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REALLY THAT GOOD
GHOSTBUSTERS (TEXT VERSION)
by Bob Chipman
GHOSTBUSTERS is one of those movies that basically everyone agrees is good - even people who haven't actually seen it. Its presence in the popular culture is such that its goodness is generally taken to be as much of a given as that it features both ghosts and the busting thereof. If you’ve seen it, chances are pretty good you love it. Even if you don't love it, chances are you like it. Even if you don't like it, you probably don't hate it. And even if you hate it... you probably long ago resigned yourself to the idea that it's simply not the film for you - that its charms are effectively lost on you and that you, not GHOSTBUSTERS, are the problem.
It’s a film that has permeated our popular culture: Other films use it as a reference point. Its catchphrases and zingers are part of the cultural lexicon. It’s impossible to describe characters like Peter Venkman or Egon Spengler without defaulting TO those very men, who have by now eclipsed whatever archetype from whence they may have been drawn. GHOSTBUSTERS has been sequelized, merchandised, video-gamed, Ecto-coolered, animated, re-animated and is on its way to being gender-flipped and rebooted. It’s not simply enduringly popular – it’s a film that has become one with our shared cultural essence.
...but does it deserve to?
Popular cinema, particularly the popular cinema of the 1980s, is littered with films whose stature is at odds with even the most generous appraisal of their objective quality. This is particularly true of films that spawned ancillary empires aimed primarily at children, which GHOSTBUSTERS most certainly did. It’s entirely possible that for many audiences who came to the property from the sides, the original film is afforded an undue "boost" in affection owed more to lingering nostalgia for toys and cartoons than to its own merits.
Is that what's happened? Is this film a genuine comedy classic, or just another over-merchandised 80s genre flick permanently cast in rose-colored hues by nostalgic Gen-Xers? Is GHOSTBUSTERS... Really That Good?
Let's get the basics out of the way first: The main reason we're still talking about GHOSTBUSTERS is that it's an astonishingly well-made film that manages to feel effortless in its undertaking.
It presents a high-concept premise with a surprisingly coherent mythology in strokes exactly broad enough to not be at odds with a breezy comic tone but strong enough to have real weight and matter as a story: If you don't understand a single joke, the overarching narrative of an upstart team of paranormal investigators coming up against an ancient malevolent deity is entirely compelling... but if you don't really care about the occult machinations drawing Gozer the Gozarian back into 20th Century Manhattan, the central comic observation conflating the roles of exorcist and exterminator is just really, really funny.
When you couple that with a group of comic legends who also happened to be gifted character actors (and also Ernie Hudson but y'know what we're going to talk about Winston in depth later) playing at the absolute top of their game in an ingeniously well-balanced screenplay that gives each 'Buster a coherent character but doesn't let any one character overwhelm the piece - not even Peter Venkman, whose entirely personality is about overwhelming and filling up the space in any situation or conversation with his laid-back bravado.
In fact, let's start out by talking about those characters:
The first thing that everyone thinks they know about good storytelling is that characters are supposed to have "arcs," i.e. they're supposed to start the film with an incomplete goal or an incorrect outlook or a personal flaw and, over the course of three acts they're supposed to achieve, learn a lesson or otherwise improve themselves thus providing a framework for the rest of the story. But GHOSTBUSTERS... doesn't really do that.
One of the most interesting and unremarked-upon things about GHOSTBUSTERS is that it effectively opens in media res. The four heroes arrive in the story already fully-formed by events we're never fully privy to (that's because it's unnecessary, for the record, but we'll come back to that, too.) It’s an easy mistake to call this an "origin story" because the first act is a going into business narrative, but in terms of the film proper and the story it's telling that's not really the case.
