In which I support and backtrack from that rather definitive statement.
Before we go any further, a disclaimer: I have not, as of this writing, seen the new Ghostbusters film. This article is not about the new Ghostbusters film. I have, as of this writing, no opinion about the new Ghostbusters film. After, and only after, I have seen the new Ghostbusters film, will I comment on the new Ghostbusters film. When I do, my comments will be about the new Ghostbusters film, and not on the original. This article is an examination of the original Ghostbusters film, and my personal belief that it is one of the greatest comedies ever made. This is an article I’ve been meaning to write for a while, and the new Ghostbusters film offers a good excuse to publish it. Perhaps, after seeing the new Ghostbusters film, I will offer a retraction and declare it one of the greatest comedies ever made. Maybe I won’t. Saying that I like the original is not the same as proclaiming that the new Ghostbusters film will be bad because it isn’t the original, so I don’t want any of that sexist, nostalgic nonsense in the comments. Got it?
If Ghostbusters were a novel, people would call it a magnum opus. It is the pinnacle of talent and ability for pretty much everyone involved. Many went on to do better and worse, but this is one of those rare fulcrum moments in which everyone involved gave their absolute best, and the result is a practically perfect movie in every respect. These are exceedingly rare, but were unusually common (it seems) in the eighties. Ghostbusters shared its decade with the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Die Hard, E.T., The Thing, Rain Man and Dead Poets Society. For all the flack that the seemingly endless bout of eighties nostalgia gets (and rightly deserves), the decade gave us a glut of truly wonderful and timeless films. Perhaps it was because the decade was nestled between the experimental seventies and the highly commercial nineties.
In many ways, Ghostbusters was indicative of the time, when audiences were still expecting the originality and complexity of the films of the seventies, while also looking for something more… entertaining? I think that the reason so many movies from this time period (and especially the mid decade) have such lasting influence is because they are just so damned much fun. They found a way to have engaging characters, involved in very detailed narratives, but never lose that sense of enjoyment. Even in the likes of Sophie’s Choice or Platoon, the decade lacked the soul crushing nihilism of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, or what would eventually come from the independent movement with films like Donnie Darko or Requiem for a Dream. Vietnam was over, greed was good, hair was big, and everyone just wanted to have fun. And I think that reflects in the flood of comedies that came out in the eighties. The wild, drug-fuelled chaos of Second City and SNL became the wild, drug-fuelled zeitgeist of the film industry, and the likes of Eddie Murphy, Rick Moranis, Bill Murray, Frank Oz, and Steve Martin were elevated to icons.
It all seemed to come together with Ghostbusters. I don’t think it hyperbolic to say that the original film is a work of comedic geniuses, and that it could have (and rightfully should have) fallen apart. And with something as subjective as comedy, which is dependent entirely on taste, it is hard if not functionally impossible to say that one is the best. Many would claim Blazing Saddles, while others would cite Airplane or Office Space or A Shot In The Dark. But when taking in the complete package, the balance of comedy to plot, focus on character and narrative progression while remaining fulfilling and entertaining, without getting distracted by the need to pull in easy laughs, Ghostbusters should be considered the most successfully comedic film ever.
Many will blame the drugs, but the eighties saw a flux of high concept films, the likes of which we still don’t get even today. All the more amazing is that they managed to make them accessible to a general audience, rather than get bogged down in detail, enjoyment reserved for the privileged few that can discern what the hell is going on. Films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Dragonslayer, or Dark Crystal, or Star Trek: The Voyage Home (the one with the whales) all took familiar concepts and pushed them up into a narrative level that audiences weren’t expecting. Then, and this is the important part, expected the audience to follow them. They didn’t dumb things down, they didn’t think the audience was stupid, and they didn’t compromise in order to make things more accessible. Think of all the time science fiction and fantasy movies wastes on exposition, and now think of the films of the eighties. Most just threw the viewer into the deep end, and expected them to pick things up as they went. And, shocker of shockers, they did!
Ghostbusters, as a comedy, is rivaled in the height of its concept by only one other work: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This might not be a coincidence, as Ivan Reitman had spent years attempting to bring Hitchhiker’s to the big screen, only to give up when Douglas Adams failed to deliver or approve of new scripts. The project he immediately moved on to? Ghostbusters. Of course, Dan Aykroyd’s original script was high concept enough. A team of time travelling, dimension hopping ghost exterminators, acting almost like the Doctor Who of the dead. With Reitman onboard, a budget in place and Harold Ramis keeping him grounded, the final product is no less conceptual, if infinitely more filmable. Just think about the plot description, devoid of anything else about the film: three university professors discover that life after death exists, and start a business protecting the residents of New York from the more malicious of the spirits that remain. A concert cellist gets possessed by a hell hound, and an ancient god unleashes a monstrous giant to destroy the city. Not a narrative that lends itself to comedy, on the surface.
How they get around this is, at least in my analysis, they don’t treat it as a comedy. This tends to be true of the best comedies (look at the early filmography of Mel Brooks compared to his later stuff). They take the story seriously; treating it with as much respect as one would a drama or a historical epic. In part, this is by not thinking of the movie as a comedy. Studios increasingly get bogged down in genre descriptions, thinking that particular demographics will only see specific kinds of movies. The results tend to be one dimensional and stretched to the limit. Movies that have elements of several genres are more rounded, and more interesting. For a comedy, or a movie with comedic aspirations, the trick is to infuse a narrative that doesn’t lend itself to comedy with humour. In the case of Ghostbusters, they don’t mug for the camera, wait for a laugh to land, or draw attention to the jokes. A perfect example of this is the early exchange between Murray and Ramis:
Peter: Egon, this reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole in your head, remember that?
