[2 November 2009]
“Let’s say this Twinkie represents the normal amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area…”
Since the ‘80s, the closest I’ve come to caring about the Ghostbusters franchise was when I giggled at Spike the vampire during a 2003 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when he innocently asked Buffy, “Who ya gonna call?” and then mumbled, “God, that phrase is never gonna be usable again, is it?”
But some friends happen to own Ghostbusters on DVD, so I decided that it was time to get reacquainted with the movie that I briefly cited as my all-time favorite… back in second grade.
I should note that I had no intention of writing about Ghostbusters. However, owing to how profoundly stupid I was in second grade, I sat down with the Ghostbusters DVD fully anticipating having to wince my way through a cinematic clunker boasting all the wit and elegance of Howard the Duck or Short Circuit (both of which, to be fair, I also haven’t seen since the ‘80s.) Since Ghostbusters proved to be so unexpectedly intelligent and winning, I felt compelled to set aside some space here at PopMatters to defend it, if only from my own snobby assumptions.
First, let us sing a wistful song of praise for the forgotten Hollywood craft of practicals. While some effects shots in Ghostbusters do not hold up (the demon dog that chases Rick Moranis’s Louis Tully out of his apartment building is somewhat distractingly unconvincing, for example), most of the film’s special effects are superior to today’s CGI wizardry. Further, since one is uncertain how some illusions were created back then, even a trick as trivial and insignificant as a pair of books flying from one shelf to another becomes enchanting; today, there is no mystery left to movie magic, for everything is accomplished (with spectacularly uneven results) with the aid of computers.
More surprising than the still-impressive special effects is that there are moments throughout Ghostbusters that are legitimately scary; the build-up to the non-reveal of the library ghost in the opening scene is rather creepy, as is the scene wherein demonic limbs protrude from the easy chair of Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver.) I do not recall that these scenes scared me back in 1984 when I was seven-years-old, but they certainly unsettled me in 2009, not least because the film’s soundtrack is so delightfully spooky; Ray Parker, Jr.’s anthem is pretty corny, sure (though still vastly superior to Bobby Brown’s anemic “On Our Own,” fromGhostbusters II), but Elmer Bernstein’s score is very effective. During one early scene, we hear an otherworldly bit of music that bears an uncanny resemblance to the stirring theme from The X-Files.
I was also pleased at how well the dialogue holds up. If the movie were produced today, it would be louder and cruder, with many more scenes like the regrettable dream sequence wherein an invisible ghost gives Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz a handjob. (At least it seems to have been a handjob; who can tell, when the provider of sexual favors is invisible?) Or it’d be directed by Joss Whedon, and inevitably one of the Ghostbusters would die, and his ghost would haunt the firehouse so that his former coworkers would have to hunt and trap him, or something equally depressing.
Instead, scriptwriters Aykroyd and Harold Ramis mostly trusted their audience to appreciate intelligent characters, and Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman is still the most appealing character of the bunch. (Wikipedia wisely singles out critic Richard Schickel’s comment that Aykroyd and Ramis are “gracious about giving the picture to their co-star Bill Murray.”) Murray lends a memorable, comical heft and significance to even such throw-away lines as “Back off, man, I’m a scientist,” and as early as 1984, his sardonic, world-weary nihilism was already in full effect; while his defeated, deadpan sarcasm in Ghostbusters is perhaps not as earned as it would later be in Lost in Translation and Rushmore (and even in 1993’s Groundhog Day), it is already completely convincing and engaging.
Murray’s Venkman also smokes, which is somehow more startling in the anti-septic, politically-correct context of 2009 than any ghost or ghoul the film conjures. Dan Akroyd’s Ray Stantz smokes in a couple scenes, too. So does Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore, who almost seems to have been named after the brand of cigarettes in a defiant and preemptive bit of nose-thumbing at today’s overly anxious, thin-skinned culture. Funnier still, in the pop cultural time capsule sense: the film’s (human) villain is a representative of the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, he’d be the hero; the ‘Busters, with their nuclear-powered backpacks, would be the villains.
While Murray is the scene stealer of the group, Harold Ramis turns in a pitch-perfect straight-man performance as Egon Spengler. When Venkman asks Egon how they should deal with the towering, destructive Stay-Puft Marshamallow monster, his deadpan response is, “Sorry, Venkman, I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.” Meanwhile, Rick Moranis as Louis Tully is, at his most deranged, even funnier than Bill Murray. Indeed, his giddy, possessed turn as Gozer’s sycophant yields a manic monologue that is arguably the most comical moment in the entire film:
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!
I recall now that a friend managed to see Ghostbusters in theater a week before I did. After listening intently to his giddy, animated plot summary, I initially envisioned the mysterious “marshmallow man” not as an anthropomorphic confection but rather a mere human, carrying one of those giant fanny-pack containment units the long-suffering ballpark hot dog vendors lug around all day, this one stuffed with marshmallows rather than franks and buns and mustard. Curiously, in my mind this vendor looked like the tall milkman with the bushy mustache from the Heathcliff cartoon; perhaps now you can understand why I was hesitant to trust that my younger self was a credible judge of quality where a film like Ghostbusters was concerned. Perhaps you’ll further understand why I placed Ghostbusters in my DVD player with considerable reservation. How nice that it proved to be, if anything, more satisfying for the man than the boy.
Dare I risk ruining the mood by watchingGhostbusters II?