Think about how much important story and what modern-day franchise-blockbusters call "world-building" has already been handled before the film has even unfurled: When we meet the three founding Ghostbusters; Egon Spengler, Ray Stantz and Peter Venkman have already met and become friends, already agree that ghosts are real, already have a theory about exorcising them through science *and* already have the basic Ghostbusters business plan cooking behind the scenes of their research. Granted, none of them appear to have actually encountered one until they find the library ghost, but once they have they already know what it is and what they plan to do next.
On one level, this is just efficient storytelling. But on another level it's establishing a setup whereby the film gets to be itself: The whole comedic "hook" of the film is watching this grand “invasion-by-dark-forces” occult adventure story play out in mostly serious terms while four snarky heroes react to it in funny ways; and since there'd be less room to BE funny if they also had to explain the plot and their motivations within it, the film relegates all that business to passing references to pre-film events - trusting that the screenplay is sharp enough and the actors good enough to get all the necessary data across in passing. And they are.
As a result, the Ghostbusters themselves don't really have individual character arcs, at least not as they'd be recognized in Screenwriting 101 today:
Egon is exactly the same guy at the end of GHOSTBUSTERS as he is at the beginning. His personality doesn't change, he was never "wrong" about anything and even the implication that he and Jeanine are eventually going to hook up and make adorable nerd-babies doesn't really seem to faze him. There's a sense that his Hail-Mary saving throw at the end about crossing the streams is a way out-of-character move for him, but he comes out the same guy.
Ray undergoes even less of a shift. He's the childlike "mascot" of the team, and the closest thing he has to an arc is right at the end when his attempt to thwart Gozer's scheme to draw The Destructor from the Ghostbusters own imaginations by regressing into innocent memories of youth (a coping tactic one imagines Ray employs a lot in his life as it is) fails and instead conjures The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. But while this mistake is noted, the both Ray and his colleagues mainly just shrug it off as “Well, of course that’s something Ray would do.” And yet, even devoid of anything resembling "growth," Ray remains fully the heart and soul of the film.
Even Peter, who feels the most like he should have an arc given that his would-be romance with Dana Barrett makes him the 'Buster with the meatiest B-story, really doesn't - and if he does, it's over by Act II when we see his first honest reaction in being attacked by Slimer. Otherwise, Venkman's story is all about misdirection: We're told from the get go, both by the film and the man himself, that Peter is the consummate con-man and pickup artist - which is meant to be ironic since The Ghostbusters are performing for real a "job" (i.e. exorcism) usually undertaken by phonies and charlatans.
But for all the talk, we never actually see him prove that reputation all that well: Dana sees right through him – it’s the basis of their relationship! As such, what would be the "payoff" to this arc in a more conventional narrative - i.e. The Player gets played once Dana has been possessed by the seductress GateKeeper demon - is yet more misdirection: As it turns out, ancient powers of manipulation are no match for 20th Century sleeping pills.
On the other hand, Peter’s lack of an authentic up-front “heroes journey” while still getting on-balance more screen time than the other four Ghostbusters WORKS largely because he’s sharing his non-Busting scenes with the great Sigourney Weaver, who – it’s easy to forget – was still two years AWAY from cementing her place as the First Lady of American sci-fi blockbusters.
For most of the film Dana Barrett is a thankless role – she has to be the straight-woman the literally every other character’s comic shenanigans until Act 3, wherein she gets subsumed by the more broad character the body-possessing Zuul. And while she’s not precisely the audience point-of-view character, she is the film’s anchor: Gozer, Zuul and 55 Central Park West are scary because she’s scared by them. We can accept that Venkman is actually a mostly-decent guy because she seems to think so and what non-comedic stakes the narrative has are indeed her stakes. In other words, she’s sort-of a plot device – and yet Weaver is so vibrant, real and engaging in the part Dana also works as a full-fledged character, and it never feels like the movie is just cutting back to her story because it “has to.” That’s not easy to pull off.
