Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Zaki's Retro Review: Ghostbusters (1984)

With the impending release of director Paul Feig's reboot of the Ghostbusters property, this seemed as good a time as any to look back at the 1984 original that got the whole thing started. Viewed today, with the benefit of thirty-plus years of hindsight and full knowledge of the vast multimedia franchise that accumulated in its wake, it's next to impossible to look at that first flick in a vacuum. Certainly as someone who was five years old when it was released and came of age fully ensconced in its various appendages -- whether humming the song by Ray Parker, Jr, playing with the action figures, or eating the breakfast cereal -- Ghostbusters wasn't merely a movie, but a movement.

But at the heart of it all was the vision of co-writer/co-creator Dan Aykroyd, who dreamed up the concept thanks to his longtime affinity for all things supernatural, and got Columbia Pictures onboard to back it. Aykroyd had, by the early '80s, become well know as a comedic force to be reckoned with thanks to his long tenure on Saturday Night Live as well as his big screen success alongside John Belushi in John Landis' The Blues Brothers. And while his initial idea for Ghostbusters was quite a bit different from what it eventually became, the central premise of working class heroes disposing of ghosts survived all the way to its finished form.

That said, it wasn't until director Ivan Reitman got involved, along with co-writer Harold Ramis, that the Ghostbusters we know truly fell into place. Both Aykroyd and Ramis would go on to co-star, and while the initial hope was for Aykroyd to re-team with his Belushi, the actor passed away during the development process. While deeply unfortunate, this cleared the way for Bill Murray, another SNL vet who'd also found big screen success with both Reitman and Ramis on the 1981 comedy Stripes, to enter the picture. With Murray onboard, the rest of the ensemble very quickly fell into place, with supporting players Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson, and Rick Moranis all signing on.

And with that, production commenced in 1983 for release in summer of of '84. If you're reading this, you're probably well familiar with the story by now, but for the sake of completeness: Scientists Peter Venkman (Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Ramis) drummed out of their cushy posts at New York's Columbia University after a lack of academic results. At Venkman's urging, they open a business aimed at "paranormal investigation and elimination." While things start slow for the trio, they take a turn when they're called to rid an upscale hotel of a green ghost we now know as Slimer. From there, things start to get so busy that they hire a fourth 'buster, Winston Zeddemore (Hudson).

Of course, there's a bigger supernatural plot afoot, and the Ghostbusters must overcome the impinging might of...(wait for it)...the Environmental Protection Agency before they can save New York from the ancient monster Gozer the Gozerian (who takes the iconic form of a giant Marshmallow Man during the climax). To appropriate a line from the movie itself, Ghostbusters was a "legitimate phenomenon" with audiences and critics at the time, and it's easy to see why. With a top-tier comedic cast to draw in adults, and plenty of whiz-bang effects and spectacle for the kiddies, it was one of those rare films that could play differently across multiple demographics -- and land with them all.

But let's be honest, notwithstanding all the other pieces of alchemy, none of it would have worked without Murray's Venkman holding down the center. Already a well-known and beloved star by then, Murray is able to elicit laughter from the audience without poking fun at the entire conceit. This is a pretty important balancing act that lets us know exactly when to laugh and when to take things seriously. To illustrate my point, watch this clip of the scene when EPA honcho Walter Peck (William Atherton) wants to shut down the Ghostbusters' containment facility, and specifically how Murray plays it right down the middle. While he's been a cut-up throughout, his seriousness here signals to the audience that we need to take this seriously too:

Between this and Die Hard, William Atherton became the quintessential "weaselly yuppie bad guy" of the '80s, which I think he's still paying the price for. (And by the way, I suppose it's an indication of just how quintessentially '80s the original Ghostbusters is that the boo-hiss big bad is the freakin' EPA. Ah, the Reagan era.)

In addition to Murray's easy chemistry with his fellow 'busters, there's also the running subplot with Weaver's Dana Barrett, the Ghostbusters' first customer who ends up getting possessed by a ghost and turning into a dog and back on her way to ending up as Venkman's romantic conquest. While some of his advances toward Dana seem kind of cringe-y when viewed today through a modern perspective (at one point he just refuses to leave her apartment), and it can be hard to watch even with Murray's trademark charm, Weaver more than holds her own opposite, which I think helps it go down a little easier. (Also in a fun role opposite Weaver is Rick Moranis as her nebbishy neighbor, Louis Tully.)

And by the way, my heaping of praise on Murray shouldn't in anyway take away from what his co-stars accomplish. The fact that Aykroyd and Ramis shaped the script means that they already knew their characters inside and out, but more than that, they also knew their places in the overall dynamic of the plot and, more importantly, with each other. To wit: Egon is pure logic, Ray is pure emotion, and Peter is pure ambition. The three of them together essentially function as one character. And the addition of the unfairly overlooked Winston halfway through gives the audience an outsider's perspective into this fantasy world.

The film's expert straddling of genres, setting a comedy in a realistic New York that at the same time is beset by spectral hauntings we were meant to take seriously was no mean feat, but partly because of the cast, partly because of the effects, partly because of Elmer Bernstein's score, and partly because of Reitman's directing style, it all just worked -- and it still does, by the way. The movie is full of great lines and great moments, whether Venkman disdainfully telling a skeptical bureaucrat, "Back off man, I'm a scientist," or the gathered crowds of New York cheering as the Ghostbusters pull up to save the day.

In fact, even now, some thirty-two years after it first premiered, it's easy to see why the original Ghostbusters is referred to with anything from fondness to reverence. Its success was instantaneous and traveled around the world. I was five years old and living in Saudi Arabia, and people were even talking about it there. Not only did Ghostbusters help launched a merchandising boom that gave home studio Columbia it's first honest-to-goodness franchise, it also led to an animated series that would introduce an entire younger tier of fans to the franchise. However, despite obvious audience ardor, it would be five long years before Ghostbusters headed back to the big screen.

To Be Continued...

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