Movies We Love: Ghostbusters

After their university’s dean forces them out of their cushy jobs in the world of academia, parapsychologists Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), go into business for themselves. They eradicate specters (aka bust ghosts) throughout New York City.

Along the way, they’re hired by Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), a woman whose apartment is haunted by a demonic, ancient Sumerian demigod – an entity that is far more powerful and destructive than anything the ragtag Ghostbusters have ever faced.

Why We Love It

Today, a growing number of big-budget, big-name comedies rely on Frat Pack-Apatowian absurdity and non-sequiturs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this – I enjoy watching 1970s anchormen dueling to the death as much as the next person. But the humor in Ghostbusters is firmly grounded in scene, situation, and character; the astute attention paid to this very basic rule of comedy, and storytelling in general, is, I think, what makes the movie so accessible and also what makes it classic.

In one of my favorite moments – a little bit of dialogue most likely overlooked by anyone who hasn’t watched the movie some four-thousand times (then again, who hasn’t watched Ghostbusters four-thousand times?) – Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts), the team’s secretary, asks Egon if he has any hobbies. His reply: “I collect spores, molds, and fungus.” Ramis’s delivery here is droll, deadpan, completely in character, and exemplifies the masterful simplicity of so much of the film’s humor. (Incidentally, if you’re ever on a date or meeting someone for the first time, and you’re asked about your hobbies, it’s crucial that you repeat this line – it is a surprisingly effective litmus test).

Considering the ghost conceit, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine another version of this movie, a version nowhere near as successful or beloved, filled with over-the-top slapstick and caricatured performances. Fortunately, the tone of the screenplay and acting in the version of the film that we do have, is understated and refined – the perfect contrast to the high-concept storyline and visual effects. The juxtaposition of tone and subject creates an odd sort of realism. That realism, I feel, is one of the things that make Ray, Peter, and Egon so endearing.

Of course the other, more obvious, thing that makes these characters so endearing is the fact that they’re played by a group of fantastic comedians – each one exquisitely attuned to what is and is not funny, each one charming in his own way. Ghostbusters was released in 1984 and, at the time, Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Rick Moranis (who plays Louis Tully/ “The Keymaster”), were all really just beginning their careers. However, the projects that they’d been involved with prior to filming – SCTV, Saturday Night Live, Stripes, Caddyshack, Animal House – had already established and distinguished them in the comedy world.

The entire cast is marvelous – everyone having a few brilliant moments throughout – yet, the two standouts, for me, have always been Murray (naturally) and Moranis. As I write this, I’m finding it difficult to resist the urge to simply rattle off every bit of wry, waggish dialogue uttered by Peter Venkman. However, there is one scene in particular that never ceases to amaze me with its genius. Sigourney Weaver’s character, recently possessed by Zuul, minion of Gozer and clearly in heat, says, “I want you inside of me.” Venkman replies, “sounds like you’ve got at least two people inside of you already. Might be a little a crowded.” A bit later, she says in a deep, raspy, demonic voice, “there is no Dana, only Zuul.” Venkman’s response: “What a lovely singing voice you must have.” The scene is just this divine confluence of impeccable comedic timing and horror.

As for Moranis’s performance – which, apparently, was heavily improvised – it’s, yet again, hard to think of moment that isn’t superb, especially once his character, Louis, is possessed by Vinz Clother, another of Gozer’s minions. He is, sadly, the character I relate to most.

Finally, there’s the soundtrack. “Ghostbusters,” the film’s theme song, performed by Ray Parker Jr., is particularly infections and somehow just as quotable as the movie itself. Any time someone asks me, for whatever reasons, who I’m going to call, I instantly, and without thinking, say, “Ghostbusters,” regardless of how inappropriate a response that might be. It’s like a reflex, something that I’m compelled to do even though no one ever thinks it’s funny. I know I’m not the only one who does this, which is probably evidence of how deeply engrained this movie is into our collective consciousness.

Moment We Fell In Love

If, like me, you were a child the first time you saw it, you were probably most impressed by the overall scope of the movie. The action, the special effects, the proton packs, the wanton destruction of hotel ballrooms, just the sheer scale of the thing. It all created this tremendous since of awe. You wanted to be a Ghostbuster.

Now, though, as adults I think you’ll agree that the most quintessential moment is not the final act, in which the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man stomps through the city, as some people might lead you to believe. It is instead the following line, delivered by Mr. William James Murray as the Ghostbusters attempt to characterize the destruction that everyone has to look forward to if the guys aren’t allowed to bust ghosts: “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria.” Those words are inscribed on my heart.

Final Thoughts

A couple of years ago, my 3-year-old cousin saw a Ghostbusters poster that I have and said, “hey, I like the Ghostbusters.” His agitated tone and the way he emphasized the “I” actually made it seem as though he was upset and somewhat baffled by the fact that we had this common interest. Here he was, born more than 20 years after the movie was released, and he felt some kind of ownership over it. But I think this just shows how timeless the movie is. It belongs to my cousin just as much as it belongs to me. The movie really does hold an important place in our collective consciousness – you can witness this in department stores that still carry Ghostbusters shirts or hear it in the way that the phrase “don’t cross the streams” has been incorporated into the lexicon and repurposed. Ghostbusters spans genres, it spans generations, it’s an amazing movie, from start to marshmallow-covered finish.

More to Read: