GHOSTBUSTERS: Generally, You Don’t See That Behavior Out of a Major Appliance

Ghostbusters (1984) – Directed by Ivan Reitman – Starring Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Jennifer Runyon, and William Atherton.

Has there ever been a better movie sleazeball than William Atherton? Atherton’s Walter Peck serves as the only human villain in GHOSTBUSTERS, an officious agent of the Environmental Protection Agency who wants to shut the Ghostbusters down because his mother didn’t love him enough. Peck plays a small but important role in GHOSTBUSTERS, transitioning us from the first spectral bad guys (the old lady in the library and Slimer, most notably) to the latter demons (Gozer, Zuul, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man). Peck also gives Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) someone to verbally combat, because as cool as Slimer may be, he’s not much for conversation. Atherton provides as good an annoying slimebag here as he will in Die Hard a few years later, establishing himself as one of the ultimate “that guys,” and earning himself a spot in the movie I’d make if someone let me make a movie.

I bring Atherton up first in this reaction to GHOSTBUSTERS because it helps to enforce how important secondary casting decisions are in a movie like GHOSTBUSTERS, a high-concept comedy about a group of fired professors who open a ghost catching business in New York City. Along with Annie Potts, Rick Moranis, and Ernie Hudson, it’s four of the film’s smaller roles that keep the story’s infrastructure strong and grounded.

First, let’s be clear about one thing – this is Bill Murray’s movie from start to finish. The movie might be called GHOSTBUSTERS, and Dan Ackroyd (as Raymond Stantz) and Harold Ramis (as Egon Spengler) might get to wear the outfits and fire the fancy energy guns, but this film puts Bill Murray in the center and lets everyone and everything revolve around him. Neither Ackroyd or Ramis are very good here (Ackroyd’s style of humor always feels more suited to the broader style of TV sitcoms than motion pictures), but they don’t need to be, and they wisely create their characters to be supportive of the story: Stantz is the earnest true believer and Spangler is the awkward brains, yet both feel like real characters because they’re alternately thrilled, confused, scared, brilliant, and clueless.

It’s a wise move to put Murray in the center, of course, because Murray is the film’s best actor, and his sense of humor best sets the tone for the film’s comedy. Venkman opens the film by rigging a science experiment so a geek gets electro-shocked and a beauty (Jennifer Runyon) doesn’t. Venkman really isn’t interested in the science; he’s just interested in scoring with a hot student. Ray interrupts him, tells him there’s been some paranormal activity and Venkman wants to pass, but when the hottie agrees to come back to his office later on (“At 8?” she suggests. “I was just going to say that,” charms Venkman), he goes with Ray and Egon to the public library, where an old lady ghost is waiting for them downstairs.

When the old lady ghost gets all spooky demon face, the three men run screaming from the building. It’s a fantastic bit, with our three heroes being revealed as honest cowards. They return to their lab at Columbia in time to get fired, so Venkman convinces them to go into business together and after spending all their money without getting a client, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) walks into their converted firehouse. Dana had some paranormal activity in her apartment a few days earlier and has finally worked up the coverage to visit the Ghostbusters (whose cheesy ad she’d seen on TV right before her store-bought eggs started cooking themselves on her counter).

Weaver provides another perfect foil for Murray (or perhaps Murray is just that good that he can play off anyone), her serious questions matching perfectly with his cartoonish science. “What does that even do?” she asks as Venkman walks around her apartment spraying something. “It’s technical,” Venkman answers back. Just like with the student earlier, Venkman is less interested in the science as he is in making the moves on the attractive woman, but where the student bought his act, Dana is cooler towards him because she can see through his routine.

