WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: When paranormal activity starts spooking the citizens of New York, who can they call? The Ghostbusters, of course, a group of scientists dedicated to professional paranormal investigation and elimination – unless they’re making it up as they go along, that is. Con artists or the real thing, they had better be prepared for a seismic amount of trouble heading their way from the spirit world.
A disruptive spectral disturbance in the bowels of New York’s public library is investigated by a curious trio of parapsychologists: Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), enthusiastic but unfocused; Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), serious-minded to a fault; and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), a cynic who conducts ESP tests mainly to hit on pretty students. However, the breakthrough proves short-lived when Columbia University ejects them for a lack of results, forcing Ray to mortgage the old family home to set up ‘Ghostbusters’ as a private enterprise in a mouldy old fire station.
Business starts slowly, but picks up when cellist Dana Barratt (Sigourney Weaver) visits with tales of dogs in her fridge barking mysterious words at her. Venkman suspects that Dana herself is slightly barking but is still keen to woo her, although larger forces have other plans for her. The Ghostbusters, having worked out how to capture and store ghouls with powerful proton streams, find themselves increasingly in demand and take on a new recruit in Winston Zeddemore (Ernest Hudson). What’s more, Stantz and Spengler discover that Dana’s building is a lightning rod for an ancient Sumerian God who is using Dana and her priggish neighbour Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) to gain access to our dimensions. The God’s arrival unleashes ghostly mayhem on New Yorkers and pits our heroes against the most unpredictable of adversaries.
It’s no surprise that Ghostbusters is funny, the director and stars of the entirely passable Stripes teaming up with an inspired Dan Aykroyd (starring and co-writing with Ramis) to hilarious effect – examples are too numerous to mention, but I particularly like the sarcasm of Venkman’s reaction to Dana’s tales of monsters in the fridge: ‘generally you don’t see that kind of behaviour in a major appliance.’ Bill Murray is the undoubted star of the show, his quick wit and knowing smirk lighting up the screen and sparking effectively off William Atherton’s pompous Environmental nitwit William Peck; but he’s run quite close by a number of his co-stars, not least Moranis who’s on top witless form.
More than any gag, though, the real delight about Ghostbusters is how hard it works to persuade the viewer to suspend their disbelief. Enormous effort has gone into making the world of the Ghostbusters plausible, with special effects that still look pretty good, for example the upheaval of the pavements outside ‘Spook Central’ (of course the effects creak in places, but they’re not the awful CGI that occasionally invaded Ghostbusters II). Another example is the sly work that goes into establishing Stay-Puft marshmallows as a brand throughout the movie – it’s so convincing, I always assumed Stay-Puft was a genuine product.
There’s also a pseudo-scientific logic to the script which explains events very well (mostly through Ramis’ stiff, stern delivery), introducing terms such as ‘psychokinetic energy’ and ‘ectoplasm’ (‘he slimed me!’*) to a wider audience. Sigourney Weaver’s statuesque presence undoubtedly adds gravitas to the picture too. These elements all distinguish Ghostbusters from more lightweight and knowingly parodic fare such as The Three Amigos or Dragnet, or gimmicky 80s films like Weird Science; and it means that when Mr Stay-Puft goes on the rampage, it feels less like a goofy joke and more like a real (if absurd) threat.
Ghostbusters is a comedy first and foremost, and it’s by no means a horror flick; on the other hand, it has a few fun scares and takes its fantasy elements seriously – when it’s time to not be jokey, it looks and sounds like a proper action movie. And I’ve not even mentioned Ray Parker Jr’s invaluable contribution, an incredibly catchy theme song – even if it does lean heavily on a track by Huey Lewis and the News.
So is there anything not to like? Only if you’re really looking. Ramis is stiff in comparison with the others, Ray’s dream sequence is unnecessary and Zeddemore’s religious slant on events doesn’t add a great deal either. Also, the climax, particularly Gozer’s distinctly brief appearance, does feel slightly truncated, and its resolution – reversing the particle flow – is a Science Fiction staple from year dot (as, I suspect, the writers knew well). Finally, in retrospect there’s an awful lot of smoking for a family film. But as I say, you do have to go out of your way to pick nits.
I may well be compromised by nostalgia and my fondness for Ghostbusters as a youngster, but to my mind – and unlike some other childhood favourites (see Superman II) – the film holds up every bit as well today as it did in 1984. If anything, I can appreciate the sublime performances, especially Murray’s, even more as an adult.
In short, you should by rights fall into one of two camps as far as Ghostbusters is concerned. You’ve either seen it, in which case you know how good it is; or you’ve still got the pleasure of watching this clever and well-made fantasy action comedy ahead of you, in which case – what are you waiting for?
NOTES: I mention this purely to wallow in a bit of nostalgia about the Ghostbusters video game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which – impressively for the time – sampled speech from the film. Unfortunately, whilst ‘Ghostbusters!’ came out pretty clearly, ‘he slimed me’ sounded like ‘he szlmnlmlnmlml’.