Written by Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Ghostbusters is a film that has firmly placed itself in the memory of many an older Millennial. For myself, I can remember my family renting a VCR (that was a thing at one point) and this movie for the weekend when I must have been four years old. I vividly remember sitting in that living room and being scared by the opening library scene. I think that’s one of the things that’s key to why Ghostbusters stuck with so many people. It was as much a comedy as it was a horror movie. That balance of genres helps soften the more frightening moments, but it’s still very much a creepy, scary film. This is something every sequel fails to understand and explains why they’ve done so poorly.
If you are unfamiliar with the movie, Ghostbusters is the story of three professors who study parapsychology getting fired from Columbia University and starting a business as ghost exterminators. Venkman (Bill Murray) is the sarcastic guy, Ray (Dan Akroyd) is the true believer, and Egon (Harold Ramis) is the gadget guy. Along the way, they expand the business and hire Winston (Ernie Hudson) to keep up with the growing demand. But there’s something behind that demand for their services, New York City is becoming infested with specters and spirits. The answer may lie in the apartment building where Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) lives. She sees strange things and eventually becomes possessed. The more the Ghostbusters learn about this building, the more they become convinced that an evil presence will be breaking through the veil and invading Earth very soon.
Ghostbusters is interesting as it was a film that some of the major players involved didn’t really want to do and resented afterward. Director Ivan Reitman expressed some disdain at how he wasn’t taken seriously as a filmmaker, believing the picture showcased a lot more depth than his previous work. Ernie Hudson was sold a false bill of goods with a meatier role only to have his part cut down considerably the night before the shooting began. Bill Murray agreed to do the film only because he leveraged it to finance his dream project, an adaptation of The Razor’s Edge. That movie bombed upon release, and Murrary left filmmaking for four years (he would return in Scrooged). Ghostbusters was initially intended as another Akroyd/John Belushi vehicle, but the latter’s sudden death changed those plans.
For all these hiccups and bumps in the road, Ghostbusters is still a very entertaining movie. I like how the horror plot is taken seriously. The comedy comes out of the personality of the main characters, but they never undercut the harrowing stakes that have been set up. My problem with the 2016 reboot was that Paul Feig seemed to forget this fact. Chasing a trend at the time, Feig allowed for prolonged ad-libbed segments where a joke just got stretched way too long. There’s also an abundance of empty slapstick comedy in that newer version. I recall Melissa McCarthy trying out a proton pack and being tossed around an alley. The 2016 version gets the entire tone wrong, and the horror elements always feel like part of the jokes. It comes down to Feig making choices in the editing room to let these improv bits eat up the runtime and kill the story’s momentum.
Another element I think is central to the 1984 Ghostbusters and should always remain a part of any further entries are the working-class themes. The film’s inciting incident is the firing of our three introductory characters. Ray ends up getting a third mortgage on the home his mother left him, and this is used to finance the Ghostbusters. Later, when Winston is brought onto the team, he’s framed as a guy just looking for a regular paying gig and will go along with whatever nonsense the others seem to believe in. Throughout the movie, the Ghostbusters operate just inches from violating the law until they do and have to talk their way out of imprisonment. If I were making a sequel or remake, having at least one working-class character would be essential for me. It makes the Ghostbusters much more relatable when they are just a month away from losing what they have.
Another accurate reading of Ghostbusters is that the movie perpetuates the Reaganomics of the time, the idea that entrepreneurship was the most righteous path. The human antagonist is Walter Peck (William Atherton), a “horrible EPA stooge” who just wants to ruin things for our heroes. I think a mature viewing of Ghostbusters gives you pause because Peck isn’t wrong. The company is operating a nuclear reactor in the middle of Manhattan without permission to do so. That could go really bad if they didn’t build and install it correctly. Ray even makes mention when they are using the proton packs how deadly this equipment could be. So, I definitely think Peck is wrongly maligned despite his annoying personality.
Ghostbusters is still a charming, entertaining comedy because it wasn’t given a blow the doors off type of budget. Most scenes are small, characters talking, with a few high concept set pieces. As I look towards Ghostbusters: Afterlife, it’s pretty clear that any of those elements are being swept off the table to pump more special effects and action into the story. I hope somehow the characters are preserved, and we actually get a chance to care about them rather than get lost in the cacophony of noise that most modern American cinema has become.