Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 11, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (1984)

4. Ghostbusters

“Ghostbusters” is the most beloved comedy of the eighties. I feel confident saying this. The film is beloved by hardcore film fans, casual movie-goers, nostalgists, comedy aficionados, adults, kids, critics and commoners. Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd were already stars but the huge success and enduring popularity of “Ghostbusters” turned them into icons. Despite being thirty-two years old and only producing a single sequel, “Ghostbusters” has maintained a devoted, passionate fan base. What’s truly impressive about “Ghostbusters” is not just that it’s famous and adored. It’s also really good. Every other line is quotable. Most every moment is a classic. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love “Ghostbusters.”

You don’t need me to tell you what “Ghostbusters” is about but I’ll do it anyway. Peter Venkman, Ray Stanz, and Egon Spangler are paranormal researchers. Ray is a hardcore believer, Egon is a scientist, and Venkman doesn’t take any of this very seriously. When they loose their funding at New York University, the three strike out on their own as independent contractors. Business is so-so at first for the Ghostbusters but a rise in supernatural activity soon keeps them busy. The case of a single musician named Dana begins with a strange sighting in her fridge and escalates too something much worst. Potentially the end of the world.

Dan Aykroyd is an endearingly weird dude. Though many others would help bring it too life, “Ghostbusters” is his baby. A real life interest in Fortean topics and a habit towards convoluted self-mythologizing would lead to the legendary first draft of “Ghostbusters.” The insanely long script involved a time traveling team of Ghostbusters battling giant ghosts throughout history with magic wands. Aykroyd had tailored parts to his “Saturday Night Live” co-stars John Belushi and Eddie Murphy. It would take Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis to pare Aykroyd’s insane vision down into a manageable film that could actually be made. Another of Dan’s “SNL” co-stars would inhabit the part envisioned for Belushi, Bill Murray making it his own. “Ghostbusters” might have been Aykroyd’s idea but it’s a combination of these sensibilities – Dan’s penchant for far-out ideas, Murray’s sarcasm, Ramis’ comedic mind, and Reitman’s insistence on getting as much funny out of a project as possible – that made the film a classic.

The cast of “Ghostbusters” is phenomenal, a collection of hilarious talents at the top of their game. It says a lot that, as funny as everyone else is, Bill Murray overshadows them all. Venkman is not too different a character from John Winger or Tripper Harrison. All three are pranksters, who use their official positions as excuses to joke around and pursue women. He’s introduced using a ESP test as a way to hit on a pretty college student, for one example. What individualizes Venkman is unflappable sense of humor. Even while facing down slime-covered apparitions, demonic possession, a literal god, and a giant marshmallow man, he cracks jokes. Murray’s partially improvised dialogue is responsible for roughly half of the movie’s iconic quotes. Simple scenes of him dancing in the streets or (literally) sniffing around Dana’s apartment become comedic masterpieces in Bill’s all-too-capable hands.

The big difference between “Ghostbusters” and Reitman’s previous collaborations with Bill Murray is how important his love interest is to the story. By 1984, Sigourney Weaver had already survived one encounter with a scary-ass monster. Though not as nearly tough, Dana maintains Ripley’s practical nature, even in the face of extraordinary events. When she finally walks into the Ghostbusters’ fire house, she expresses disbelief at all supernatural explanations. As potentially sleazy as Venkman’s come-ons towards her are, Murray keeps them charming. Dana’s reluctance to accept his romantic overtures is realistic. However, like the audience, she is quickly won over by him. The romance between Venkman and Dana is allowed to grow, progressing nicely. It provides the film with a heart, centering all the talk of Sumerian gods and otherworldly entities in honest human emotions.

Murray is, of course, amazing as Venkman. Yet he’s not my favorite Ghostbuster. As a kid, I loved Egon, really admiring his controlled, knowledgeable nature. The part is very different than the smirking smart-ass Harold Ramis played in “Stripes.” Egon is always dry, frequently spewing reels of obscure techno babble. His nature is such that his funny lines – about Twinkies, being terrified beyond rational thought, or an outrage directed at Walter Peck – hit with even more impact. Ramis’ exceptionally dry nature may be the movie’s secret weapon, as even lines that probably shouldn’t be funny, like his fondness towards mold and fungus, get a laugh.

Re-watching the movie as an adult, my favorite of the team is probably Ray Stantz. It’s not just because I look up to Dan Aykroyd, a pudgy nerd who became a big movie star and then married a sex symbol. Aykroyd gives Ray a child-like quality. His response to sliding down a fireman’s pole is gleeful. His confession concerning the villian’s final form recalls a similar nature. Yet he’s also prone to over-explaining himself, talking at lengths about the different types of ghosts and spirits. When confronting an interdimensional god, he politely explains his position and role. His panicky fits are funny yet also make it clear that Stanz is a genuinely eccentric person. Aykroyd doesn’t get the biggest laughs in the movie yet he’s the Ghostbuster I would most want to be friends with.

