Friday, January 22, 2016

Review: "Ghostbusters"

Fun Fact: Allegedly, this was the first movie to use “slime” as a verb. And yet, my phone spellchecker refuses to accept the word “slimed” as a word. What the heck.

Plot/Themes
So, let’s see. In a world where authority figures are either corrupt or ineffectual, a team of scientifically-minded men go into business for themselves in order to better the world by providing a much-needed public service, all the while opposed by an evil, petty bureaucrat? Did Ayn Rand do some ghostwriting on this?

…no pun intended.

But I would say that at the movie’s core, the lesson is simple: Knowledge is power.

Ghostbusters is one of the first mainstream franchises to portray the supernatural in a realm of science. And that, I think, is not only what gives the movie its own feel, but its own main lesson. There are things out there that you don’t want to know about. That you’d rather not think about. But through science and learning, these great forces can be understood and fought against.

Oh, so you’re a Sumerian god from another dimension? Well, Elwood Blues here has a backpack that splits atoms to keep you immobilized until your energy wave pattern can be contained within a laser grid.

Other than that, the film's story is a standard, but good 80’s going-into-business comedy mixed with standard, but good Lovecraftian horror. So instead, let me ask a question. Was ghostbusting the right choice? After all, not only did they have video evidence of the paranormal, but they captured a ghost. And then put it inside a laser grid where no one can see it.

But we can argue about James Randi and visual proof until the cows come home. In the end, I feel that standard Doctor Who rules apply here. The Earth can be invaded who-knows-how-many times, and people will still assume it was all faked somehow. And the get-rich-quick aspect of their business… well, it worked. They were making enough money to sort of let scientific curiosity fall by the wayside. They didn’t need to prove their theories; they were probably making more money than at the University.

Besides, the guys end up ghostbusting to provide an apparently-necessary public service; sucking up all the ghosts that were being drawn to Dana’s building to open the door to Gozer’s realm. Which also neatly explains why the ghosts were largely gone at the end; they were used up as fuel. This also explains why people seem to not believe in ghosts by the time of the sequel, but let’s not bother ourselves with that just yet.

Characters
Peter Venkman (Bill Murray)

According to the filmmakers, this movie is about Peter’s growth. And you can see that throughout the film. Though his snark is ever-present, his actual assholishness (that should be a word, spellchecker) gradually tones itself down throughout the film. He starts off as a hardboiled cynic before ending up genuinely happy with things. So… standard stuff for Bill Murray in the 80’s. See also: Groundhog Day.

According to some sources, most of Murray’s lines are ad-libs, but I can’t find any real confirmation. But he definitely has at least one ad-lib in every scene, I can tell you that.

It's a classic Bill Murray performance that's hard to not love.

Pictured: Living the dream.
Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd)
Well, first of all, the guy’s an amazing mechanic. He started fixing up the car when Dana came over, only to have finished it and painted it by the time they left to bust Slimer that night.

But if I had to sum up his character with another character, it would be: Fox Mulder. Ray wants to believe. He’s read all the books. He knows all the stuff. He wants to see the paranormal in action. In a way, he’s just like Aykroyd himself, being an admitted fan of the paranormal who consulted with experts (including his own dad) to craft the movie’s world.

Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis)
Everybody loves a comedically stoic, no-nonsense counterpoint to the goofball.

"I don't see the appeal."
Egon is my favorite character. He’s an unapologetic asocial nerd whose serious demeanor and blunt answers are easily the funniest part of the movie. But funny in a way that you might not notice that his lines actually are funny, because he doesn’t deliver them the same way Bill Murray or Rick Moranis would.
This for two hours.
But… there’s not much to say. They cut out his romance subplot, so that just leaves him as the smart guy. I love him to death, but there’s not much to analyze. As a fun fact, the name “Egon” came from an exchange student he went to school with, while the surname came from Oswald Spengler, a historian.

Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson)
Oh, Ernie, I’m sorry for what I’m about to say. When I was a little kid, I never saw Winston as a “real” ghostbuster. In fact, I often wondered why he was even part of the team. He wasn’t there when the other three got kicked out of the university. He wasn’t there when they faced the library ghost. He just kind of walks in halfway through the movie and adds little of note. This was not always the case. In earlier drafts, Winston was with the team from day one, and was actually the most competent out of the entire team. But as the script was altered further and further, Winston was pushed further and further into the background. To this day, Dan Aykroyd blames himself.

"So do I."
In fact, it didn’t stop at the movie. When the later cartoon The Real Ghostbsuters came along, not only was Ernie Hudson turned down to reprise Winston, but an eventual retool to the series outlined his role thusly:

The driver. Seriously.