And while we’re at it, special attention must be paid to how brilliantly Annie Potts inhabits a hard-to-pin-down yet instantly memorable character like Jannine Melnitz, our how completely Rick Moranis commits to the outrageous caricature that is Louis Tully and the somehow even MORE bizarre Vinz Clortho the Keymaster. And, of course, has anyone ever been better at playing a complete dick than William Atherton (Walter Peck?)?
And then there's Winston Zeddemore. Let's talk about Winston Zeddemore.
Everybody knows by now that Winston's role was written for Eddie Murphy, and you can see where that makes sense in terms of the meta-symbolism of the older-guard SNL/SCTV comics enlisting the face of the new generation. But surely the luck of not being able to get Murphy can't be overstated. And not just because of the hindsight factor where Eddie's eventual superstar status would've turned GHOSTBUSTERS into a retroactive "Eddie Murphy movie" where the biggest star is stuck in supporting duty.
Yes, Ernie Hudson doesn't get an especially great amount of screen time as Winston (largely because he wasn't AS big a star as Murphy would've been, even then) but he *does* end up providing a vital component without which the film wouldn't feel quite as unique as it does. Of the four 'Buster actors, Hudson is the lone non-comedian among sketch comedy veterans; and by choice or happenstance that adds a welcome layer of meta-text to Winston - since he's the odd man out in the story, too.
Whereas Peter, Ray and Egon are all scientists from either well-heeled or at least academically-ensconced backgrounds, Winston is a regular guy - or at least he seems to be. In the original screenplay, he was actually meant to have been a former Marine and multi-disciplined PhD scientist who was actually more qualified than the three founders. But basically none of that ends up onscreen: as a result, Winston is presented as an everyman - the Audience POV character. In that respect, Hudson's energetic but grounded characterization humanizes and solidifies the proceedings in ways that, sorry, Eddie Murphy simply wouldn't have.
Finally, Winston being (or at least seeming to be) a regular person who can learn to master the Ghostbusters technology feels very much a part of what might be the film's most unfairly overlooked element of quiet yet revolutionary subversion.
LET’S DIG DEEPER:
One thing that sets the heroes of GHOSTBUSTERS apart from most of their contemporaries and nearly *all* 21st Century blockbuster leads is that there isn't a "chosen one" or a "destined hero" among them. Venkman, Stantz and Spengler are Ghostbusters because they discovered a way that they could use their knowledge and skills to earn a living and benefit society. Zeddemore is a Ghostbuster because he answered a Help Wanted ad. The qualifications for the role are wholly technical and real-world skills based - they aren't knights or samurai or wizards... they're basically just supernatural pest-control. And that is where the real genius of this whole enterprise resides.
Now, to talk about this most important aspect, we need to digress a bit and recognize the ways in which GHOSTBUSTERS is somewhat a victim of its own success. While rightly seen today as an exemplar of the wild creativity associated with high-concept blockbusters of the 80s, it’s easy to forget that this movie did not conjure it’s central plot element of ancient occult evil breaking out in a modern metropolis out of whole cloth - that particular aspect exists largely as a reaction to other films and aspects of the pop culture zeitgeist of the moment.
A particular fascination with the supernatural, occultism and even Satanism had gripped American popular culture from the mid-1970s well into the 80s; largely seen as part of a broader “traditionalist” reaction against the rising trends toward secularism in the 1960s that saw (among other events) the mainstreaming of televangelism, moral panic about hidden messages in rock music and culminating in the wholesale assimilation of the American right-wing by the so-called “Religious Right” that helped push Ronald Reagan into political prominence.
While most visibly transformative in political and social realms, this shift also had a profound impact on genre fiction – particularly in film, where features like THE EXORCIST, OMEN, THE GUARDIAN, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and countless others literalized the “demons among us” rhetoric of the new revivalism with stories about demonic occult forces lingering in the shadows; repurposing imagery and rhetoric from medieval “blood libel” propaganda to more modern paranoia about Freemasonry or global-government into tales of demons, devils and even Lucifer himself rising in the conspiratorial background of the world’s elite spaces – the inevitable result of a modern world turned from the One True God; ultimately (and tragically) giving rise to real life “Satanic Panic” hysteria via books like Michelle Remembers and tabloid journalists sensationalizing The McMartin Preschool Trial.
