3.5 out of 5 stars

Books floating in a library basement. Drawers opened untouched, with cards shooting out wildly. This is unmistakably the work of a poltergeist. But whom do you contact for such a problem? William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) suggested sending a letter to a priest, while Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) suggested a more novel approach by hiring parapsychologists.

But there was never anything quite like the Ghostbusters. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are a group of academics specialising in parapsychology. Fired by their university and thrown out onto the streets of New York City, they decide their only option is to start a ghost-catching business from an old fire station in the city. However, they’re unaware of a supernatural storm brewing on the horizon, far larger than they could ever imagine.

The original Ghostbusters still seems like a miracle. It features jokes that are too risqué for children, a silly tone that’s too frivolous for some adults, and a plot that barely makes sense. Yet, Ghostbusters proves that things don’t need to read well on paper to be successful. Sometimes, for whatever reason, everything just lands in the sweet spot.

Raking in almost $250M at the box office—and that’s just during its initial run—Ghostbusters did far better than the producers had anticipated. It became the highest-grossing comedy film of all time, dethroning National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)—which Ivan Reitman also directed and Ramis co-wrote—until it was itself usurped by Beverly Hills Cop (1984) later that same summer. However, in terms of cultural cachet, it’s undeniable that Ghostbusters has left a larger mark on the public’s subconscious. This is also evidenced by the fact that Ghostbusters has enjoyed several re-releases, each of which performed well at the box office.

The commercial success of Ghostbusters was likely due to the expert branding created before the film’s release. Reitman practically guaranteed box-office success when he released TV adverts for the film in an innovative new way. Actors Billy Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis addressed the viewer in character, offering their services as phantom catchers: “Do you have a ghost problem?”

In place of a standard trailer, this inventive approach was both direct and absurd, instantly embedding itself in the viewer’s mind. Reitman also included a phone number in the advert, which people inevitably rang up. They were greeted by a pre-recorded message from Murray and Aykroyd, informing them they were out on business: “Hi. We’re out catching ghosts right now…” Reportedly, this hotline was inundated with phone calls, receiving over 1,000 calls per hour, 24 hours a day, for several weeks. Now that’s what you call good marketing…

Speaking of good marketing, Ray Parker Jr.’s catchy theme song is estimated to have added at least $20M to the film’s revenue. How this figure has been calculated is unclear, but it speaks volumes about the undeniable contribution Ray’s song made to the product as a commercial entity. Much like Reitman’s trailer and hotline, the song directly addresses the listener. It also keeps to the theme, replicating the film’s advertising language. Parker Jr. does this to such an extraordinarily catchy effect that four words have been indelibly ingrained in our collective psyche: “Who you gonna call?”

Undoubtedly, this had a significant effect on the public’s curiosity, which bolstered the film’s profits. But the visual iconography that represented everything the Ghostbusters team stood for was perfect, too. I can’t think of many symbols from comedies that have become as instantly recognisable as the team’s logo: a white spectre trapped within a red ‘No Entry’ sign. So simple, yet it’s this very simplicity that makes it so identifiable.

Ramis and Aykroyd were apparently under the influence for most of the writing process, which is evident in the final film. The whole plot feels like the result of a thousand ideas thrown around in a room full of mates who are a bit worse for wear. This feeling is likely only exacerbated by the fact that the actors rarely stuck to the script. Aykroyd has since said that roughly 80% of the film’s dialogue was improvised, and who knows how many entire sequences were included as they were filming.

This lack of cohesion was present from the story’s very inception. Aykroyd’s original idea included many disparate elements and was subsequently changed on several occasions. Production problems further complicated this. John Belushi, who was supposed to star as Peter Venkman, died unexpectedly of an overdose. Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy declined the role of Winston Zeddemore, which led to the part being significantly shortened. Moreover, the film was also originally entitled Ghost Smashers, which certainly doesn’t have the same panache as Ghostbusters.

One of these last-minute changes can be found in the climactic sequence at the end of the film: the crossing of the streams. Even though they’ve explicitly stated that they shouldn’t, along with Aykroyd’s vague mutterings about a total protonic reversal, the gang does precisely this to save the day. Ramis’ scientific gibberish in the final battle explaining the reason behind its potential success—a lot of Ramis and Aykroyd’s roles in the film feature this kind of forced exposition—isn’t comprehensible, but it doesn’t need to be.

