the audience takes some satisfaction. This is a broad comedy however and that comeuppance would not be enough. So at spook central, when toasted marshmallow falls from the sky, it is Walter Peck that gets the brunt of the success of the team he tried to shut down.
The climax of the picture features one of the best set up visual punchlines ever conceived. The three hundred foot high “Stay Puft Marshmallow Man” is completely ridiculous and also funny as hell. All of the team gets a chance to make a comment or joke in the sequence. The special effect of the giant creature with a fierce face and the body of a soft pudgy marshmallow is just right. The explosion and fire look great on screen and then the congregation of the Ghostbusters with Murray having nearly no residual on him while everyone else is covered in sugary muck is another of the subtle jokes that are often missed because of the more obvious images and punchlines.
I mentioned in an earlier post that 1984 was when we first got cable television delivered to our house. One of the perks was a spot on the dial called the Cinema Preview Channel. Ten times a day, the channel ran a thirty to forty minute loop of trailers for upcoming films or films in theaters at the time. (The rest of the time it had a scroll of not very good trivia questions). Because “Ghostbusters” stayed in theaters so long, I must have seen the trailer a hundred times. Along with the fact that the title song was a huge hit and that the music video featured scenes from the movie, this may have the greatest number of “hits” on my memory from any film on the current project.
Take four minutes here to indulge in a little MTV nostalgia:
The song ended up in a lawsuit because Huey Lewis, who was originally contacted to do the theme, claimed that it copied his hit “I Want a New Drug” and basically took his concept. A settlement was made and although the song continues to be mined for it’s hypnotic effect on listeners (especially in the slot machine) some of the luster wore off. I could not name another Ray Parker Jr. song, so I think the label 1 hit wonder fits.
While it is not my favorite film of the year, or the best film of the year “Ghostbusters” may be the seminal film of the year 1984. It had the most ubiquitous song and images of any film from the year, it has the greatest number of quotable lines from any film of this year, and it continues to have the loyalty of viewers for the past thirty years. There may be people out there who are indifferent to it, but I can’t believe anyone doesn’t enjoy some aspect of this romp through the paranormal. To quote Dr. Venkman, if someone told me that they had never seen “Ghostbusters”, I would have to reply “What a crime.”