Tuesday 29 July 2008

'80s RETRO: Ghostbusters (1984)

Tuesday 29 July 2008
Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis

Cast: Bill Murray (Dr. Peter Venkman), Dan Aykroyd (Dr. Ray Stantz), Harold Ramis (Dr. Egon Spengler), Sigourney Weaver (Dana Barrett), Rick Moranis (Louis Tully), Ernie Hudson (Winston Zeddemore), Annie Potts (Janine Melnitz), William Atherton (Walter Peck), David Marguilies (Mayor Lenny), Slavitza Jovan (Gozer), Paddi Edwards (Gozer, voice) & Ivan Reitman (Zuul and Slimer, voices)

A childhood film hot-wired into my brain's pleasure centre, Ghostbusters was one of the first video-tapes I replayed to death, giving me the uncanny ability to recite huge chunks of the film at the tender age of 7. Nearly 25 years since its release, it's still the best supernatural comedy ever made; birthing a best-selling theme tune ("who ya gonna call?"), superb cartoon series, merchandise, video-games, and the inevitably disappointing sequel...

Ghostbusters concerns cynical Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), childish Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and geeky Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), three parapsychologists kicked out of university who, after an encounter with a frightening spectre in a library, use the first-hand experience to develop a way to capture and contain ghosts...

Setting themselves up as paranormal pest control, they buy a dilapidated fire house and equip an old ambulance with ghost-catching gadgets, to become a sensation across New York City. Later, cello-playing client Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) hires the trio to exorcise her haunted kitchen, unaware she's living in "Spook Central" -- an art-deco skyscraper designed to act as an antennae for supernatural deity Gozer...

Something of a Saturday Night Live foray (Aykroyd and Murray began their careers there, and snotty spook Slimer was even based on SNL alumni John Belushi), Ghostbusters is an early example of a comedy "troupe" demonstrating their talent to a wide audience -- in the same way today's "frat pack" of Stiller, Ferrell, Wilson, Carell, et al, are invariably thrown together in the pursuit of box-office. It wasn't the first SNL-connected film to be a hit (coming after Animal House and Caddyshack), but it was the first to become a global phenomenon and cultural touchstone.

Across the board, the performances are perfect. Murray stands out as the sarcastic cynic, pursuing Weaver like a grumpy bulldog. His deadpan delivery provides most of Ghostbusters' best lines and moments: from the amusingly sinister ESP test (electrocuting a dork to amuse a babe), through the possession of his girlfriend ("what a lovely singing voice you must have...") to his befuddled quips in the rooftop climax ("this chick is toast!") It's the quintessential Murray performance -- well, until his late-90s shift into dramatic territory with Rushmore and Lost In Translation.

Aykroyd and Ramis' characters stick to the actors' comfort zones: the former a quick-talking, excitable man-child; the latter a stiff nerd who shies away from the advances of colourful receptionist Janine (Annie Potts). Comedian Rick Moranis steals scenes as Dana's diminutive neighbour, later possessed by a hellhound to become "The Keymaster" to Dana's "Gatekeeper" -- a paranormal, Freudian echo of his unspoken desire to bed her.

The addition of a fourth Ghostbuster, blue-collared Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), never works -- primarily because he's unnecessary to the developed chemistry between the original trio, and the desire to throw an everyman into the mix isn't required by then. Or was Hudson added so the film would appeal to a black demographic? Whatever the reason, it's not that Hudson's bad or distracting in the team... just dead weight.

Looking back, the film isn't the work of perfection rose-tinted memories would have you believe: Murray's courtship of Dana comes across as smarmy pestering half the time, the middle is flabby and devoid of ghost-catching, while the '80s pop video-style that sometimes intrudes hasn't aged well (see: the ethereal release of trapped ghosts across the city). To compensate, there are plenty of edgy scares that probably wouldn't make the cut in a family film these days: the opening library haunting is genuinely creepy, the library phantom delivers a shocking surprise, and an Exorcist-lite possession chills the blood...

The FX were cutting-edge back in '84, and they hold up reasonably well today -- beyond those stop-motion hellhounds and the glove puppet in Dana's fridge ("Zuuuul")! I was particularly struck by the iconic sight of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man trudging his way down a New York street -- the wide shot of which remains a perfect visual of surreal scale. In an age where CGI wasn't the answer to every FX headache, trying to work out how things were achieved adds another layer of fun in the 21st Century...

Overall, Ghostbusters is a modern classic that's stood the test of time, with its '80s-ness more charming than dated. As tastes have developed and kids became more sophisticated in the '90s, I'm sure today's youngsters might find it drags compared to the whizz-bang of Men In Black (an obvious alien twist on this premise), but how can you not get excited when Ray Parker Jr's brilliant theme tune kicks in, or find the cast anything less than entertaining?

Columbia Pictures
Budget: $30 million
107 minutes