The Legend of Ghostbusters: 30 Years of Mass Hysteria.

| June 22, 2014 | 0 Comments


You can’t fake comedy. It either works or it doesn’t and no one can know until the movie is finished that it doesn’t work. There is a risk that has gone into every successful comedy ever made and its fortunes rested on pure luck. That said, it is difficult to call Ghostbusters a fluke, but in reality, it is. Comedies fall into one category or another – funny or unfunny – there’s just no gray area. Either you laugh or you don’t.

You’re thankful for the rare times when the pieces fall into place and Ghostbusters is such a movie. Once, every few years, Hollywood hits a home run with a movie that grabs both critics and audiences and makes such an impact that it becomes part of the culture. The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Batman, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, they’re all movies that were the product of the right elements coming together at the right time. They all could have been major disasters, but the magical elements made them special.

Ghostbusters turns 30 this year in the midst of an era when Hollywood operates on marketable brand names and safe, low-risk enterprises. So it is safe to say that a movie like Ghostbusters might never have been made in two-thousand fourteen. It was a risky enterprise in almost every respect. It wasn’t a brand name; it starred mainly TV actors at a time when actors who worked on the box generally had a difficult time making the transition to the screen. And it was an expensive enterprise, a thirty million dollar ‘scare comedy’ that no one was sure would work.

Ghostbusters was the brain child of Dan Ackroyd whose belief in the paranormal had been part of his familial lineage stretching all the way back to the 19th century. His great-grandfather Samuel Augustus Ackroyd was a dentist who would hold séances and talk to members of the Chinese Ming dynasty. His grandfather, Maurice, worked as a telephone engineer and once tried to build a high-vibration crystal radio that would allow him to talk to the dead. Ackroyd’s father, Samuel, would author a 2009 book with Dan called “A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts and Ghostbusters.” It recounted many of the experiences that the elder Ackroyd had as a child. In an interview with QTV while promoting the book, he remembered his grandfather’s séances; “Every week a bunch of shiny black cars would come down the driveway to the farmhouse and people would get all dressed up as if they were going to some kind of ceremony, I don’t know what. I didn’t know what the word meant but it would become second nature to me because I saw it often enough that there was nothing extraordinary about it.”

Dan Ackroyd remembered being surrounded by information of the paranormal as a child. Talking with QTV, he said “The whole family was sort of steeped in this kind of accepted fact that spirits do exist and can communicate if you find a talented medium who is willing to give themselves up to the controls.”

All of the Ackroyds, in one way or another, seemed to have had something to do with the paranormal. Only Dan, however, has managed to turn it into a profitable enterprise. It was in the early 1980s that he started to pen a script about a group of paranormal eliminators. He originally envisioned the movie as a buddy comedy that would star himself and John Belushi. The first draft took place in the future with the Ghostbusters (then called Ghost-smashers) having the ability to travel through time and between dimensions busting ghosts as a sort of supernatural SWAT team dressed in riot gear (Belushi was to play Venkman). The cast would include John Candy, Eddie Murphy and Paul Ruebens. Yet, that idea fell apart beginning in January of 1982 when Belushi died of a drug overdose; Murphy opted out to do Beverly Hills Cop; Candy was unavailable, and Paul Reubens’ role as Ivo Shandor was rewritten to feature Gozer as a woman. The idea was fine-tuned by the man who would direct the film, Ivan Reitman whose previous credits had included hits like Stripes and Meatballs. He helped Ackroyd and co-writer Harold Ramis slim down the script, place it in the present and recast the Ghostbusters as exterminators.

That may have been the most valuable asset. In the movie the Ghostbusters don’t look like superheroes. They look, talk and dress like the kinds of guys who come to your house to spray for bugs while dressed in their full-body coveralls, gloves and toting fancy equipment. They even arm themselves with a similar kind of wand. There’s a scene in the movie when the boys are on assignment in a hotel and they investigate the hallways. Ackroyd snoops around with a cigarette hanging from his lip in the kind of dopey lethargic way that anyone who has ever called an exterminator would recognize. Meanwhile Ramis checks the walls with an electronic device like a hand-held metal detector.

Another element that works here is that the movie accomplishing something unusual.  While trying to be funny in a special effects film, the writers also succeeded at making it scary.  That’s nearly impossible to accomplish in a comedy because comedy and horror are nearly opposite extremes.  Yet, it works.  Take, for example, the library sequence.  The boys arrive at the library and come upon the spirit of an old librarian.  When talking doesn’t work, Ray gets the idea of rushing the spector.  The of an elderly woman turns into a horrible monster.  The tone of the scene is funny, but also scary.  We didn’t expect that, so we laugh through the scare.

Other scenes work well too without spoiling the comedy.  The scene in which Dana is kidnapped by the demons in her apartment is terrifying.  The arms reach out of the chair and grab her – one cops a feel!  It’s scary and it’s funny.

Yet, there’s one scene that I can’t explain.  During the scene when the ghosts take over New York, we see a spirit go up the tail pipe of a taxi cab.  When a passenger gets in, we see that the driver is a rotted corpse.  How did that happen?  Did the ghost pull the man’s flesh off?

Ghostbusters was fresh but not exactly a new idea. Actually, it follows a long tradition of comedians in ghost comedies. There was a time when nearly every comedian working in the movies found themselves in a haunted house movie. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, The Bowery Boys, The Little Rascals, The Three Stooges and Don Knotts all found themselves in this genre. Part of the inspiration for Ghostbusters was Ackroyd’s heavy appetite for these films. Ghostbusters was different because it melded brilliant special effects and great dialogue. The dialogue is very funny but it doesn’t step on the material.

