It’s easy to forget what a risky venture Ghostbusters was when it first came out. Comedies and effects pictures were uneasy relations at best, and combining the two always seemed to court disaster. Ghostbusters found the sweet spot where the two could happily coexist, and while a few subsequent films have attained the same balance (Men in Black comes to mind), it’s still a pretty small niche.
And at the time, its sudden, indescribably intense success could get to be a little much. The Ray Parker theme song was inescapable, t-shirts festooned every mall shop in sight, and the film even had the audacity to outgross the big bad Indiana Jones sequel that opened just a couple of weeks earlier. Its success hid its charms behind thunderous consumerism: insisting, nay demanding that you love it or forever suffer the torments of the damned. The real proof of its pudding took place after all that hype had died down: after the effects ceased to surprise us and the catch phrases became clichés. Then one day you’d spot it in the corner of the video store, rent it on the faint nostalgia of a few scenes, and suddenly be struck by a thunderbolt as you watched it. This movie is seriously fucking funny.
Like a lot of films that arrive in this fashion, it relied upon the serendipitous collision of several factors. Cowriter/star Dan Aykroyd held a serious interest in the occult, and the prospect of resurrecting “ghost comedies” like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein set his chops a’ lickin’. Add to that cowriter/star Harold Ramis and director Ivan Reitman – who could put a human face on some very strange material – and suddenly you had a workable story amid all the spook-specific jargon. Bill Murray brought a touch of modern cynicism, with his innate understanding that unlikable characters can often be very, very amusing. And the special effects were quietly astonishing: Henson-esque creations using old-fashioned techniques that have lost none of their appeal over the years.
And at the center, it’s still about characters, with the effects serving them instead of the other way around. The three main ‘Busters themselves are so richly drawn and detailed that you instantly pick up on a shared history that is neither present nor implied. Peter Venkman (Murray) is the smarmy weasel, a glorified carnival barker with a thousand “buddies” who can never quite remember his name. Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) is the engineer, all misplaced enthusiasm and unintended bumbling. Egon Spengler (Ramis) barely recognizes other humans as members of the same species, so caught up in scientific breakthroughs that he may never come back to the real world. All three are natural outcasts, so all three stick to each other. The fit isn’t perfect, but on some level, they’re the only real friends any of them has ever had.
That’s a solid basis for a story, as the trio markets their services in hunting and trapping ghosts. Coincidentally, Manhattan suddenly sees an upswing in the unquiet dead, and the boys soon find their demand on the rise. The heightened spook activity comes on the eve of something much worse: a dark secret in Central Park West that could spell the end of the whole damn world.
Ghostbusters thrives on the fine line between taking it all seriously enough to be scary, then poking fun at it in the most creative ways possible. The balancing act is nearly flawless; more importantly, Reitman achieves it in the most unexpectedly creative ways. Take the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. On the surface, he’s a big gag: a corporate mascot injected with a hefty dose of H.P. Lovecraft. What’s not to laugh at? But as the scene goes on and eternally smiling cartoon giant becomes more and more ferocious, you sense a genuinely dread presence behind it.
That particular type of magic has never quite been duplicated (though again, the Men in Black films come close at times), and combined to create something quite special onscreen. Add to that a pair of fiercely funny women, and film goes even farther. Sigourney Weaver rarely gets credit for her comedic skills, but they’re on full display here (though admittedly only after her character gets possessed). Annie Potts does quieter work as the 'Busters’ put-upon secretary, but she pulls a few zingers now and again, and her New York weariness helps keep the weird stuff grounded.
A mixture that good rarely arrives without a good deal of luck behind it. The filmmakers assembled some promising components, rolled the cameras, and hoped it would all work. It did, creating a pop culture icon that remains just as funny the 50th time as the first. Credit Reitman for turning potential liabilities into assets with a wave of his hand (Weaver wouldn’t be quite so strong if this part if she didn’t clearly loathe Murray). Credit the Columbia brass, who sunk a whole lot of money into this project with no guarantee of success. Credit Aykroyd, who continued the project despite the death of his partner John Belushi (given a subtle nod here in the form of Slimer the Ghost). Credit the rest of the cast and crew for knowing just how much to contribute without spoiling the blend. And credit the audience, who sensed a classic off the bat and refused to let the shocking amount of consumer overkill dim its lights. That doesn’t come along every day (a fact that I fear Aykroyd is learning in his increasingly quixotic quest to get Ghostbusters III off the ground). When it does, you need to sit back and enjoy it. You may never see its like again.