I imagine everyone involved knew it didn’t truly need to be logical—after all, they’re about to be squashed by a colossal, demonic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. If the audience has followed them this far, a little deus ex machina probably won’t lose anyone. It’s probably what the audience has come to expect from the film. For a movie about fighting ghosts, there’s little to no threat throughout, so why should the ending be downbeat? This can be seen in how, despite the entire top half of the building exploding, not a single character is even injured. Logic be damned! “I love this town!”

Arguably, this is what made the film such a huge success. Of course, the marketing was a massive component, but the film was so cheerfully unserious that it was difficult not to enjoy it. Some parts of the plot are only really included to cram as much fun as possible into a single movie. This didn’t quite match the cartoon TV series spin-off, which gave me a few nightmares as a child.

Ironically, while a cartoon series geared towards kids caused nightmares, the film that features unending innuendos was a massive hit with all ages. This PG-rated classic had ghostly fellatio, plans to get the giant Stay Puft laid, and Sigourney Weaver’s possessed Dana telling Venkman: “I want you inside me.” The paranormally-educated Venkman politely refuses: “It sounds like you’ve got at least two people in there already.”

The supernatural demons are also hilariously suggestive. “I’m the Keymaster!” proclaims Louis Tully (Rick Moranis’), as this nudnick from next door strides towards Dana, who wears a lascivious grin. “I’m the Gatekeeper…” There’s also a quietly funny shot of the pair post-coitus, with Dana smiling demonically. Meanwhile, Tully is lying back against a marble slab, utterly spent. Even the demonic spirit inside him isn’t enough to give him stamina after finally sleeping with his crush.

Whilst the jokes are funny, it’s the committed performances of all involved that make this film highly rewatchable. It’s a bit of a hangout movie: much like Rio Bravo (1959), the team gathers together to stop evil, but it’s mostly about watching the gang enjoy each other’s company. As they swap John Wayne’s Winchester for a proton pack, they adapt themselves into the fearless, joke-cracking ghost-sheriffs of NYC.

Ramis and Aykroyd also make the clever creative decision of never turning the ghosts into outright villains. The real baddie in the film is the bureaucracy-obsessed Walter Peck (William Atherton), who was so convincing in his role that he was harassed for years after the film’s release. Ramis wanted him to be a more subtle villain, but he perhaps overlooked that the entire film is rather in-your-face.

Ramis’s performance as Egon Spengler is my favourite in the film. He’s both charming and unceasingly deadpan, somehow lovable despite not smiling once throughout the entire movie. Aykroyd’s portrayal of Ray Stantz is amusing, and Moranis’s performance as the pestiferous accountant is deeply funny.

Annie Potts elicits a chuckle every time she’s on-screen as the irritable Janine Melnitz, who is harbouring an enormous crush on the socially awkward Egon. Sigourney Weaver (Alien) is also terrific as Dana. She modelled herself after Margaret Dumont, maintaining a serious composure in the midst of what she perceived to be her generation’s Marx Brothers.

Admittedly, I can’t warm to Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman. I adore some of Murray’s characters, particularly his turn as the narcissistic weatherman in Groundhog Day (1993). However, in Ghostbusters, he’s just as loud, brash, and self-absorbed, but never undergoes the personal growth that ultimately makes him likeable in Ramis’ time-loop classic. Of course, that’s not the point of Ghostbusters, but his pushy behaviour with Dana and his overall arrogant demeanour throughout the film never sat well with me. Though, I imagine I’m in the minority here.

The special effects are superb and still hold up wonderfully. Unsurprisingly, the visual effects have aged a little, but if anything, it adds a certain charm to the film. It makes it even more endearing, maturing well like a fine, haunted wine. The effects are also just as funny as they would have been 40 years ago.

Perhaps this is why Ghostbusters remains such a firm favourite with audiences. Some parts have aged, but aged well, while the rest remains surprisingly timeless. Ghostbusters could easily have become a little-seen B-movie, what with the ramshackle writing and production process, coupled with the bizarre overall concept.

Yet everything came together. The jokes are funny, and they land because they have a fantastic cast. But it’s the atmosphere that everyone keeps coming back for pure, silly, not entirely innocent fun. Bundle this all together and set it to an impossibly catchy theme tune, and you have a hit for the ages. If the Rapture ever does happen, I know exactly who I’m going to be phoning—who are you gonna call?

USA | 1984 | 105 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Ivan Reitman.
writers: Dan Akroyd & Harold Ramis.
starring: Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson & William Atherton.