But that serious stuff is another show. We’re here to talk about the movies.
Now since GHOSTBUSTERS is a comedy but not a parody, it doesn't really make explicit reference to any of that. But make no mistake: From the secret pagan altar covertly concealed within a strange but otherwise anonymous old building, Zuul's Netherworld hangout glimpsed in Dana Barrett's refrigerator, the unsettling subsequent tableaus of Dana being engulfed by demonic limbs and "Gatekeeper Dana" vamping on the altar in the red dress, the city skyline overrun with streaks of ghost energy, the banal domesticity of the haunting sequences in Dana's kitchen and Lewis Tully's house party and Gozer "itself" standing with the Terror Dogs; GHOSTBUSTERS is *marinated* in visual iconography signifying a connection to the popular-culture's familiarity with then-recent possession/haunting imagery and also to more genre-savvy fans’ shared reference-points for D&D-style quasi-occult symbology and the 70s/80s resurgent popularity for early 20th Century pulp fantasists like H.P. Lovecraft. (That one especially being an unspoken ur-text influence later made explicit by an appearance by none other than Cthulhu himself in the spin-off animated series.)
Of course, using immediately-familiar aesthetic shorthand isn't in itself revolutionary. What's key is that GHOSTBUSTERS doesn't merely stop at borrowing post-EXORCIST horror's scenario of a Satanically-infected New York for effect, it twists the idea back around against itself to build up its own mythos and firmly establish its heroes as specifically-subversive counter-culture iconoclasts… ones whose subversion was so successful it ultimately supplanted the icons they both swiped-from and swatted-at in the public imagination, to the extent that the sheer grandeur of their victory is all but lost to popular memory.
To understand why and how, you first need to ask yourself a simple question: “What is Gozer?” Gozer is a god. An ancient, pre-historic (and, outside the context of the story, fictional) god, yes; but a god all the same. In fact, despite the overly convoluted Lovecraftian backstory involving Zuul, Vinz Clortho, Keymaster, Gatekeeper, etc being needlessly overcomplicated for humorous effect; the initial incarnation of Gozer is actually pretty well researched as these things go: There's a lot of subtle Freemason-esque detailing to the altar set, the Terror Dogs are an interesting mix of Pagan and/or Occult animal-iconography like goats, bulls and hounds with elements of Medieval and Gothic Chrisitan gargoyles.
And, of course, Gozer itself appearing in the form of a vaguely-androgynous but subtly female-favoring form that fits comfortably into the framework of various prehistoric Matriarchal goddess-figures like those associated with the pre-Olympian gods of pre-Hellenistic Ancient Greece - notably, while somewhat out of style today, the idea of Matriarchal nature-cults being especially widespread among prehistoric humans was enjoying popular favor as a branch of hypothetical occult scholarship at the time.
But Gozer also incorporates elements closer to more familiar masculine-identified gods - specifically The God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam: What's the humanoid Gozer's main special-attack? Lightning. And then there's the enemy's final form: A giant booming voice in the clouds, shouting down at humanity. It's easy to miss the daring significance of this visual given that it precedes the much more iconic and GHOSTBUSTERS-specific introduction of Mr. Stay-Puft as The Destructor; but think about it for a minute: In this moment, Gozer is largely indistinguishable a decidedly Old Testament vision of not simply a god but The God. And that's pretty damn interesting when you remember that The Ghostbusters aren't standing before Gozer as worshippers, challengers, sacrifices or even rival-religionists trying to work out the proper prayer or incantation to banish it.
