Ghostbusters. Oh Ghostbusters. It’s like remembering the first girl you ever had a crush on, your best friend, and most of your favorite toys, all at once. Also, there was Ecto-Cooler. These two movies were easily the most viewed of my childhood, along with the cartoon, and of course any merchandise was a must have. Looking back it’s hard to say just what it was about this story that pulled me in so utterly. I was fascinated by ghosts, though there’s very little in the movies that could be considered anything other than spectral slapstick. I certainly appreciate Bill Murray, though watching the films now I see just how much of his performance the kid version of me didn’t register. I suppose it could have been simply a “right place, right time” situation, or my parents bringing a movie to me that we could all appreciate together, or even just all the amazing toys. Whatever the case, the Ghostbusters franchise has been with me since near birth, and watching these films again as an adult, with hopefully a more critical eye, I think it’s safe to say I’ll be talking about them until the day I die.
The story is simple: Three parapsychologists lose their jobs and become exorcists for hire. Fame lands on them unexpectedly when New York’s ghost population suddenly explodes, and it all comes to a head with a hundred foot tall Marshmallow Man, then again, a few years later, a bunch of emotional slime and a possessed painting. There’s a love story in there, and a fair bit of New York City worship, but at the heart of it all, the story is simple. So the charm must live in the details. The proton packs and the containment system. The beautiful Ecto-1 and the firehouse which was inevitably every kid’s dream. The logo. It all colludes to establish a group of regular guys who have turned themselves into blue collar superheroes. What could be better? Or maybe the charm is simply in the characters. The lovably geeky Ray Stantz (Dan Akroyd) and his kid jokes: “Listen! Do you smell something?” Or Egon Spengler’s (Harold Ramis) faux-science and entirely unvarnished likability: “I had a slinky once…but I straightened it.” And of course, the iconic Peter Venkman (Bill Murray): “We’ve been going about this all wrong. This Mr. Stay Puft’s okay! He’s a sailor, he’s in New York; we get this guy laid, we won’t have any trouble!” Even with the Peter Venkman jokes I didn’t get, I recognized how charming the guy was. The movies like to pretend he’s too smarmy and too arrogant, with Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) hesitant to warm to him not only in the first movie, but again in the second. But we know the truth. Pete Venkman is a leading man, and it’s not because he’s handsome, and it’s not because he’s heroic; it’s because he’s just that funny, and because he’s never scared. And if Ernie Hudson‘s Winston Zeddemore seems absent from the conversation, it’s not entirely unintended. I like Ernie Hudson, and I certainly wouldn’t say the films would be better without him, but Zeddemore always felt like an afterthought to me. An acknowledgment that the Ghostbusters were looking a little pale, and a duct tape fix. Originally the part was written for Eddie Murphy, who had to pass thanks to his involvement with Beverly Hills Cop (which, in hindsight, must be endless frustrating for pretty much everybody except Ernie Hudson), and the role was subsequently whittled down. At any rate, Zeddemore’s introduction and place in the group has always felt a little off, like those posters for The Three Musketeers that feature four guys holding swords. What’s that fourth guy doing there?
The discrepancy between films one and two isn’t a small one. The first film came out of nowhere and made tons of money, the second was insisted upon by the studio, reluctantly shot, and that’s more or less how it feels. It’s not a bad film, but it doesn’t have the energy of the first and it doesn’t separate itself in any way. There’s nothing original to the sequel that pushes the story out of it’s comfort zone. And on top of all that, there are small elements that feel bigger and more problematic with repeated viewings. Things like Louis Tully’s (Rick Moranis) convenient insertion into the group, and Slimer being more of a pet than a nuisance. It’s these kind of minor plot weaknesses that inform the sequelness of the second movie, along with the major “Ghostbusters are magic” moment when they hose down the Statue of Liberty with happy goo and walk her across the city. This may be the only truly absurd moment in these movies, and while the childhood me was more than willing to give it a pass, I simply can’t watch this scene without feeling just a little gypped. Still, nostalgia can rival even the most shameless of audience grabbing techniques, and the stuff found in Ghostbusters II is hardly the most shameless.
A third film is supposedly in the works, and I genuinely don’t know how to feel about this. Sequels are problematic, and this becomes more and more true as time passes and studios clearly give two fucks about the content of their productions. Nothing successful goes without a sequel these days, and it’s one of my least favorite things about Hollywood. Still, there’s a place in my heart that can simply never get enough Ghost busting, and if a new film was made in the right way, with a group of comedians who can handle the task, and a script that remains respectful to the original without being too beholden…well, who knows? Maybe it could work. We’ll just have to wait and see.
For now though, the first two are enough. They find a trio of actors and writers in their prime, and a script that somehow lives comfortably in science fiction and comedy, yet doesn’t feel dated or geared towards children. It’s subtle and masterfully blended filmmaking, and though the future of the franchise is uncertain, there’s very little that could effectively derail the Ghostbusters legacy. Though they should probably avoid any more walking monuments. Just saying.