- Director: Ivan Reitman
- Writers: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
- Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and William Atherton
- Accolades: 2 Oscar nominations (Best Original Song – “Ghostbusters”, Best Visual Effects)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Fubo, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
1984 strikes me as one one of the great years of the movies, though it has no representatives on the most recent AFI Top 100 list (the Best Picture winner from that year, Amadeus, was on the 1998 list but dropped off the updated list ten years later). One of the biggest classics from that year, which should be on any list of the greatest films but generally is not, is Ghostbusters. It is said to have “invented” the comedy with big budget special effects, with many imitators having followed in its footsteps. Will Smith owes half his career to this movie. But Ghostbusters is also a very weird movie, seemingly an unlikely mega-hit, and it features a bunch of small, very deadpan performances in the middle of its crazy effects.
Ghostbusters, for those who were living under a rock in the 1980s, stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis as a trio of weirdo scientists who, after being fired from their cushy jobs at a university, open a “ghost busting” business that treats getting rid of ghosts the same way exterminators might treat getting rid of rats. The whole thing involves lots of weird technology, copious amounts of ectoplasmic slime, and “unlicensed nuclear reactors.” Somewhat to their surprise, they start running into real ghosts on a regular basis, and become famous. They hire a fourth member (Ernie Hudson) off the street, and end up having to prevent a Babylonian God and their giant Marshmallow Man from destroying New York. Sigourney Weaver co-stars as Dana, the love interest of Murray’s character who becomes possessed by “The Gatekeeper” later in the movie.
Ghostbusters displays a huge amount of visual invention. Though the movie calls the entities the gang fights “ghosts,” rarely do they seem to have anything to do with actual dead people, but rather seem to be amorphous entities from “other dimensions,” like the movie’s most famous antagonist, the globular, gluttonous “Slimer” (though he wouldn’t get that name until the subsequent animated TV series). The designer charged with creating “Slimer” went through dozens of iterations before realizing that Aykroyd intended the ghost to be a tribute to his late friend, Jim Belushi. He later stated in interviews that he “took at least three grams of cocaine and believed that Belushi’s ghost visited him to provide encouragement,” at which point he made the final sculpture for the design used in the movie. Ghostbusters doesn’t care about its mythology or plot making particular sense, and neither should you. When Ramis’ Egon spouts rapid-fire exposition, the movie is making a joke about overcomplicated movie plot mechanics, not actually trying to tell you what’s going on.
Ghostbusters may have been heavy on effects, but where it shines is in the dialogue, a lot of which was either improvised or changed on set. After moving on from Saturday Night Live (where he co-starred with Aykroyd), Murray had become a star working with Ivan Reitman on the director’s last two comedies, Meatballs and Stripes, along with Caddyshack, directed by his Ghostbusters co-star Harold Ramis. He had become known for his relaxed, deadpan delivery, a style that he brought to some of its greatest heights in Ghostbusters. His understated responses to bizarre monsters are the basic underpinning to the success of this movie. Consider this scene, where he shows up for a date with Dana and discovers that she’s now possessed. The whole movie is like this:
Though the studio remained skeptical right up until its release, Ghostbusters turned out to be a massive hit and marketing phenomenon. Its stars were reluctant to return but eventually did film a sequel, Ghostbusters II, released in 1989. In the meantime, I as a little kid played the Ghostbusters video game at my friends’ houses, watched the animated series, and drank several boxes of “Ecto Cooler” flavor Hi-C before I ever saw the movie itself. More than thirty years after the movie’s original release, it was still enough in the public consciousness for scientists to name a new species of Ankylosaur “Zuul.” Aykroyd continued to push for a reunion for years, even after Ramis’ death in 2010, but many of the other cast members have never seemed particularly interested. Murray, in particular, has always been a bit of an iconoclast. He reportedly only takes roles through calls to an ancient answering machine which he “checks infrequently.” After Ghostbusters, he came to the conclusion that he couldn’t do anything to live up to its success, and took four years off from acting, during which time he “studied philosophy and history at the Sorbonne and frequented the Cinematheque in Paris,” before returning to acting after being offered $6 million to star in Scrooged. In 1993, he and Ramis again collaborated on what I think is another of the best comedies ever made, Groundhog Day.
Ernie Hudson, who plays the extraneous “fourth Ghostbuster,” Winston Zeddemore, has repeatedly expressed disappointment that much of his character’s development and scenes were removed from the script. As it is, he feels entirely unnecessary to the proceedings. Far more relevant to the plot, though not happier with the movie, is William Atherton, who plays the priggish, meddling EPA agent who has been described as the “true villain” of the movie. The movie was so effective at making audiences hate Atherton’s character that he was yelled at and challenged to fights by random people on the street or in bars for years, and is still frequently called “Dickless” (an insult Aykroyd improvised) by people he’s never met before.
Ghostbusters is a very shaggy movie, with lots of hanging bits to tug on. It’s also a deeply weird movie with a big budget. It’s not hard to see what it was about the movie that made the studio panic. Sometimes when a movie’s a success, it’s because someone had a very specific vision. Ghostbusters, on the other hand, is the product of a bunch of people trying very hard but having no idea if it any of it is going to work, from the guy who got whacked out on cocaine and designed Slimer, to Bill Murray, improvising his lines, to Ivan Reitman, who insisted on shooting on location in New York because he’d always wanted to, despite the fact that Hollywood at that time thought of New York as dirty, dangerous, and not a great setting for a movie. What none of them could have known was that their movie would achieve a sort of perfection, somewhere inside Sigourney Weaver’s refrigerator. There aren’t that many movies, even those we’ve covered here, that I’m confident will still be widely seen, in some form, in 100 years, assuming we survive as a species and all that. Ghostbusters is certainly one of them.