Ghostbusters: A Film Retrospective

Something big is happening next month. The Ghostbusters reboot drops. Already, the collective wailing and gnashing of teeth of the nerds and geeks against it has been deafening. So, here’s what I’m gonna do: I love Ghostbusters. A lot. And I’m excited for the reboot if for no other reason than to see something new done with it. And leading up to it, I’m gonna review the first two movies.

The plan: I’m gonna do a reasonably in-depth review of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2. Some of it will involve some reflections based on Movie Bob’s recent “Really That Good?” video for the first movie, because the man made some killer points and it’s stuck in my brain now. But mostly, it’s gonna be me giving my thoughts on how well these movies hold up, what worked, what didn’t, and their ultimate legacy. And while this won’t be a spoiler fest or anything, if you haven’t watched Ghostbusters before reading this, go watch it. I’ll wait. Done? Then, without further ado, let’s grab our sticks, make ’em hard, and see how they do things downtown.

Ghostbusters (1984)

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The Story: Most of us know the story by now so I’ll skip the long haul summary and stick to this: Ghosts are real and they can be captured and contained using SCIENCE. Also, gods are real and some of them want to destroy the world. Ghosts lead to the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper, who open a portal to another dimension and release the ancient deity Gozer upon our reality in the form of a 100ft marshmallow man, who gets roasted. Everyone lives.

What Works: The first thing we hear is some sort of spooky whistle, which begins to set the tone, followed by Alice, the librarian.

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Alice panics a little quickly but I fully admit, that could just be the years of seeing spooky stuff talking. I feel like most folks would gawk at the cards flying out of the catalogs for a minute or two instead of bolting off but it’s all for pacing so whatever. Alice runs into the Gray Lady and the title music and logo hit and the core tone is given with the theme song. Yes, there will be spooky stuff in this movie but it’ll also be bouncy and fun.

Now we can really get things started though and after establishing shots of the university, and we’re treated a fantastic set up and introduction to Dr. Peter Venkman. “Venkman, Burn In Hell” has been painted in red on the office door of our heroes, Ray Stantz, Peter Venkman, and Egon Spengler. The movie does a damn good job of introducing us to the trio. Peter is a conman and a lecher. The first thing we see him doing is using a “study” to try and get laid. And it looks like it’s probably gonna work. Ray interrupts, and we get to see just how excitable and into the paranormal he is. While Peter is skeptical to a fault, Ray enthusiastically recalls an unexplained mass migration of sea sponges. And while Egon believes as much as Ray does, it’s clinical and detached. It’s all numbers to him. Voila, our heroes. Time to investigate!

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I love the PKE meter. The prop guys built it out of a little shoe polish tool. You don’t know what it is to start with, other than it can track ghosts. As they round the corner, the arms raise up and the beeping gets more intense. We’re gonna have some fun gadgets on top of the supernatural. This scene illustrates a big theme of the movie: the supernatural is real but science can fight it. And the music is cuing us in as well. The whistle from the intro has returned as well as a playful bit of music meant to accompany their search. It’s spooky and fun. It works.

We’re also introduced to a few bits of worldbuilding. The first thing is ectoplasm. Ray calls it “residue” and it’s all over the card catalogs from where the Gray Lady interacted with it earlier. When they stumble upon the ghost itself, Ray calls it a “free floating full torso vaporous apparition,” which lets us know that the boys have studied and classified their ghosts as best they could. And then Ray, ever enthusiastic but not always full of good ideas, says, “Get her!”

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Between this and the firepole scene, we know that Ray is really just a big, nerdy kid. It’s something that sticks around right up to the end of the movie when our boy remembers his childhood and decides to use that to defuse Gozer’s destructor form. It, uh, doesn’t really help. A kaiju marshmallow is still a kaiju.

Likewise, we get a good idea of who Dana and Louis are, with Dana trying to sneak past Louis’s apartment only for him to catch her immediately. Louis clearly doesn’t have friends and wants Dana to like him but he’s kind of creepy and awkward and tries too hard. Dana, while very nice (especially true later on when she says she and Peter will try and stop by Louis’s party), she also has no problem slamming the door on Louis. She clearly makes enough money to have a nice place and she plays the cello for an orchestra. Louis is an accountant obsessed with good financial sense.