Winston’s introductory scene in the movie would have had him listing his qualifications (fought in ‘Nam, former paramedic), but that was cut out because they decided that opening with Janine’s line would be funnier.

So… what is Winston? Where does he fit? Well, Egon’s the science guy. Peter’s the skeptic. Ray’s the believer. And Winston is the common sense. If nothing else, Winston is the guy who can actually take a step back and look at the big picture. So while the character might not contribute as much as originally intended, that dynamic is still pretty necessary. But, speaking of “big picture”… Yeesh.

Ever heard of “pan n’ scan?” Basically, you shoot a film in one format. Let’s say, widescreen. And then you use techniques to convert it to fullscreen by panning and scanning across shots that were originally static. Well, guess who keeps getting cut out of team shots in the full screen version of this movie? Yes, you guessed it. Poor Winston.

Walter Peck (William Atherton)
Atherton’s performance as a slimy, petty, unpleasant bureaucrat was a little too good, as I mentioned in the Recap. But his jerkishexterior is the perfect counterpoint to Venkman’s own jerkish exterior. The main difference is that while Venkman has a heart of gold, you can judge a book by its cover in Peck’s case.

Although, he does have a point. The ghostbusters are using untested, unlicensed, potentially world-ending machines to catch ghosts. He just goes about it wrong and focuses instead on his petty revenge against Peter Venkman. Except, perhaps he had the last laugh… but I’ll get to that when I talk about the sequel.

Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver)
While I love Sigourney Weaver to death, the character’s pretty generic. Love interest. Damsel. But Sigourney’s a good enough actress with enough comedic skill to keep the character from being flat. And when Dana gets possessed, everything changes. Body language, vocabulary, demeanor, inflections… Just because she’s kind of a generic love interest doesn’t mean that Weaver goes halfway and phones it in.

Louis Tully (Rick Moranis)
Moranis’s performance of this minor character hits exactly the right notes of annoying, dweeby, and lovable. But I have to give props to his Vinz Clortho performance, which I will in good time. For now, I’ll just criticize Clortho’s choice of host. I mean, come on, Keymaster! Louis gets locked out of his own apartment all the time.

Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts)
Unfortunately, Janine is really not actually in much of the movie.  I say “unfortunately” for two reasons.

First, she’s one of the only two female characters. Meaning that you can criticize this movie for its lack of female leads, failing the Bechdel Test, et cetera. The usual issues with female representation in the media.

But most importantly… Janine is awesome and I wish there had been more of her. Seriously. Annie Potts is a funny, gorgeous woman with excellent comedic delivery. And more than that, she had amazing chemistry with Harold Ramis, despite the fact that Mr. Ramis hated the romantic subplot between them with every fiber of his being. If you watch their scenes together, Ramis is doing everything in his power to do the scene without hinting at any sort of budding relationship. And yet, it totally works. The super-serious Egon and the snarky Janine are a classic odd-couple.

In the end, Janine provides a witty counterpoint to the guys, making the most of her meager screen time.

Ghosts
Let me tell you right now why this movie works so well. The ghostbusters are funny. They make us laugh. The ghosts are straight out of a horror movie. Slimer looks goofy, but he’s the epitome of sloth. The librarian ghost is the stuff of nightmares when you disturb her. They fight a freaking Sumerian god straight from the pits of Hell. The Lovecraftian nature of the paranormal pulls no punches… which is why seeing the cast of SCTV go up against them is so dang funny.

Library Ghost
Because of the library ghost, we must ask the question: what are ghosts? Spirits of the dear departed? Then why do some of them manifest as weird monsters, or disgusting blobs? The most likely answer is that ghosts are sort of a caricature of what that person was like in real life.

But are they souls? Perverted echoes of consciousness? It goes unanswered, mostly because the real life paranormal research this movie was based off of doesn’t provide a clear answer either.

But that begs the question: are the ghostbsuters trapping people’s souls in a concrete Hell for all eternity? Well, there was going to be a scene where the ghosts were actually shown in the containment unit, like a ghostly jail. But it was cut because it created sympathy for these hellish monsters. Probably best to not have the audience questioning if the team was putting innocent ghosts in purgatory.

Not what you want for a comedy.
So in the end, I prefer to think that the cartoon’s explanation of ghost storage as a really good resting place applies here; described as the scientific equivalent of a pharaoh’s tomb, offering up the absolute peace that the dear departed crave.

Slimer
Definitely the most marketable ghost. Still, it’s pretty weird that a one-scene wonder became so popular. It probably helps that he’s the only ghost that looks like a cartoon, and could conceivably be called “cute.” Dan Aykroyd considers him to represent the ghost of John Belushi, so it’s fitting that the little spud would be included in all the adaptations.

