I was in London in December 1984, when Ghostbusters opened.
I can still remember it like yesterday. Leicester Square cinema had a huge, illuminated Ghostbusters logo attached to its front, which, on a dark, cold December night, enticed those of us waiting in the queue with the promise of something special.
I was four years old, and so had no notion of the project outside of the fact it was about a group of men who caught ghosts, using big laser guns. I had no concept of Saturday Night Live, or Second City, from where the creators and stars of the film hailed.
I knew it had a big, fat, green ghost in it, and I knew the Ray Parker Jr. theme song. That was about it. But it was a film.
And I loved films.
Standing in that queue, (an experience which has since disappeared in the multiplex, downloadable, streaming from a hypothetical cloud world in which we now live) freezing cold, my family and I were treated to street performers, who had come to entertain the waiting cineastes. Amongst these performers was a little person, in a top hat, with a beard, who made my four year old self laugh by slapping his armpits, making…well, a slapping noise.
Cinema is special in that way.
Like all art forms, how you feel about a particular film can depend hugely on where you are in your life at that time. It’s auto-biographical, as Nick Hornby might say, and because of this, my biggest memory of Ghostbusters, is standing in that queue, watching a little person, who at my age I just assumed was one of the Time Bandits, making slapping noises.
Hardly sophisticated, sure, and yet at that time, he might as well have been reinventing comedy.
And comedy was certainly on the agenda that night. For Ghostbusters, far from being a mere sci-fi, horror adventure, genre mash-up movie, was funny.
For those of us who grew up with Ghostbusters, it means a lot. It was pure entertainment, escapism with a comedic edge. It introduced us to characters who were smart, yet cool, funny, but vulnerable, heroic, yet Rick Moranis.
Name another movie about University professors, that would inspire a child to dress up in a jumpsuit, stick a backpack on and use a pair of hair tongs as a proton gun.
You can’t, can you? Because there is no other movie. I’ve checked.
And yes, I was that child.
As Halloween fast approaches, every media outlet available has started to cash in on the ghoulish hijinks, with our screens suddenly inundated with chainsaws, zombies, masks and home invaders, yet there is nothing quite as terrifying as the reality we are presented with every time we switch across to the news. In that respect, cinema is something of a tonic, an escape from the real world, whether that escape be at the hands of an axe-wielding maniac or a flesh-eating virus.
Ghostbusters does what it says on the poster and there has never been a better time to look back on the film, its sequel and the phenomenon that came to save the world in the decade that brought us Ronald Regan, the Challenger shuttle disaster, Thatcher and the Falklands War. A time when the world didn’t need cinema to feel threatened.
A time when laughter was a precious commodity.
The eerie sounds of a Theremin accompanied the Columbia Pictures logo, Elmer Bernstein’s haunting score welcoming us to the next two hours of our lives.
And what a two hours it turned out to be.
Ghostbusters begins with a bang or, at the very least, a bump, with an unseen spectral entity brown-panting a poor old lady in the New York Public Library.
This opening sets the tone right off the bat, even as the thump of the theme tune that ended up making Huey Lewis a great deal of money, blasts through the soundtrack.
Here is a film not just extremely funny, but also genuinely scary. The ghosts don’t fool around (other than the one that felates Dan Aykroyd, in a visual gag that rarely gets shown on the tv versions, and which this reviewer’s four year old brain couldn’t quite figure out until he was at least twelve).
A sense of threat is key to making the gags work. The more scary things get, the more Bill Murray (as the laconic Peter Venkman) relies on his wry one liners to break the tension. The worse the peril, the bigger the punchline. And yet, for a film that relies not only a strong suspension of disbelief, but a large quantity of effects work, the screenplay never feels forced.
Indeed, quite the opposite, it’s effortless, perfectly balancing the humour with character development, and the plot with plausibility.
It also has one of the great casts, foraging through Saturday Night Live and Second City’s repertory members and showing its audience just how important chemistry can be in a comedic piece.
Bill Murray has charm and sarcasm at his disposal, while Aykroyd plays up the childlike enthusiasm (in many ways his character, Ray Stantz, is the audience, and he is just as impressed as we are when the spooks start to roam the streets of NYC). Harold Ramis has less to do, but does it brilliantly, his Egon Spengler the rational thinker, but also the most playful. If you re-watch the film, it’s a good idea to keep your eyes on him at all times, as he gives his character so many ticks and nuances that you’ll mourn the fact that he didn’t get his own spin off film.
Then there’s Sigourney Weaver, who lends the film a haunted apartment building’s worth of credibility.
As the key dramatic actor of the whole enterprise, her Dana Barrett is at once heroine and damsel in distress, love interest and strong independent woman. Dana provides not only the catalyst for the story, but also a significant amount of the plot, as she herself becomes the target of the film’s big bad, Gozer, a ‘spooky bitch’ as the Still Game boys might call her, who needs both a gatekeeper and a key master in order to return to the land of the living and lay waste to humanity.
In the shape of a marshmallow sailor, obviously.
Elsewhere, both Rick Moranis and William Atherton give solid support, while perhaps the films weakest link, through no fault of his own, is the character of Winston, played by Ernie Hudson, who becomes the fourth member of the team, but makes, really, very little impact on the story.
Given the limited means available back in 1984 (at a time when only Spielberg and Lucas were dealing in heavy effects work), looking at Ghostbusters today, it’s amazing just how much of the effects work stands up. Perhaps this has something to do with the comedic tone of the picture itself, which allows for the effects to sit just the right side of quirky (although the library ghost is still a terrifying jump scare, that rightly meets with the three scientists screaming and running away).