The central trio dominate the film yet “Ghostbusters” also has an excellent supporting cast. Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddimore probably gets the least love out of all the Ghostbusters. Hudson was and is a character actor, not a flashy funny man. Despite this, Winston still gets some great lines of his own. “I’ve seen shit that’ll turn you white!” is a classic line, after all. Hudson’s blue collar persona definitely adds something to the team. I also adore Annie Potts as Janine, the team’s caustic and nasally secretary. Her budding romance with Egon is adorable, helping to humanize an otherwise rough character. Rick Moranis, in a part written for fellow "SCTV" graduate John Candy, shines as the neurotic, deeply nerdy Tully. The reoccurring gag about his door locking gets me every time. When he becomes possessed by the Keymaster, and begins ranting in a bizarre fashion, that’s even better. Lastly, I must mention William Atherton as Walter “Dickless” Peck, a delightfully hatable if technically right villain.

At the film’s beginning, not many people are willing to believe the Ghostbusters’ mission statement. I’m abnormally fond of the early scenes of the team struggling to find customers. The TV commercial is lovably cheesy. The scenes of the guys sitting around, eating Chinese food, further ground the outrageous events in reality. It also makes the company’s eventual success easier to believe. During a whirlwind montage, the guys become the talk of the town, busting ghosts all over the city. In moments that come off as slightly cheesy to modern eyes, Larry King and Casey Kasem put in cameos, commenting on the business’ success. Yeah, the montage is a not subtle. After seeing the heroes struggle for a while, it certainly feels earned.

If viewers aren’t sold on “Ghostbusters” in the early scenes, surely most are won over by the Slimer sequence. The ghost, who would eventually becomes the series’ mascot thanks to the cartoon show and a soft drink, is introduced nonchalantly. Despite eventually becoming friends with the heroes, Slimer is an antagonist here. He slimes Venkman, for one. The chase through the hallways of the hotel are beautifully orchestrated. I love the guys accidentally exploding a cleaning ladies’ cart. The climax in the dining hall also packs in enough explosions and chaos, while never loosing sight of the humor. The sequence also smartly sets up the rules of Ghostbusters: The function of the proton packs, never to cross the beams, how the trap works. And Slimer is simply a brilliant special effect. The design is intuitive and full of personality.

My podcast co-host and I have debated over the years whether or not “Ghostbusters” truly classifies as a horror movie. I would say that, at the very least, the movie qualifies as a comedy with horror elements. As a kid, certain scenes definitely spooked me. The infamous Library Ghost, for one, whose dramatic entrance freaked me out far more than Large Marge ever did. One sequence that is still effectively spooky, in my eyes, is when Zuul comes for Dana. Sitting on her chair, hairy hands explode out of the cushions, grabbing her, dragging her into another dimension. Though Murray’s humor does a lot to defuse any tension, the scene of a possessed Dana growling and floating are also mildly creepy. I don’t know if “Ghostbusters” meets the strict, by-the-numbers qualifications of the genre but it’s still a better horror movie than “Cannibal Girls.”

Watching “Ghostbusters” in 2016, the film’s special effects are obviously not flawless. The stop-motion used to bring the Terror Dogs to life are far from seamless, the monsters clearly not inhabiting the same time or place as the people. The photon beams are clearly animated. The photography composition shots of the ghost in the last act aren’t perfect. However, the design work in the movie is excellent. The Terror Dogs so perfectly capture what a demonic dog should look like, with red eyes, huge horns, bull-like posture, and reptilian skin. I also love the sequences of the ghosts being unleashed on New York City. The image of the skeletal cab driver made a huge impression on me as a kid. Maybe the creature effects haven’t aged the best but movie undoubtedly uses them very well.

“Ghostbusters” is perfectly paced, rolling like fantastically throughout its lightning fast 109-minute run time. It all builds towards the pitch perfect climax. The situation is understandably grave, which is illustrated by the streets cracking open and nearly swallowing the team. There is humor, such as the very funny scene of the Ghostbusters walking up the endless spiral of stairs. Gozer’s appearance is something the entire film was building towards. An androgynous, female spectre in pink tights might not sound very effective, yet the film treats it with the appropriate gravity. It’s all a prelude anyway to the best sight gag in motion picture history. Words cannot describe the perfection of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The design feels like a real advertising mascot, combining aspects of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Man. A smiling, jovial cartoon character being the instrument of the apocalypse is brilliant comedic writing.

Ivan Reitman’s regular composer Elmer Bernstein does probably his best work with “Ghostbusters.” The synth-heavy score is certainly full of dated sounds. Yet Bernstein’s music definitely made an impression on me. Maybe it’s just because I’ve watched this movie a hundred times. Maybe it’s because the mix of ominous ringing and funky groove actually works pretty well. Of course, Bernstein could’ve written the best score in history. The infectious theme song still would’ve overshadowed it. Has there ever been a more stupidly catchy song than Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters?” I know he ripped it from Huey Lewis. I don’t care. It’s perfect, you guys. Reitman continues to punctuated his films with pop songs. Parker’s number towers over them all but the soundtrack is pretty good, if you’ve got an ear for cheesy eighties pop-funk.

“Ghostbusters” is hilarious from beginning to end, full of so many memorable one-liners that you can construct whole conversations out of them. The cast is brilliantly utilized, each actor being ideal for their roles. The special effects are memorable. The theme song is unforgettable. Above all else, the script is loaded with funny, creative ideas and moments. Nostalgia isn’t the only reason so many people love this movie. “Ghostbusters” holds up, time and time again, as a purely entertaining, endlessly rewatchable motion picture. [Grade: A]

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