Ghostbusters is possibly the most unique and perfect comedy ever conceived for the screen. This is not simply bias on our part, but a well-established fact. Originally conceived by Dan Aykroyd as a vehicle for himself and John Belushi, having already enjoyed success as a duo in The Blues Brothers and Saturday Night Live, the film had an epic journey from script to screen. The idea of professional exterminators of the paranormal, journeying through time and space, was eventually reigned in due to budget restrictions, and roles for Belushi, Eddie Murphy and John Candy were written into the new script. However, with the untimely death of Belushi in 1982 – and the subsequent withdrawal of the other cast members – the script once again was brought back down to reality, and in the process completely captured the zeitgeist of the world.
After losing their jobs as parapsychologists at Columbia University, Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) decide to go into business for themselves. Having recently “touched the etheric plane” after a close encounter with a free-floating, full-torso, vaporous apparition at the New York Public Library, the group form the Ghostbusters: professional paranormal investigators and eliminators. Their first client, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), thinks something is odd when her eggs start cooking themselves on her kitchen counter and a demon dog appears inside her fridge. Business is soon booming, allowing them to take on new-recruit Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), but it turns out that Ms. Dana Barrett’s apartment is at the nexus of spook central. As it all comes to a head, the city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! Wait til they tell you about the Twinkie.
It is difficult to place Ghostbusters into any one category. Chances are you’ll find it in the comedy section of your local dealer, as every line of dialogue is filled with hilarity. Yet it is also a sci-fi film. Also a special effects film. There is loads of horror in there too. Take for example the trio’s first encounter with a ghost in the library. The gentle free-floating old woman turns in an instant to a hideous monster, with an optical special effect that still looks amazing by today’s digital standards. It is these moments that make the comedy work, along with the film being very grounded in ‘reality’. While the high-concept of professional ghost busters is potentially a far-fetched one (except for this crack team of individuals), the workman-like attitude that the group take to the job instantly allows us to buy into the outlandish aspects of the film. A cigarette dangles from Aykroyd’s lips as he encounters the Slimer ghost for the first time, and is present in just about every scene. This certainly separates the film from the sanitised action films of today, where smokes are heard but not seen. Ivan Reitman’s experienced hand ties all of these threads together to weave something that audiences had never seen before, and may never see again.
As demonstrated most recently in Zombieland, what gives the film its major comedy might is the performances, and this chiefly means that if someone asked Bill Murray if he’s a god, he could answer ‘yes’. His semi-improvisational style gives a sense of spontaneity to the proceedings, and there is not a single line in the film that he delivers that isn’t instantly quotable. Yet is the combination of several comic geniuses coming together that makes this work perfectly, with Aykroyd’s brilliant but childlike Ray and Ramis’ intellectual but emotionally plaid Egon having their fair share of great set-ups and one-liners. Perhaps the scene in the Mayor’s office is the most perfect example of this winning combination: just as the audience is quietly cheering at Ray’s put down of bureaucrat Walter Peck (William Atherton) (“Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here”), we are on the floor in stiches with Venkman’s confirmation: “Yes it’s true. This man has no dick”. It’s spontaneous, and still feels that way after multiple viewings.
Despite very much being a success of the 1980s, Ghostbusters remains a classic piece of cinema decades on thanks to its combination of comedy, horror and special effects. That an entire review can go by without mentioning Rick Moranis’ priceless portrayal of the consummate loser Louis Tully is a testament to the fact that every line in every scene is part of a tightly woven script that pays off at the front end. The film still resonates with modern audiences, and is clearly a cultural touchstone for many filmmakers, with nods in everything from Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind to the aforementioned Zombieland, in which Murray himself helps re-enact a scene from the film. After all, if there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who else you gonna call?
Ghostbusters had a limited re-release around the world in October 2011 from Sony.