Yeah! Ever think about that? In most movies involving all-powerful deities or demigods, the "finisher" tends to be finding a talisman or long-forgotten trick in the canon OF the otherworldly fiend itself; with the explicit or implicit moral to the story almost *always* being that a familiarity with and respect for The Old Traditions is necessary to remain safe even in modernity. Remember: that's the underlying theme of even THE EXORCIST – if only Reagan's all-too-modern mom (a single mother acting in movies about leftist political-activism, by the way) hadn't raised her as a godless, secular heathen, she might not have needed an Old Priest/Young Priest tag-team to keep Satan-by-way-of-Pazuzu from taking hold of her.
But that's not GHOSTBUSTERS. When Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler and Winston Zeddemore stand before Gozer the Gozarian; they are scientists of no discernably notable religious disposition (except for Winston, sort of) standing against a god - and they've come to defeat that god *with science.* GHOSTBUSTERS, fundamentally, stripped to its core, is a movie about science versus superstition - the ascendant technological ingenuity of man (and, as mentioned, not even “special” ingenuity that only certain benighted scientists can use, since the Ghostbusters have already refined their tech into a democratized user-friendly form that a newbie like Winston can evidently learn to wield in the course of a day or two) versus (literally!) the ancient powers of the gods. And since nearly all modern stories about humanity's relation to ancient or fictional gods are subtextually "about" the relation of said story's society of origin to its own currently-dominant spiritual belief systems... yeah, you see where this going: GHOSTBUSTERS is a science vs religion story where religion gets its ass handed to it.
Four men of science, representatives previously of a secular academia that institutionalizes the forward-thrust of knowledge against belief and the Western city that most iconically symbolizes the upward ascendance of human progress - stand before an ancient all-powerful lightning-tossing voice from the clouds and declare in no uncertain terms: "No! You don't get to win anymore. You don't get to be in charge anymore. Knowledge is power. We've got it. We know how to use it. Everything from the management of Spirits to the date the world ends isn't under your control anymore, it's under ours!" Or, as Peter puts it:
“Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown!”
Now, again, I'm talking strictly subtext and meta-text here (and not necessarily even intentional extra-meaning, at that!) I'm certainly not looking to suggest some kind of insipid "fan theory" that the prehistoric god Gozer and the modern understanding of the Judeo-Christian God are somehow one and the same (by way of mythic-appropriation and widely-recognized historical record of Monotheism assimilating prior Polytheistic traditions) or that The Ghostbusters aren't simply cancelling out Gozer's world-ending shenanigans but in fact thwarting God Himself’s plan for the actual Biblically-proscribed Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. Nope, not at all. Firstly, because insipid fan-theories aren't what REALLY THAT GOOD is all about. And secondly... because I don't need to suggest that - the movie does it for me, in the quiet scene where Ray and Winston discuss their respective relationships with religion while driving at night in Ecto-I: When Ray (seemingly an Atheist or agnostic) refers to Judgement Day as one of many “myths about the end of the world,” Winston (either a Christian or at least was raised as such) asks him if he ever considered that they’re recent spike in business could be evidence that Judgement Day has actually started to play out.
But, again, I don't know or care if we were “meant” to take The Ghostbusters as Atheist Superheroes. I'm interested in subtext and symbology within the words and moving-pictures; and once you recognize the technology-conquers-superstition theme at the core of GHOSTBUSTERS, the symbology is everywhere.
What's often seen as the very beginning of science re: man taking control of powerful natural forces rather than seeing them as things to be feared and worshipped? Fire. What real-world heroic vocation are the Ghostbusters most explicitly associated with? Firemen. What's the role of a god in most spiritual systems? Creating and managing The Universe. What's the Universe made of? Atoms. What's the source of The Ghostbuster's spirit-wrangling and eventually god-killing powers? They harness the power of splitting those very atoms. Dana and Lewis Tully are freed from their enslavement to Gozer by the (literal!) smashing of decayed, powerless stone idols - stone idols not unlike the lion statue that looms large and imposing in the first shot of the film. Hell, if you want to really stretch things, both Ectoplasm and the viscous remains of StayPuft could easily be taken as flood, baptism and rebirth imagery... or maybe not.
