VHS Revival crosses streams with cinema’s most unlikely heroes
On Saturday, 26th of December 1987 the UK terrestrial premiere of Ivan Reitman’s 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters was very much a big deal.
I won’t lie, it blew my six-year old mind. My main memories of that first viewing are mostly of scenes in the second half, especially the spectacular, mad climax where, among other wild and fantastic occurrences, a gigantic marshmallow man was accidentally willed into existence and started stomping on New York City. I mean, what was this film? I wanted in. From that point onwards, it was Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters. I wanted the toys (oh, how I wanted the fire station so much), I wanted the comics, I wanted the Panini sticker album (especially those super-cool, hologram-style stickers, or ‘shinies’). I wanted to watch the animated series whenever Children’s ITV showed it. Oh, and I really, really wanted to see Ghostbusters II when it arrived Christmas ’89.
Ghostbusters really was a phenomenon. It was one of those films that everybody had seen and everybody loved. It was funny, it was exciting, it was scary (but not too scary) and it came in a child-friendly viewing time of 100 or so minutes (two hours if you count the ITV commercial breaks). One of the reasons I grew up loving it, alongside the film’s undeniable spectacle and scale, was that it exudes an easy-going, intimate, friendly, warm buzz that lent itself brilliantly to home video. This is what was great about a lot of 80s blockbusters—they got their cinema release and they were successes, but the main reason those films stood the test of time and became iconic for viewers of a certain age was their availability on video, be it rental or retail, and their eventual exposure on television at a time when a film premiere meant something, when it was worth basing your whole evening around.
The fact that our house only had a faulty Betamax player that couldn’t tune into ITV meant that the only time I got to see this film was when it was on telly, so that made the eventual repeat screenings all the sweeter. That’s a feeling very rarely earned in this day of instant access and mass availability. Nowadays, I can quote the film word-for-word, but back then my second or even my third viewings, separated by years, felt just as new, unfamiliar and special as the first time. Not that I got to see it in full in those early days. Ghostbusters after all was one of many family-friendly films from the 80s that was nevertheless full of mild bad language, rude jokes and scary scenes, so it was often cut to ribbons by the ITV censors whenever it was scheduled for an early evening broadcast.
In modern-day cinematic parlance, you would call this first Ghostbusters film an origin story—this is, after all, how it all began. Three New York scientists—the wisecracking, laconic Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), the excitable, heartfelt Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and the serious, bookish Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis)—who lose funding for their research and end up getting kicked off campus, only to go into business for themselves as ‘ghost busters’, directly confronting and incarcerating the city’s recent wave of spectres, spooks and slimers. Business booms and everybody’s happy, except for violinist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), whose refrigerator is the current residence of a demon named Zuul, who in turn works for Gozer the Traveller, a God who wants nothing less than the end of the world, and is happy to possess Dana and her hapless neighbour Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) to get the job done. If that wasn’t enough, just when the city needs them most, the Ghostbusters look set to be out of business when the local environmental inspector (William Atherton) demand their ghost containment unit be shut down due to the apparent damage all this recent busting has been inflicting on Mother Nature…
Despite its original PG (it’s now a 12) rating, I’ve always thought of Ghostbusters as a proper horror-comedy – the emphasis is on the latter for sure, but the former is very much there, and those two genres are usually so difficult to successfully balance that it’s easy to underrate the ones that do it well, because they make it all seem so easy. Between the scenes of humour, there are also moments—the library ghost, the contents of Dana’s fridge, Dana being abducted by Zuul and her eventual possession, Louis being left to the mercy of a terror dog—that may very well have contributed to many a young viewer’s first film-inspired nightmare. What really helps is Elmer Bernstein’s tremendous score, which is light and fun when it needs to be, but doesn’t hold back on the terror when it matters. And this virtue is emblematic to Ghostbusters’ success. It is funny, sarcastic, cynical and witty, yet it also has real respect for its genre. So yes, this is a film that plays fast and loose with conventions, but it also has heart, wonder and it wants to properly scare us silly as well as to make as chuckle.
So let’s focus on the laughs. The film is indeed a comedy, and a hilarious one at that, and yet its humour is difficult to encapsulate in say, a particular scene. There is no show-stopping, laugh-out loud moment that does the rounds on ‘Funniest Ever Movie Moments’ for example. Its humour comes from interplay, from interactions, from all those dozens and dozens of little moments. Here are some:
“We only have 75 more to go.”
“But the kids love us.”
“That’s the bedroom, but nothing happened in there’/’what a crime…”
“Yes, have some.”
Hilarious, no? I’m laughing as I’m typing, so yes. I don’t think I considered the film an actual comedy the first few times I saw it. I saw it as an adventure, a horror, a spectacle, a ride. I wasn’t quoting jokes, I was going on about how amazing the ghosts were, how scary this bit here was, how astonishing that effect there was. And yet the dialogue, the delivery, the sight-gags, the sheer lunacy of the ending…it became obvious to me—Ghostbusters is one of the funniest films ever made.