Something to consider with the character of Dana though is that in 1984, Sigourney Weaver had done Alien five years before and established herself capable as a leading lady and a hero. These days, a lot of her roles reflect on that but Ghostbusters didn’t really, outside of her being able to provide a great foil to Bill Murray. It works. Mostly. More on that later though.

I am still in love with the toys in this movie. The proton packs, the traps, Ecto-1, the containment unit. I have wanted to make a pack and a trap for a long time and I lust after the Hot Wheels 1:18 scale die-cast Ecto-1 model. Everything looks sufficiently high tech, even now, but still low tech enough you believe someone built this in a garage. And few cars are as iconic as that 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor ambulance. Look at it. Sigh. Anyways, we the effects for the proton streams are still interesting and we get two bits more of worldbuilding: don’t cross the streams (“It would be bad.”) and don’t look at the trap. Only one of these actually matters. Egon looks at the trap and nothing happens and it’s never mentioned again.

Now, Movie Bob made a point I hadn’t thought of, about the effects of Lovecraft on the movie and after re-examining that angle, it’s pretty damn central, just updated. You have Tobin’s Spirit Guide and Spate’s Catalog, books that provide a wealth of information on names like Zuul. This is esoteric knowledge, sure, but far more available than the Necronomicon ever was. In The Dunwich Horror, a group of academics combat and contain a dimensional breech. Barely. And it’s made clear that the win was temporary and costly. Meanwhile, you have a group of supernatural exterminators who combat a dimensional breech in a last ditch effort to stop a “moldy Babylonian god” from destructinating the world. And the humans win and it’s NOT temporary. Like with Slimer, they came, they saw, they kicked its ass!

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Also, note the look of surprise on Gozer/Stay Puft’s face when the boys start crossing those streams. For the first time in eons, this god knows that it dun fucked up by stepping on that church. Or, ya know, threatening death to all. Either or. Little touches like that help make the movie that much better. When Peck and the ConEd worker go to shut down the grid, Egon motions to Peter for everyone to run, miming an explosion with his hands. Egon losing his cool and taking a swing at Peck is still one of my favorite moments of the movie, too, because it lets you know just how goddamn serious the containment breech is. “Your mother!” Egon shouts at Peck. No calculations, no spores, molds, and fungus, no Twinkie.

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What Doesn’t Work: I’m sure some of this could be argued to be full hindsight buuuut not all of it. Like any movie, there are little things that end up silly. “Listen…do you smell that?” What? That scene still makes me shake my head cause what the hell happened there, Dan?

Let’s talk the special effects first as a few points after this will be a little heavier. The Gray Lady holds up well but some of the other effects don’t. She floats and it looks great, tendrils of her old dress blowing while that lovely purple glow shines on everything. Then, when pushed, she transforms and that concept always stuck with me. You’ll see it in Demon Haunted, though probably turned up a little.

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Slimer is the weak link with effects. Honestly, I’m sure part of that is the fact that he’s green. He couldn’t NOT be green. It just fits, it’s iconic, but it presented a few issues with the compositing later on. When Ray takes his shot at Slimer, too much of the little spud goes transparent, and fully transparent at that. In the ballroom, he circles the chandelier and flits in and out of view when bits of him should still be seen. When Egon and Peter lasso him in the streams, everything surrounding him is noticeable green.

Speaking of the streams, sometimes they don’t wiggle enough. That mostly happens at the end when you see the long shot from the street up to the top of Central Park West. It’s understandable. For all the shit folks give CGI these days, it makes stuff like that WAY easier. And while I think creatures should be practical 90% of the time, things like energy and fire just makes more sense with a computer. But I’ll bet those beams were also designed for a much fuzzier screen too. It’s the same reason sfx work different in HD than SD. Everything was fuzzier. Ultimately, though, those effects hiccups don’t make the movie any less enjoyable.