LET’S TALK IMPACT:
I'm not going to claim I'm the first person to point out that GHOSTBUSTERS is subtextually a science-versus-religion movie. And besides, while subtext and symbolism are interesting they only mean so much without examining what their presence accomplishes in terms of how the work in question impacts its audience; and while I'd happily argue that the mere presence of these themes makes GHOSTBUSTERS a smarter, richer, more intellectually-layered film than it's commonly understood to be (perhaps even by some of its biggest fans); that doesn’t automatically explain why this isn’t simply a good movie and a smart movie but a great and beloved movie… but, you know what might?
I know it’s been a few pages and we’ve covered a lot of ground, but remember how I mentioned that it’s an interesting screenwriting gamble for the heroes of GHOSTBUSTERS not to have conventional individual character-arcs? Part of what’s interesting is that you can easily see how a less inventive, more cookie-cutter screenplay could try to impose one: Just make one or two of the heroes outwardly and openly resistant to the idea that spirituality has any place in fighting ghosts, only to have the tech come up short against Gozer and said resistant heroes have to “open their minds” and get some magic talisman of spellbook or whatever for the real key to thwarting Armageddon; thus learning a lesson about considering other viewpoints and blah blah blah… You get the idea. Oh! Hey, people writing the scripts for these “new” Ghostbusters movies? That thing I just described? Don’t do that. That would be stupid.
Ahem. In any case, the original GHOSTBUSTERS doesn’t do that. And while in subtext that means it’s a rare science-versus-god movie that comes down definitively and enthusiastically on the pro-science side and that’s all well and good… in the actual text of the film, it means it’s a movie about how all you need to rid the world of evil of darkness is the tools and talent. Now that might be a foregone conclusion (or commonly-shared fantasy of a just world order) to you and me, but… there are people for whom it’s not. They’re called children.
Something else I mentioned back at the start was that one reason GHOSTBUSTERS is sometimes suspected to be “overrated” is that a lot of people who love it came to love it as children, and thus could be expected to be nostalgia-blind to any hypothetical flaws it might have. When GHOSTBUSTERS hit in 1984, it had been 7 years since the advent of STAR WARS and a lot of Hollywood was still slowly absorbing the idea that children and teenagers had supplanted college-aged and adult moviegoers as the prime audience for blockbusters and the sci-fi/fantasy genre in particular, and GHOSTBUSTERS is very much a sibling to BACK TO THE FUTURE, ROBOCOP, TERMINATOR, ALIENS, POLICE ACADEMY and other films made decidedly for an adult that wound up being adopted with unexpected zeal by kids.
GHOSTBUSTERS is a movie made overwhelmingly for an adult audience. Sure there are things in it that a younger crowd is inevitably going to zero in on like monsters and lasers and… well, that’s actually it - monsters and lasers - but they aren’t even close to having majority screen time. Most of the movie is about grownups and grownup “stuff”: Starting a business, money problems, flirting at work, dating, sex, ghost sex, legal trouble, red tape, etc. And there’s actually not a great deal of physical comedy, with most of the humor being verbal digs, one-liners and clever wordplay. Even the pop-culture references are decidedly Boomer-centric.
So what was so appealing about it to kids? Was it *just* the monsters and lasers? Remember, the home video era hadn’t fully dawned yet, so the kids who were enraptured by GHOSTBUSTERS in 1984 largely became so watching it in theaters. Were the relatively brief onscreen appearances of Slimer and Mr. Stay-Puft really so compelling that Gen-X kids were willing to sit fidgety and bored through story-points about the upscale New York dating scene and haggling with regulators at work just to get to them? Well, it wouldn’t be the only time the world went nuts over a movie for one or two scenes, but… I don’t think so. I think GHOSTBUSTERS spoke to kids – to everybody, but especially to a generation and now generations of youngsters – in a way that nobody could’ve predicted.