Venkman doesn’t find any demons in Dana’s refrigerator, but soon after this failed investigation, things start to pick up. The Sedgewick Hotel has a ghost problem and they bring the boys in to catch a green, gelatinous eat monster they name Slimer. Along with the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man at the end, the Sedgewick Hotel sequence is the film’s signature moment as the team faces a ridiculous ghost that’s as funny to us as it is scary to them. After tearing up the 12th floor, they finally trap Slimer in the ball room where they nearly destroy the place in capturing him. Director Ivan Reitman does an excellent job building a great scene that both stands on its own and explains how their equipment works, and when the hotel manager refuses to pay the $5,000 bill, the guys let him know they can free the ghost, so then the manager agrees and the busting business is off and running.

Complete with a montage! Featuring newspaper and magazine covers! And Ray Parker’s theme song!

You said it, Ray, bustin’ makes me feel good, too. Although, to be fair, neither Ray nor I did any kind of ghost busting. Which makes me wonder why Ghost Hunters has never had Ray Parker on. Well okay, probably no one under the age of 35 knows who Ray Parker is, but why not Ackroyd? He’s into all this paranormal stuff. Make it happen, SyFy.

There’s a big paranormal outbreak in the city so they have to hire a fourth hand (Ernie Hudson) to help them out. Apparently, the role was originally written for Eddie Murphy (just as the Venkman role was written for John Belushi and the Louis Tully role was written for John Candy instead of Rick Moranis) and intended to be much bigger, but when Murphy wasn’t available they downsized the role … almost to the point where they shouldn’t have bothered. Still, Hudson makes good in the scenes he is in, as a working class guy who knows he’s in over his head but is happy to be picking up a steady paycheck.

Though he does want his own lawyer. At least until the Mayor calls.

After Peck uses his legal power to shut down the Ghostbusters’ containment unit, all of the trapped ghosts go free. Peck has them arrested, but then the mayor comes and gets them out in order to ask for their help, which leads to the final scene against the Stay-Puft Giant. The team’s final victory occurs when they cross the streams of their weapons and shut the doorway to the other dimension. It’s a bit of a letdown, really, since the big victory happens when they fire their guns into a doorway instead of into the Stay-Puft Giant, but marshmallow still gets blown all over the building and the team (except for Venkman, who manages to not get creamed and get the girl).

GHOSTBUSTERS is a fantastic movie, always amusing and with a fine narrative. Reitman does a bang-up job balancing the story with the laughs, and the science with the action. He deftly blends in the Gozer/Zuul subplot with Dana and Louis to keep things moving, and balances the ghost/human bad guys with Peck and the ghost of the moment. There are a million movies that take place in New York City, but Reitman does a fantastic job making you feel like this movie has to take place there because the city feels like a supporting character.

While GHOSTBUSTERS doesn’t make me laugh harder than any other comedy ever, long-time readers of the Anxiety will know that I place a lot of value on a movie’s story over it’s belly laughs; GHOSTBUSTERS is always entertaining and never sacrifices story just to be funny, which is what more comedies should aim to achieve. The end result is one of the signature performances by one of film’s best actors and one of the most enjoyable films ever made.

Now here’s a little something to get stuck in your head for the rest of they day:

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4 thoughts on “GHOSTBUSTERS: Generally, You Don’t See That Behavior Out of a Major Appliance

  1. I loved this film. But one of the downsides was, at science fiction conventions for several years afterwards, lots of people would enter costume competitions dressed as Ghostbusters. I remember, in the end, some conventions had a separate category just for Ghostbusters.

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  2. Most of the time you and I see eye-to-eye when it comes to movies, Mark but this time I got to go upside yo’ haid ’cause of your statement that neither Harold Ramis or Dan Ackroyd are any good in GHOSTBUSTERS. I love Egon Spengler as Ramis plays him a throwback to those classic Mad Scientists from 50’s sci-fi movies while Ackroyd’s Ray Stanz is a wonderful blue collar scientist. He’s brilliant enough to design a device to capture ghosts but yet he loves working on cars and at the end of the day he kicks back with a Bud and a smoke.

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    • I probably deserve to get smacked upside the head now and then, so we’re good. :) I think the film maximizes their abilities, but I just don’t think they’re very good actors. The characters are brilliant, though.

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