Zuul
Zuul manages to pull off being sexy and evil without doing a haughty, generic “sexy evil” voice, as I oh-so-hate. There’s definitely an otherworldly and somewhat scary sexuality to the character, which I have to give props to Sigourney Weaver for.

Vinz Clortho
Vinz Clortho has no idea how to act like a human. And he absolutely doesn’t care. I mean, he hands Egon a lamp for no reason. It really is a nice touch to a character that could have easily been more generic. Another thing I like is that when he reverts to a hellhound, he acts like a puppy.

Gozer even pets him.
Gozer the Gozerian
The name “Gozer” was chosen as it was written all over the walls in a notorious haunting in England. And Gozer itself is properly scary. The voice of Patti Edwards (aka the eels in The Little Mermaid) out of the body of an androgynous supermodel is such an amazing mix. The result just feels so unique and inhuman.

And looks really cheap on its own.
There’s a theory that Gozer’s female form was chosen by the Sumerians in the same way Mr. Stay-Puft was; to be something harmless. Hey, it was a different time. Luckily, Ray forced Gozer into a fluffy kaiju instead.

The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was almost cut from the film, despite being in every draft. There was some fear over whether it would be too ridiculous, but test audiences loved it, despite the test reel lacking finished special effects. Speaking of which….

Visuals
Most of the effects have aged like fine wine, as practical effects are wont to do. The flying library cars was done with an air hose, the demon dogs are (mostly) animatronics, and the proton streams almost look like good cgi. But the worst effect in the entire film is the stop-motion used on the demon dogs while they run around. Stop-motion is a wonderful art, but it's not the most realistic thing in the world.

Music
God, yes, the MUSIC. Like, every single part of the music.

Elmer Bernstein’s music is full of spoopy swells and old-school theremin sounds. It would feel right at home in an actual horror movie, especially the music in the library. And all the licensed songs in the middle, form “Magic” to “Saving the Day” fits each scene perfectly. And let’s not forget the theme song.

Originally, they wanted Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac to do the theme, but he didn’t want to be typecast after composing the theme for National Lampoon’s Vacation. Ray Parker Jr. almost declined the offer, but then, at around 4 AM, a local commercial reminded him of the commercial in the film, which inspired the “Who ya gonna call?” call-and-response format. And the song was a #1 hit for about three weeks. Not bad for 4 AM desperation.

Best Actor: Rick Moranis
I absolutely love his take on a being that has no idea how to act like a human being, but doesn’t let that stop him.

Best Character: Egon
My sweet Odin, but he’s absolutely hilarious in this.

Best Line: Pick one.
This movie is infinitely quotable. According to Ivan Reitman, Ghostbusters spawned more t-shirts with film quotes on them than any other movie.

Final ThoughtsAll in all, a classic film. Career performances, and nearly every aspect of this unorthodox comedy/horror mix is flawless. But I probably didn’t need to tell you that.

A hit with audiences and kids alike, offering something legitimately funny and legitimately cool. And yet… the fact that Ghostbusters appealed to kids so much would be its undoing.

Yes, readers. I will be covering… the sequel. See you then.

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This Recap and Review is dedicated to Harold Ramis. See you on the other side.

2 comments:

  1. Technically, "concrete Hell for all eternity" is not correct. After all, no machine lasts forever and ghosts probably do. You could say it's a prison for a very long time, but again - that might be relative statement to eternal being.

    Questions like that take me back to Danny Phantom, which is pretty much Spider-Man mixed with Ghostbusters.In there, ghosts were at some point referred as "odd manifestation of ectoplasmic energy and post-human consciousness". They also had human and monster variants, and I always assumed that monsters either got a bit more energy and a bit less consciousness, or they got few consciousnesses mixed together.

    When it comes to storing issue, DP avoided issue by dumping ghosts to Ghost Zone from which they came from. Which of course means the same ghosts could go back over and over.

    - Faceless Enigma

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    1. I concede the point to you, FE.

      Though I'd like to mention that I only brought up "concrete Hell for all eternity" because for all intents and purposes, that seems to be the plan the Ghostbusters have.

      With your points in mind, anything the Ghostbusters do are simply a stopgap solution until the power grid is shut off, human civilization collapses, both, or any one of a million things.

      And yet, none of the 'busters seem to have a plan in mind to deal with permanently eradicating ectoplasmic presences on Earth. Probably because they're very busy. The various lawsuits come to mind, too.

      But as far as we see on screen, the team's solution is treated like a permanent one, though it very clearly isn't when you start thinking logically.

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