The world of GHOSTBUSTERS is a world where big cosmic horrors are omnipresent but always just out of sight. Where that creeping feeling of dread in an otherwise familiar home or that something “off” about the banal sameness of a hotel hallway at night or the unsettling staleness of an old library really are evidence of lurking malevolent horrors. Where that rustling in the bushes at night really is something evil out to get you, and that creepy stranger is… more than *just* creepy. Where something really IS going bump in the night, hiding under the bed, lurking in the shadows and, yes, where there is a monster in the closet. But if they scare you, you’re likely to be told it’s all in your head, or not really all that scary, or that you should get over it; which in turn is going to make you feel not only frightened but alone.
To children, that world is also known as their real world, day to day. Kids don’t need to make much of logical leap to understand a movie where people live at the mercy of seemingly malevolent forces beyond their understanding or control – most of them feel like they’re living it, already. But in the GHOSTBUSTERS’ world, there’s something that can checkmate all the scary stuff: You.
The subtext that underlines and empowers the narrative of GHOSTBUSTERS is science and technology overcoming superstition and the supernatural, but the practical surface-text is monsters and ghosts being overcome by cool gadgets – and not cool gadgets powered by the same indeterminate scary stuff that the bad guys are made of or cool gadgets that are rare and hard to find or cool gadgets that only certain special people can use like in so many other stories. It’s made unmistakably clear that the Ghostbusters thought up, made and maintain the proton packs, traps, PKE meters and the containment unit themselves – and that is all-important for understanding the power of this particular fantasy.
The unique, powerful idea at the heart of GHOSTBUSTERS isn’t simply that ghosts and demons and things that go bump in the night are real, and it also isn’t simply that they can be busted. It’s that with the right equipment and a little bit of know-how you could bust them. And while there is a grownup appeal in that idea particularly in the aforementioned subtextual mans-conquest-over-god sense, the appeal of that to the mindset of kids is far more potent, more obvious and more powerful: With cleverness and determination, you can take control of what scares you, assert your own power over what lurks in the dark and beat back the things that frighten you; and that core idea makes Spengler, Stantz, Venkman and Zeddemore more than movie heroes: it makes them the Spirit Animals of every kid who ever set a trap for the monster under their bed or even stayed awake trying to catch a glimpse of The Tooth Fairy.
Incidentally, this was *another* idea later realized in more explicit terms by the more deliberately kid-focused animated series, wherein The Ghostbusters fought the (literal!) Boogeyman (Season 1, Episode 6: “The Boogieman Cometh”) revealing that having been menaced by the creature as a child played an all-important role in inspiring Egon’s commitment to mastering the how and why of blasting away the supernatural - which of course makes perfect sense. Just like the fantasy of being a Ghostbuster appealing so strongly to audiences of young kids makes perfect sense, even as the filmmakers had never planned it that way.
ON THE OTHER HAND:
Now, this is a series about positivity. But accentuating the positive of good movies doesn’t mean ignoring flaws, denying issues or glossing over the problematic. GHOSTBUSTERS is a truly great film (if you’re not convinced of that by now, then why are you even still reading this?) but it’s not a perfect film and it’s imperfections deserve notice amid the praise.
The storytelling in Act II leans a little bit heavy on montage. Louis Tully is kind of a thin character relative to how much screen time and story-investment gets, while by contrast Janine and Winston both feel like they could’ve used a bit more. The ghost-blowjob is a funny gag but it feels just a touch out-of-step with the rest of the film and the importance of crossing (or rather NOT crossing) the proton streams could’ve stood at least one more hat-tip between the hotel sequence and finale if we’re talking structural business.