Egon: That would have worked if you didn’t stop me.
This exchange, apparently improvised by Ramis, is almost said between breaths. They are walking towards the scene as it happens, and much as you do in real life, they move on and focus on what they have to. They don’t let the joke stop the narrative, they just keep moving. And it turns that joke into a killer line. That’s a hard laugh line, and they risked burying it in the exposition that follows. But, they knew that lingering on it, even for a second, would ruin the timing, and in comedy, timing is everything. My biggest issue with modern comedies is that rather than move on, they beat a joke into the ground. The Judd Apatow-style string of rapid-fire improv one-liners is tedious and brings the movie to a dead stop. These modern comedies can’t maintain a pace when they have to hit the pause button every ten minutes so they can be sure the audience gets the joke, or so they can congratulate themselves for being so clever.
It also never lingers too much on the height of the concept. They don’t get bogged down in the ghost phenomena. There are off hand comments about the philosophical implications, or the skepticism of other characters, but for the most part the film accepts that ghosts exist, and moves on with that new reality. They don’t try to provide a pseudo-scientific explanation for the existence of ghosts. They don’t provide any explanation at all. At no point in the film does anyone die and rise again as an ectoplasmic personification of their emotional being. There are ghosts, they leave goo everywhere, and they are all an off-base colour. As Venkman says in the sequel, “…[S]ometimes shit happens, someone has to deal with it, and who ya gonna call?” That is succinct a description of the film as you can get.
The real success of the film comes from the talent involved. This was a cream-of-the-crop eighties comedy cast. It might be the one moment when Aykroyd was a bigger box office draw than Bill Murray. Murray and Ramis were coming off Stripes, while Aykroyd was coming off The Blues Brothers. Rick Moranis was making his first real foray into film after incredible success (with Ramis) at SCTV, and behind the camera, Reitman had Animal House, Meatballs and Stripes to his credit. This wide range of styles and attitudes – scripted versus improvised, broad versus dead pan – should have resulted in a mess. Instead it all works in harmony. It helps that they had all worked together in one way or another before, was familiar with each other’s foibles and styles. At any given moment you have the deadpan deliveries of Ramis and Annie Potts, the straight man/gleeful child performance of Aykroyd, the “let’s see where he’s going with this” everyman antics of Murray, and the almost vaudevillian direction Moranis goes in – none of which are strictly compatible – on screen at the same time, and somehow functioning in harmony. The two outsiders – Sigourney Weaver and Ernie Hudson – weren’t comedic actors, and yet afford themselves well (especially Weaver, whose roll is basically to not react to Murray’s shenanigans) because everyone is afforded the opportunity to do their own thing in their own way. It comes off feeling like a real social group. Homogenized comedies tend to fill themselves with identical characters of different severities and are filled with actors who act in the same style. The result is a stale sameness. Ghostbusters has a palpable flavour.
Ghostbusters might also be the prototype film for… pretty much every film of the modern era, in that it is an origin story with increasingly high stakes and a large, special effects driven set piece as a climax. This was still a decade before the birth of the CG era, but before (and really, for the rest of the eighties), movies maintained their personal level of involvement. Conflicts tended to be between the hero and the villain. Shoot outs, fist fights, surf offs; movies ended with a one-on-one confrontation. Even Back to the Future ends with a race between a car and a lightning bolt. But the dangers were always personal. Ghostbusters aimed higher, put the entire city in jeopardy, and had the heroes fight against a seemingly insurmountable and much more abstract threat. The Stay Puff Marshmallow Man is the progenitor of Sokovia hanging in the sky, or Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith uploading a virus to the mothership. The threat becomes abstract, and because it is abstract, it can be as big and as menacing and as visually impressive as the film’s budget allows. This has become the standard for all films in the modern age. In fact, the film that feels the most like the direct child of Ghostbusters is Guardians of the Galaxy, a spiritual successor in tone, scope and fun.
Ghostbusters is an example of timeless quality. It is the elegant diamond necklace of film, something that doesn’t clash, doesn’t age and looks as spectacular today as it did back when it was made. This is because it at all times feels like an earnest attempt to a genuinely interesting movie rather than a really funny one. The latter is achieved because the former is succeeded at. It also avoids the feel of just a bunch of friends making a movie together (something that, with all due respect, makes Stripes a subpar film), but rather a film that is improved by the fact that the cast is aware enough of each other, to play off that and use it to enhance the chemistry of the characters. The reward was immense popularity, becoming the second most profitable film of 1984, and the most success film of the decade. A film that has been a standard barer and insurmountable level of comedic achievement since its release. How many times as the descriptor “like Ghostbusters, but with ____ instead of ghosts,” been used to elevator-pitch a film? And how many have succeeded? Even their own sequel failed to live up to those expectations, because the sequel attempted to repeat every success of the original, but without the sincerity. Ghostbusters was lightning in a bottle, a combination of so many rare elements all working in unison to create, what for my money is, the most successfully comedic film ever.