And that’s the thing—Ghostbusters is pretty damn off-kilter for a monster hit. It’s almost as though it was a cult movie that just happened to be an enormous success. Weirdly, it cares little about things like plot and character development—think about it, do any of the characters actually learn something or come to any self-realisation by the end, the kind of things that a classic three-act screenplay lives or dies by? No, and that’s what makes it so gleefully offbeat. Okay, Peter is acting a little bit more responsibly by the time of Dana’s possession, in that he does the right thing and doesn’t take her like some lowly sub-creature, even when she really, really wants him inside her (her words, not mine), but apart from that, there’s no character progression, and yet who cares when the characters are already spot-on from the start?
The casting is absolutely spot-on. No one steals the show—everyone gets a chance to shine, it’s a group effort. Unlike so many 80s icons like Indiana Jones, Maverick, Axel Foley and so on, who led the movie and were followed by their damsels in distress, doomed wingmen or disgruntled partners, there is no real lead character in the film here. Okay, Peter comes close, but not that close. They’re a team, and I wanted in. Bill Murray’s Peter is arguably a bit of a sleaze, and a most unconventional hero (Dana regards him as ‘so odd’ at one point), but he’s never a creepy threat and or an out-and-out-sexist. It might have been a different story if his tactics were anything less than hilarious, but his introduction as he skews the results of a wildly unfair scientific experiment in order to get a date is wickedly amusing, and from that point onwards we’re with him. Peter is wry, sarcastic and indeed treats everything, not just science, as a kind of dodge, but Murray injects such winning humour, lovable charm and perfect comic timing into the character that he never, ever at one point becomes unbearable.
Harold Ramis as Egon arguably provides the film’s most underrated charms. As a child viewer his approach might go unnoticed (literally if you were watching on video). On the DVD commentary for Ghostbusters, Ramis lamented that the pan-and-scan framing of VHS resulted in his screen time being literally pushed out of the frame. He is definitely the straight man of the show, but he riffs off the others beautifully and delivers the film’s more preposterous dialogue very admirably and with infectious foreboding. Then there’s Dan Aykroyd as Ray, the appointed ‘heart of the Ghostbusters’ – a warm, enthusiastic presence who is our gateway into the film’s excitement. His passion for the job, his childlike excitement (‘GET HER!’ is probably the worst ever plan for ambushing a ghost), his endearing helplessness in accidentally choosing the form of the Destructor at the climax—not his fault, just you try thinking of absolutely nothing) is truly winning.
Aykroyd is also a dedicated follower of the paranormal in real-life and his on-and-off screen contributions to the story help to give the film its oft-overlooked fear factor, as well as its sense of genuine awe and fascination. The relegation of Ernie Hudson’s Winston—the fourth Ghostbuster—is somewhat understandable in this first film given that he’s not actually introduced into the plot until two-thirds in, but thanks to his downplayed presence in the second film—why, why, why?—poor Zeddemore does often look like the one who got the short straw. Thankfully, the cartoon would do better in making Winston a fully-fledged member of the team, and for what screen time he does have in both films, Hudson is engagingly down-to-earth, representing the true everyman in this team, someone who doesn’t even believe in ghosts at the start of his employment but who eventually comes to believe after seeing ‘shit that would turn you white’, to quote one of the film’s funniest lines.
The supporting cast are a joy. Weaver has an absolute ball in a role that has her evolve from the film’s straightest line to a wild, seductive succubus called The Gatekeeper, who has to make do with seducing Peter whilst she waits for Louis’s Keymaster to show up. She manages to be sexy and terrifying all at once. Moranis is a total riot as Tully. His early scenes as tries to chat up Dana whilst wearing a too-short tracksuit, detailing his trade secret of playing keep fit videos at double-speed in order to get a proper workout, are hilarious, but his later moments as Vinz Clortho, aka the Keymaster, including an astonishing stretch of dialogue detailing the rise of Gozer, do manage to be genuinely creepy (as well as hilarious). Hey, maybe John Candy would have been just as great had he got the role as intended, but the gift of this cast is that you just can’t imagine anyone else in these roles, and that includes Annie Potts’ ‘bug-eyed’ secretary Janine and Atherton’s super-hissable, dickless antagonist. I can’t even imagine J. Edgar Hoover instead of the Marshmallow Man. It’s truly a dream cast.
Of course, another reason why the film was so huge were the effects, which are still mostly tremendous, be they the truly apocalyptic spectacle of the finale (the sight of the marshmallow man stomping through the city still looks absolutely incredible, Slimer is disgustingly gooey and Gozer him/her/itself remains a unearthly, weird presence), or even the opening sequence’s primitive tricks—sometimes the simplest inventions can work out the best—and the basic gimmick of blowing air through a tube to make a set of library cards shoot out of their drawer still looks great. Notice how the effects integrate beautifully with reality, how the artificial proton beams end up doing real, spectacular damage during the hotel scene. Oh, and then there was that title song. That sold a few units, if I remember correctly?
If this review has come off as rather gushy, then that’s the kind of reaction Ghostbusters brings out in its fans. It’s just so utterly delightful. So to end on a total cliché, I’ll ask you: when it’s total escapist viewing, absolute crowd-pleasing entertainment at its most satisfying, original and offbeat that you’re after, who ya gonna call?