Casting is key too. In the early 80s Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Ackroyd and Rick Moranis were the best of the best in movie comedy. All had come from SCTV, and Murray and Ackroyd had been in the first lineup for Saturday Night Live. Ghostbusters was special because it allowed each actor to do his or her own thing. Murray as Venkman is the mouth – the Groucho Marx role, wise-cracking at the absurdity of the situation. Ackroyd is the smart guy who has a geek-love for the spirit world. Ramis plays sort of a laconic role of a scientist who goes into long, drawn-out explanations which are finalized by a bizarrely simplified retort (note the “Twinkie Speech”). Ernie Hudson is us in the audience. He’s not a brain, or a jokester, just a guy looking for a steady paycheck. He responds to the situation more or less the way we would. Then there’s Annie Potts, years before “Designing Women”, playing the droll secretary with the “Joyzee” accent.

All of these actors are fine, but lets face it, most of what makes Ghostbusters work is Bill Murray. In his best work, has a kind of personality of appetites. He’s a slick operator who knows every angle and isn’t shaken by anything. In his long career, Ghostbusters contains his best work and it comes down to one single scene in which he goes to his girlfriend’s apartment and finds that she is possessed by a demon. His work in this scene is a brilliant piece of virtuoso comedy. Getting a look at the new, lusty Dana he remarks “That’s a different look for you.” When she propositions that she wants him inside her, he throws off the suggestion with a nervous laugh “Sounds like you got at least two people in there already. Might be a little crowded.” Murray’s performance here is not new. It’s actually the same kind of character he played in Meatballs, Stripes and Tootsie and would carry on to films like Groundhog Day. Like Groucho or W.C. Fields, he’s a wisecracker who could get away with anything just on the strength of his mouth. He didn’t need to stretch. The character that he played fit almost any situation in almost any movie.

Then there’s Sigourney Weaver, whose role here is probably more important that you might realize. She’s asked to play the straight-man role. As Dana Barrett, she happens upon this group of goofball spectral eliminators when she finds that her refrigerator contains a vortex into another dimension. She’s key to this movie. She’s our eyes and ears on this crazy plot. None of her dialogue, not a word, contains a joke or a one-liner. She’s dead serious even late in the film when her body is inhabited by a demonic seductress. Weaver is a strong presence, not a quivering waif. She always plays strong independent woman who didn’t need saving. That’s even the case here. She’s the victim, but then becomes the victimizer.

Even the walk-ons are interesting in Ghostbusters. It was rare in 1984 for a movie like this to have real life news people doing their own jobs. Larry King shows up, so does Joe Franklin and Casey Kasem. Kasem’s wife Jean even makes an appearance as a bubbly blonde who dances with Louis as his party. Teen pop star Debbie Gibson can be spotted through the window at Tavern on the Green, and porn star Ron Jeremy can be spotted in a crowd scene.

The legacy of Ghostbusters would be that rare movie that weaves its way into the American culture. For Hollywood it was the kind of rare financial home-run that has been the singular goal ever since Jaws and Star Wars turned the industry on its head. For the public, it was that rare comedy that plucks all the right strings, funny people doing funny things. They made it a rousing success, the film was released on June 8, 1984 surrounded by Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and The Karate Kid. Yet, it became the biggest box office champion of the year, and the best selling comedy until Home Alone six years later.  The movie earned two Academy Award nominations and was placed 28th on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest comedies of all time.

As I watched Ghostbusters again recently I was somewhat amazed by how well it all works. The jokes are pitch perfect and it is easy to see how it might have crashed and burned. Amid a lot of dialogue there are massive special effects, a combination that has been responsible for some unfortunate movies. Take Wild Wild West for example. There was another expensive movie with a big star in the midst of a special effects comedy. Yet, none of it worked. Why? Why did Ghostbusters work while Wild Wild West sank into the toilet? Maybe it was just subjective thinking. Maybe the jokes seemed funny on the set, in the moment, but what came off the screen didn’t work.  Maybe it was simply a matter of passion versus manufacturing.  If Ghostbusters was made out of passion for the project, then maybe the failure of Wild Wild West could be blamed on the fact that no one had a passion for it.

This may explain the failure of Ghostbusters II. That was a movie nobody wanted to make. The stars had no interest, but it was made anyway out of studio pressure. With that kind of manufacturing spirit the movie doesn’t work. What is on the screen is essentially a retread of the first movie. It tries nothing new. The plot is stupid, the jokes are boring, the villain is lame and the narrative is a mess – not so with the first movie.  As critic Roger Ebert explained it “The sequel was as bad as the first movie was good.”

Maybe Ghostbusters was a one joke idea. It was fresh and new and not suitable for a sequel. Now, news rattles around about a Ghostbusters III.  Is it necessary?  Not really.  Harold Ramis is gone; Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis have no interest.  Dan Ackroyd, in a recent interview with Larry King opened up with some plot points that are being developed, but he was visibly nervous when he spoke, as if even he wasn’t sure this was going to work.  It could, reasonably.  There’s always a possibility, but on the seesaw of comedy it’s difficult to tell.  Once, long ago, Dan Ackroyd tapped into his familial roots and came up with a nearly perfect comedy – lightening in a bottle, if you will.  Recapturing it takes tools and talent.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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