Which brings me to an aspect of the film that I do find harder to enjoy at 30 than 10. Peter’s behavior. Now, sure, Dana starts off seeing right through him and calling his bullshit. That should’ve stayed that way. Cause Peter’s kind of a sleazebag. We love him cause he’s played by the ever charming Bill Murray but the character has his issues. You know there’s more to him. He has two PhDs, you don’t do that without studying or caring. When things get serious, he’s there, using his sleaziness to their advantage, reminding the mayor that if they can stop Gozer, he’ll have “saved the lives of millions of registered voters.” When Zuul tempts him with Dana’s body, he resists. He makes a joke about it to himself but he resists. Of course, the fact that he had thorazine with him is super weird. I get that his status as a doctor of psychology gives him access to it but unless he brought some on his date, he would’ve had to leave, find a hospital, somehow get signed off on getting the thorazine, and then back to Dana’s apartment. And up to that point, we’re shown all the important things that happen. That’s kind of important. And it leads to an incredible awkward kiss that basically signifies “I saved your life, now you have to love me.” Dana was a fucking demon dog and had her body possessed and used for a sexual act that she and Louis may or may not remember. Let the woman breathe for a week or two before you go kissing on her. I mean hell, she’s had Louis AND Peter chasing her. Come on.

Moving on from that, I would honestly bring up the lack of Winston but Ernie Hudson recently did an interview that better sums that all up. Go read it.

The last thing I’ll talk about is the EPA. Now, I understand in the 80s that the view on the EPA was probably way different than my view. I don’t know 100% without looking into it though but just going off the movie, Peck and the EPA kind of don’t get a fair shake. Peck is trying to protect the city in his own way. Yeah, he’s kind of a dick about it but when he explains what he wants to do, all Peter can do is taunt him and be a bigger dick right from the get-go. Peck says, “I want to assess what kind of hazards your business presents.” Venkman says, “Get a court order and I’ll sue.” And look, Peck GETS the court order because the Ghostbusters are breaking a major law by not allowing the EPA to inspect their work. Now, does Peck let his anger at Peter blind him? Hell yes and it damn near causes the apocalypse. Is he wrong though? No. The boys could’ve worked with him. The only real problem with that is that then we lack the plot point that causes the grid to fail and the End to come rushing in.

The Legacy: This movie is centered around three of the biggest comedians of the time, riding on a premise that sounds totally absurd as a comedy, with a fairly tight budget by today’s standards ($30M compared to $75M for the original X-Men, $139M for Raimi’s Spider-Man, and $140M for the first Iron Man movie). You can hear stories abound that Ghostbusters was a fluke, “lightning in a bottle,” and yet, here we are, thirty-two years later, with an army of franchise material and an impending reboot. The Real Ghostbusters started in 1986 and ran til 1991. There was an RPG, a slew of video game adaptations (all of them shit, yes that includes the 2008 game and yes I’ll bring it up at a later time), a second cartoon, a comic series based on the cartoon, comic series by three or four different companies (with IDW’s ongoing series being, without a doubt, the best and an absolute treat to read), toys galore, figures, models, theme park attractions, and a goddamn JUICE DRINK. And that’s not even mentioning the fan content. The legacy of Ghostbusters is undeniable and mass appealing. Most folks know about the 501st Legion for Star Wars, but damn near every state in the union has its own Ghostbusters group, some more active than others. And there’s been enough fan films to sate anyone’s appetite, including one that actually uses that “don’t look at the trap” line for its plot!

It was only a matter of time before a reboot got under way. Dan Aykroyd’s been trying to get a third movie going since the 90s. Evolution was supposedly originally either a script for GB3 or the studio testing the waters to see if folks had interest in that kind of movie again. But now, with Harold Ramis passed on, the closest we’ll ever get to Ghostbusters 3 is the 2008 video game. But ultimately, reboot or not, sequels to the reboot or not, the Ghostbusters legacy has nothing to worry about. It’s not going anywhere. Cause bustin’ makes us feel good.

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