The screenplay, again, is tight as a drum, with a solid story and dialogue that has passed into pop culture legend.
“He slimed me.”
“What about the twinkie?”
And of course, “This man has no dick.”
More than any other blockbuster of the 1980s, Ghostbusters has endured for a generation, simply because it’s so damn good. It explains, though never excuses, the heated vitriol that was thrown at the recent reboot, but taken on its own merits, in ’84 this must have seemed like a gamble, given how utterly bonkers the premise is.
In the end, the audiences responded. They loved it. They wanted more.
Unfortunately, they got it.
GHOSTBUSTERS 2 (1989)
There was a glorious time, back in the 80s, before mobile phones, before the internet, before twitter and spoilers, when the general public were blissfully unaware that a sequel was coming. Many of us can remember fondly the experience of watching Back To The Future Part 2, and being caught off guard not only by a cliff-hanger ending, but also by a teaser trailer for a third instalment, something that most people had no idea was coming.
Ghostbusters 2 falls into this category. There was only the faintest press release that the film was being made and then silence for at least a year, before the first trailer was released. And the excitement of seeing that trailer was so palpable, that a generation of film fans still get misty eyed thinking about it.
It was a double edged sword, of course, as Ghostbusters 2 turned out to be less than the sum of its many sought after parts.
Looking at Ghostbusters 2 today, the first thing that strikes you is that its focus has shifted, narrowing in squarely on the kiddie market.
Which, basically, means less blow job jokes.
This isn’t surprising, to be fair. Ghostbusters became a huge commodity for Columbia Pictures, with toys, lunchboxes, t-shirts and a popular cartoon show. It’s just that, sadly, pandering to the younger audience makes the film’s tone go the way of the Star Wars prequels.
Ghostbusters 2 picks up five years on from the first instalment. The Ghostbusters have disbanded, after being sued by New York City for the massive amount of marshmallow they ended up spraying all over the town. Ray and Winston do party appearances, Egon is involved in more human based scientific research, while Peter has become the presenter of a tacky show called World of the Psychic, a point that neatly echoes Dana’s line from the first film in which she referred to him as a game show host.
The first twenty minutes are more catch-up than story, really, and you get the sense fairly early on that there is something just a little embarrassing about this sequel.
It has a live action, Tex Avery feel to it, but not in a good way, feeling forced, particularly when it comes to performance.
Peter MacNicol may have channelled subtlety for Sophie’s Choice, but here he is full on Woody Woodpecker, complimented by a bizarre eastern European accent that doesn’t sound like it comes from anywhere other than ‘foreign’. His character, Janusz, is the curator at the museum where Dana Barrett, whom he takes Weinstein-esque glee in flirting with, is now working, and who becomes demonically influenced by the spirit of Vigo the Carpathian, whose evil soul is trapped inside a huge portrait in the museum.
Vigo needs a child, a vessel into which he can place himself and live again, in order to bring about the end of the world. Any child will do, so Janusz decides to kill two birds with one stone and steal Dana’s newborn, Oscar, because nothing sells undying affection like kidnapping and ritual sacrifice via possession.
Or maybe he’s just old fashioned.
Elsewhere, there is a river of pink slime running through the city’s underground system, feeding off the bad vibes of the residents of New York. It should’ve tried Washington if it really wanted to command and conquer, but regardless, this gives Ghostbusters 2 its thematic plot thrust, the whole story really an allegory about how the world needs to be nicer to each other. A nice enough sentiment, but it is a little hokey, and given the state America is in today, also completely unrealistic, even if the Ghostbusters manage to animate the Statue of Liberty, and ride her all the way to the film’s climax, an awful idea and a leap too far in the film’s credibility.
Frankly, it just looks dumb.
At least the marshmallow man was supposed to look funny.
The best performances come, once again, from Murray and Weaver, who, it’s easy to forget, had magnificent chemistry, although in this instalment, Ramis is given a good deal more comedy to play with, which once again reinforces that he was gifted with impeccable comic timing.
Less joyful is Hudson’s Winston who is reduced to a slap sticky caricature, the character from the first instalment having apparently lost his cool along with his moustache.
And the villain is weak sauce. Wilhelm von Homburg might have made an impact, playing creatively named terrorist James, in Die Hard, but here he’s about as menacing as a kitten factory that has been wrapped in cloud. He barely speaks. He barely moves. He barely registers.
Quite a feat for a man who was 6’ 3” and dressed like he was going to a medieval themed steam punk party.
This, of course, is the films biggest problem. It follows the tried and tested sequel format: Give them more of the same, but bigger, and more often.
Unfortunately, this is at the detriment of script and character. Everything feels too amped up, from Annie Potts’s ridiculous wardrobe aesthetic, to green ghost Slimer suddenly being on the Ghostbusters’s side.
There’s even a Bobby Brown cameo, for God’s sake!
In fact, placing Ghostbusters 1 and 2 side by side, one can see just how damaging hype, anticipation and the eagerness to please can be.
And this was pre-internet.
Feig, at the very least, had no intention of remaking, or damaging the legacy of the ’84 original, instead delivering his own unique take on the basic story, of four friends banding together and using their intelligence to conquer evil.
They weren’t afraid of no ghosts.
Sadly, nobody could have anticipated trolls.
Director: Ivan Reitman
Stars: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver,