After being fired from Columbia University for what was deemed unethical methods, scientists Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) decide to go into business for themselves, establishing a ghost confinement/extermination system. Business is rough at first for them, but thanks to the “nice lady who paid them in advance” Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), whose apartment is haunted by an ancient Sumerian god, Zuul, and others soon after, the Ghostbusters become the talk of town in New York.
While business is good for them, they soon discover that the spirit terrorizing Miss Barrett’s apartment is only part of the problem as its master Gozer the Gozerian is hellbent on bringing about the end of the world. To make matters even worse, the Ghostbusters also have their hands tied with sanctimonious EPA lawyer Walter Peck (William Atherton), who threatens to shut them down, considering them to be nothing more than scam artists.
Outside of Richard Donner’s Superman, no film takes me back to my childhood more than Ghostbusters. I absolutely loved the film all those years back, and the older I got the more enjoyable the film became. The excited kid within me remained intact, but it was all the clever jokes for adults that I understood more and more as I aged that added much more to the film for me. As a little kid, I remember being terrified of the villains, jealous of my friends that had the toy proton packs, reenacting the movie (I always wanted to play Peter), and even critiquing my older cousin that I was the one using the laser gun, he was using the slime gun and was holding it wrong.
Yes, even at the age of four I nitpicked certain details.
Originally thought up by Dan Aykroyd as a project for him and John Belushi (who would’ve played Dr. Venkman), the title was initially called Ghostsmashers and dealt with the team traveling through time, space and other dimensions fighting ghosts. We could’ve gotten that, which seemed too plot heavy for a comedy. Thankfully, Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis felt the initial story was too impractical budget-wise, but loved the basic premise of a ghost-style extermination business. Together with Ramis, Aykroyd rewrote the script to what we have now.
Thankfully, the one aspect that was kept from Aykroyd’s first draft is that “Chosen destructor!” at the film’s climax. If you have never seen this film, I’ll just say it ends up being quite an unexpected treat.
That’s primarily why Ghostbusters, featuring former stars from both SNL and SCTV, works as perfectly as it does. Aykroyd’s original vision, while ambitious, could’ve come off as extremely busy, potentially detracting from the magic and humor we witness in the final product. Bringing in Ramis to co-write the screenplay allowed for everything to be scaled back down to a grounded reality, or as close to reality as a film about capturing ghosts could get. Aykroyd and his fascination with the paranormal brought the techno-babble and Ramis brought his trademark wit and humor. Together, they provided a combination of some of the wittiest scripted and improvised comedy of all-time. Certainly, the effects (both digital and practical were utilized) used in the film, although cheesy fun, were still top-notch for 1984 (the film was nominated for a visual effects Oscar), but as Reitman and Ramis stated, the goal of this movie wasn’t effects, it was comedy.
As mentioned above, John Belushi was originally intended for the role of Dr. Peter Venkman before his death in 1982. You could say his spirit was still included in the film as Aykroyd always referred to Slimer as the ghost of Belushi. As much as Belushi was no doubt iconic in two films, Animal House and The Blues Brothers, I accept no substitutes. Bill Murray is Peter Venkman. Sure, some may first think of Carl Spackler (Caddyshack) when Murray’s name is mentioned, maybe even John Winger (Stripes). I think it’s safe to say no one thinks of Jack Corcoran from Larger Than Life. Most, though, immediately drum up Venkman as his most iconic role. Murray brought just the right amount of cockiness, confidence, and heart to the role of Venkman, who’s sorta like the company’s salesman (Weaver even refers to him as a game show host). Even in his most obnoxious moments (his persistence in winning over Dana Barrett), there’s something about him you still find likeable and endearing.
Playing opposite Murray was Sigourney Weaver, who was known more for her dramatic roles at the time and brought a necessary acting gravitas to the film that played off the campy vibe of the Ghostbusters so well. Weaver always referred to Dana Barrett as her Margaret Dumont up against the Ghostbuster’s Marx Brothers. There really isn’t much to the love story element between Murray and Weaver, aside from Peter pursuing her, but they’re chemistry together is so good, particularly during her first home inspection by Dr. Venkman.
Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (in, other than Stripes, his most substantial role) play the heart and brains of the bunch respectively. Neither are really the scene-stealer like Murray (although Aykroyd gets a “spectral head” moment you will never ever ever see in another PG-rated film again), but they’re still perfect for the roles they played. Aykroyd gave a sense of blue-collar intelligence to Ray, the one most passionate about ghosts. Ramis’s Spengler was more evidence about how generous he was to others he worked with even though he was always the smartest man in the room (much like his character Egon out of the four Ghostbusters). Ramis was half of the writing team and could easily have written a number of moments for him, but he knew he was met with limits in front of the camera unlike the strengths he possessed behind it, and played Egon with effective restraint. That said, he does provide us with the most important lesson of all: don’t cross the streams.
‘Cause it’d be bad.
Oddly enough, it’s not Bill Murray that gets the best improvised moment, but Rick Moranis as the lovably geeky accountant. Orginally, John Candy was cast to play the part of Barrett’s neighbor Louis Tully, but had a hard time trying to find a way to play the part (he felt the character should be German and own Rottweilers). Candy ended up bowing out, but recommended fellow SCTV cast member Moranis for the role. Moranis never was able to gain the type of career Murray, Aykroyd, Weaver or Ramis had, but his dinner party scene – the entirety of which he improvised in one tracking shot – showed how truly underrated a comic presence he was.
The two that always get overlooked for obvious yet still unfair reasons are Ernie Hudson and William Atherton. Hudson’s role as Winston Zeddemore was initially written for Eddie Murphy (who Aykroyd previously starred with in Trading Places). As great as Murphy was during the ’80s with films like Trading Places, 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop, his flashy personality would’ve been a mismatch for Zeddemore. Hudson, though, brought a calm and cool demeanor to the role (first written as the smartest of all the Ghostbusters) meant to be, as Ramis described, the one breaks the techno-babble down into layman’s terms.
Atherton definitely doesn’t get his due nowadays for just how great of a foil he was up against Murray. It doesn’t even take a minute before you wanna smack the smugness out of that smarmy tree hugging bastard. Yeah, he overplays it, but given the comic tone of the film, it was perfectly allowable for him to do so. Funny thing about Atherton, mentioned by Reitman in the DVD commentary (one of the more informative and highly entertaining ones I’ve listened to), is that following the film he met up with Reitman and was genuinely pissed off, telling Reitman that he couldn’t walk into a bar without someone wanting to pick a fight with him. The cherry on top though was Ramis telling about the time Atherton had a bus full of tourists go by yelling “Yo, dickless!” at him.
That’s the high price of fame.
With an all-star trifecta that includes Reitman’s direction, Aykroyd and Ramis’s writing and a perfectly cast group of stars, Ghostbusters proved to be more than just another blockbuster comedy. From the suits, guns, Slimer, Ecto-1, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the subsequent cartoon show and one of the catchiest theme songs to ever grace human ears, Ghostbusters became a cultural phenomenon – a film that holds a universal appeal to both children and adults – that to this day showed it was possible to blend blockbuster effects with hilarious comedy while maintaining a consistent tone, a feat not easy to pull off. The effects may be dated now, but who cares, the film isn’t by any means. I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen this, but it never gets old. Not just that, each time I continue to watch it, I gain an even greater appreciation for what this film contributed to the genre of comedy.