More substantively, while it holds up “better” than just about any other 80s movie featuring a supposed “ladies man” hero does in this regard, Venkman’s pickup-artist routine does feel more and more… well, a little bit skeevy as time goes on. Granted, the film does a good job at subverting this in the story-proper, with his introductory scene falsifying the psychic test making it pretty clear that we’re to recognize this behavior making Peter kind of a dick and Dana (an independent-minded, successful grown woman) not buying his schtick for a minute and seeing through to the (presumably) redeemable Ghostbuster within right away. That’s fine, but then you remember that nobody has that many go-to lines to say nothing of self-confidence without putting in a lot of practice and you recall that he held a position of significant power at a co-ed University for years and, well, the unquestioned presence of this kind of character as “just” a playfully rakish scoundrel is the sort of thing that can’t help but date the film and not in a good way.
And then there’s the Walter Peck subplot. Yeah, that thing. Peter Venkman getting even less pushback for his creeper-tendencies than, say, Glenn Quagmire is some “bad old days” cold water to the face of GHOSTBUSTERS warm n’ fuzzy 80s nostalgia factor; but the red-herring villain being an environmental regulator with actually pretty reasonable concerns about nuclear-tech in the middle of a city is a genuine eye-roller – an unfortunate relic of the Reagan-era “backlash culture” cynically reframing the disastrous corporate-fellating rollback of Federal health, safety and general-welfare regulations in terms of idealized small business Davids beset by beaurocratic Goliaths; rendered even more unfortunate by how at odds it is with the film’s otherwise smart and decidedly forward-looking themes of scientific progress, entrepreneurship for the common good, class-consciousness and re-assertion of the melting-pot metropolis as societal pinnacle worth defending.
On the other hand, I’m inclined to at least give the film credit for casting Peck strictly in terms of a petty tyrant, not necessarily representative of his vocation. Hell, there’s not even any trite, overly-tidy reveal that he’s somehow “working for” or “influenced by” Gozer (and you’d better believe that if they wrote this today, that’s exactly what would end up happening). Also, well-intentioned red tape creating a pain in the ass for startup businesses IS a thing that happens. Sorry, it is.
Even while acknowledging the film’s imperfections, the relative triviality of their presence mainly serves to highlight just how startlingly close to perfection the total package actually gets. Upon full inspection – its component parts broken down, analyzed from all possible angles, studied bit by bit under the metaphorical microscope and reassembled for posterity and a more complete re-appreciation – GHOSTBUSTERS isn’t just a good movie or a great film… its existence is something close to miraculous.
The ingenious premise of exorcists as high-tech exterminators is inventive enough that you’d almost have to try to make a boring movie out of it, and 1984 was indeed the ideal moment in both the development of the modern special-effects blockbuster and the overall pop-culture zeitgeist for such ideas to first be explored, granted. And both the grownup-skewing subtext of scientific conquest over mystic superstition and the kid-empowering surface-text of your worst fears being no match for creative know-how are pretty-much always going to “work” in terms of audience engagement.
But that it also maintains such an easygoing, deceptively laid-back, jovial comic tone? That it feels so loose, unkempt and anarchic even as it fires the imagination of the young and prods the humor-center of the older? That it comes across so effortless and idiosyncratic even as it builds a complete lived-in world, develops iconic three-dimensional characters, lays out a functional comprehensive mythology while also deftly satirizing a genre and the culture swirling around it and covertly challenging the beliefs and worldview of a big chunk of its prospective audience?
That’s not supposed to be possible. That’s not supposed to happen. And that’s definitely not supposed to work. Not while also being this funny, this exciting, this imagination-expanding, this subversive, his meaningful, this compulsively watchable and absolutely NOT with this once in a lifetime confluence of such specific talents behind and in front of the camera. But it did happen. And while it might be talked to death by some fans, championed for exactly the wrong reason by others and indeed over-praised in the grand scheme of things… it holds up. The damn silly thing holds up.
GHOSTBUSTERS holds up.
GHOSTBUSTERS is as good as you remember.
GHOSTBUSTERS is smarter than you might’ve given it credit for.
GHOSTBUSTERS is deeper than you may have considered.
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