What makes Ghostbusters great

Why does busting make us feel good?

The set-up

Ghostbusters is one of the finest examples of the 1980s high concept comedy – this is no by-the-numbers rom-com (yes, there is a boy-meets-girl element to the narrative, but the girl sleeps above her covers… four feet above her covers). In the context of Hollywood blockbusters, the set-up is far from conventional: three scientists unceremoniously shown the door by their university employer go into business for themselves, using a variety of brilliantly conceived, believable contraptions to capture and incarcerate ghosts, and end up battling a hundred-foot marshmallow man.

In mainstream movies, scientists are traditionally cast in the role of expositor, playing celluloid second fiddle to the relatable everyman hero. In Ghostbusters, the elite intellectuals – complete with (alleged) degrees in Psychology and Parapsychology – take centre stage, kicking ass and getting the girl/terror dog.

Everything from the pleasingly probable-looking proton packs to the notion of a mouldy Babylonian* god dropping in on Central Park West and tearing up the city feels fresh and fun, and is ripe with comedy potential whilst remaining firmly rooted in its own off-kilter mythology.

* actually Sumerian

The script

As with his Bilko (shudder) co-star, Steve Martin, it’s difficult to pinpoint when Dan Aykroyd ceased being funny. Certainly something had started to go wrong as early as 1989’s Ghostbusters sequel, but in the 1984 original he and co-writer Harold Ramis seemingly still teemed with enough goofy one-liners (“Listen. You smell something?”) and existential silliness (“Are you a God?”) to make the Ghostbusters script shine.

Of course, some of the film’s funniest moments are ad-libbed by a certain other cast member (we’ll come to that shortly…) but as Alfred Hitchcock once remarked, “to make a great film you need three things: the script, the script and the script”.

The soundtrack

Ray Parker Jr’s Academy award-nominated Ghostbusters theme song may form the basis for his entire career (just don’t mention the lawsuit), but it’s also a timeless classic that spawned its own catchphrases. Well, “timeless” might be pushing it somewhat – the ‘80s production is pretty unmistakable – but with lines such as “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” and “bustin’ makes me feel good” lodged firmly in the pop culture lexicon more than twenty-five years later, a certifiable classic it certainly is.

The remainder of the soundtrack – largely a ode to the synthetic drum machine – serves its purpose well, with tracks such as Mick Smiley’s Magic conjuring up just the right sort of spooky atmosphere. The Bus Boys’ boogie woogie-powered Cleanin’ Up The Town also deserves special mention as the rousing accompaniment to the Ghostbuster’s first call, and their classy arrival at the Sedgewick hotel. Only Air Supply’s turgid I Can Wait Forever mars this otherwise special, Grammy-nominated collection.

The special effects

Born out of the golden age of practical and optical effects – a decade before Spielberg’s Jurassic Park ushered in the era of computer-generated mediocrity – the ghosts, ghouls and gods of Ghostbusters are a visual delight. Creations such as the “disgusting blob” that later became known as Slimer, the deliciously gruesome taxi cab driver and the surprisingly scary librarian ghost all have a physicality and personality that belie their relatively scant, almost dialogue-free, appearances on film.

Richard Edlund’s effects also include the barely-controllable proton streams thrown by the Ghostbusters’ personal unlicensed nuclear accelerators, the spectacularly ominous failure of the containment system and the other-worldly final showdown with Gozer the Gozerian. These showpieces underpin the story and, despite their awesome scale, never overwhelm the actors’ work. This fine balance is where so many other special effects-driven movies have failed, including Ghostbusters 2, where the constraints of working with an increased effects budget and all the blue screen and hitting of marks that comes with it eventually robs the actors’ performances of any sense of spontaneity or fun. Which brings us neatly to the final point…

The Bill Murray

Sigourney Weaver is utterly believable as the luminous cellist Dana Barrett – and as terror dog Zuul. Harold Ramis will never play Hamlet, but he’s perfectly cast as the bumbling, serious Egon Spengler. Likewise, Dan Aykroyd brings an enthusiastic charm to his role as “the heart of the Ghostbusters”, Ray Statnz. The film also features fine supporting turns from Rick Moranis as Louis Tully (and Vinz Clortho), William Atherton as Walter Peck and Annie Potts as Janine Melnitz. However, there is one cast member who undeniably steals the show: Bill Murray.

Murray’s loose, almost nonchalant style of delivery and oft-quoted one-liners are arguably the highlight of the film, and, as is frequently noted, much of the most memorable dialogue is ad-libbed by the actor. What’s often overlooked is that in many ways this is Bill Murray’s breakthrough role. Following a successful stint on Saturday Night Live, Murray began portraying largely misanthropic, borderline psychotic characters in films such as Meatballs, Stripes and Caddyshack, with some not inconsiderable – if somewhat niche – success. His Peter Venkman is certainly cynical, displaying a certain arch detachment from his fellow Ghostbusters, but he maintains a warmth and humour that is entirely absent from characters such as Carl Spackler in Caddyshack.

Murray has been openly critical of Ghostbusters 2, and has, on occasion, distanced himself from the mooted Ghostbusters 3 (despite apparently enjoying the making of the recent Ghostbusters: The Video Game). However, if the second sequel is to go ahead, it simply won’t be Ghostbusters without him.

Leave a Reply