They Came. They Saw. They Kicked Its Ass!
In 1984, the highest grossing film of the year brought in $220 million on a $31 million budget. Ghostbusters fashioned itself as a comedy-horror with strong emphasis on the “comedy” aspect. The filmmakers were working with a PG-rated family audience in mind, so the paranormal aspects of the film, as opposed to, say, Poltergeist, were fairly low-key and handled in a highly ironic manner. The underlying premise of the film, of course, is that three relatively smart professors of paranormal psychology, Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), are fired from their rather undemanding university positions and decide to go into business together. The results are rather hilarious and, twenty-five years later, have stood up surprisingly well over time. Nowadays, a lot of this film’s special effects do come off as rather campy and cartoonish, but that’s always been part of the film’s charm. The story of Ghostbusters is set in New York City and was largely filmed on location to make use of the city’s streets, architecture, gargoyles, and residents (as the film’s extras) to great effect. In addition, the haunted hi-rise apartment building where Dana “Gatekeeper” Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) and Louis “Keymaster” Tully (Rick Moranis) live convincingly appears through seamless transitions between New York scenery and an Los Angeles studio backlot. These touches of realism lend balance to the film’s absurd storyline. Even today, Ghostbusters is one hell of a self-depreciating ride and still retains its infinite quotability.
Ghostbusters was originally conceived as a very different film than the one audiences came to know. Dan Aykroyd had penned the story with John Belushi in mind as Peter Venkman and Eddie Murphy as the third ‘Buster; John Candy was originally pegged as the nerdy accountant neighbor, Louis. As it happened, Belushi kicked it and Candy just wasn’t into the project. One can only imagine how all of that would have turned out, but, luckily, we can distract ourselves with the awesomeness that did happen. Director Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, StripesStripes) called on Bill Murray and Harold Ramis to slip on the ‘Buster uniforms. The results were particularly awesome and benefited largely from the strong working history between Ivan, Ramis, and Murray. Ramis also rewrote the script to remove a lot of its “serious” paranormal subtext and crafted Venkman into much more of a smartass, ironic character. While the film, as a whole, is much less subversive than Stripes or Caddyshack, Bill Murray’s character is much sleazier and more of a genuine prick than in these previous films. Further, the other characters’ stories and dialogue were written to either set up or react to Venkman’s dialogue and character. As expected, Ramis kicks some serious scriptwriting ass.
Peter Venkman, as we quickly find out, is a rather unconventional hero, and, right before the audience meets him, we are greeted with an office door covered with a blood-red scrawling that reads, “Venkman Burn In Hell.” Inside, Dr. Venkman is “conducting” a study—based upon an actual experiment that tested the readiness of a subject to dole out electric shocks—in which he’s fudging the results to make an attractive female student believe she has psychic abilities. This scene is actually testing the audience’s willingness to accept their hero, the already much beloved Bill Murray, while he repeatedly (and unfairly) shocks a male student. Here, we also learn that, unlike Stanz and Spengler, Venkman doesn’t really believe in the paranormal or any of the associated scientific powers. Quite simply, Venkman only believes in himself, and Murray fully lets the audience in on the joke with his deadpan glance and the occasional, strategic sly wink, along with classic one-liners that are wholly inappropriate to the situations at hand. With Venkman leading, as well as nervous pushover Stantz and dead-serious Spengler behind him, the three main Ghostbusters pick up a few employees along the way. Abrasive secretary Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) takes no crap, and Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson), whose fourth ‘Buster, on a storytelling level, serves as a bridge between the Ghostbusters’ technobabble and the audience.
In addition to the almost flawless performances of the actors, the interaction between the characters is pretty damn clever too. Just one example of this is Sigourney Weaver’s character, who brought a much-needed serious aspect to her interactions with Murray. When Venkman heads out to Dana’s apartment to check out her haunted kitchen, she comments that he doesn’t behave at all like a scientist but “more like a game show host.” Dana is, of course, correct, for Venkman displays a David Lee Roth sort of showmanship about himself. Then, there is William Atherton’s convincing portrayal of the fascist and incompetent government agent, Walter Peck. While some audiences tend to interpret this particular aspect of the film as anti-environmental, the EPA serves mostly to further the narrative of the story and provide an effective nemesis for Venkman. Besides, who else would try to shut down the Ghostbusters except, perhaps, the EPA? One particularly amusing interaction between Venkman and Peck occurs during the meeting of the Ghostbusters and the city’s Mayor (David Margulies) in his office. Here, Murray strikes a point in his acting that neither under or overplays the heightened reality of the scene, and he manages to deliver on the comedic, emotional, and storytelling levels. Venkman stresses the coming “disaster of biblical proportions” which would result in, among other things “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” Then, Venkman works his methods of persuasion, which results in the Ghostbusters being allowed to prevent the apocalypse:
Venkman: If I’m wrong, nothing happens! We go to jail - peacefully, quietly. We’ll enjoy it! But if I’m right, and we can stop this thing… Lenny, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters.
Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.
Walter Peck: They caused an explosion!
Mayor: Is this true?
Venkman: Yes it’s true. [pause] This man has no dick.
Finally, during the film’s climactic rooftop sequence, the Ghostbusters put an end to the city’s paranormal hurricane. When the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man makes his appearance, Venkman dryly responds, “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.” He’s absolutely correct on that note, for the 100+ foot Marshmallow Man looks so damn joyous, but, as cute as he is, he must be defeated by the ‘Busters. At the end, unsurprisingly, all of the ‘Busters are covered in marshmallow fluff, except for Venkman, who remains relatively unscathed, and we expect no less.
As a whole, Ghostbusters echoed the optimism and confidence of the 1980s and also functioned as an allegory for the era’s proverbial double-edged sword. While the Ghostbusters themselves, as entrepreneurs, embodied a celebration of free market enterprise, their battles against the alarming increase in paranormal activity can be seen as fighting against the excessive religiousness, especially that which views the apocalypse as an end goal, that also governed the 1980s. Quite simply, ‘bustin really does make you feel good.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.
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