Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters (1984)

Dir. Ivan Reitman

Written by: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis

Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson

 

This is a big one for me. Ghostbusters has been a strong cinematic constant in my life. It’s definitely in my top ten favorite movies of all time, and, depending on the day, it vies for a spot as my personal favorite movie ever. Born in 1985, I emerged into a world in which Ghostbusters was already a phenomenon, with the movie becoming a big box office success, inspiring a cartoon spinoff, a line of toys and action figures, and a fervent fandom among young children and adults alike. I was all-in on Ghostbusters from the moment I first saw the cartoon, and soon after, the movie. I collected the toys, I had Ghostbusters clothing, and I obsessively quoted the movie to my family. Some of my earliest memories are Ghostbusters related, such as a Halloween when I was only three and I went trick-or-treating as Ray Stantz, complete with a homemade jumpsuit and a borrowed proton pack. It’s really the first, and probably only, piece of nostalgic fandom that I engage in, and I still can’t get enough of it, watching the movie at least a couple of times a year. For me, Ghostbusters represents a perfect intersection of actual cinematic quality and nostalgia. I can’t pretend that the way that I love Ghostbusters and its resultant media properties isn’t painted heavily in coats of nostalgia, but there’s also no denying that it represents a high-water mark for its brand of studio comedy in the mid-1980s. It’s a classic of American cinema and a cult of fandom wouldn’t have sprung up around it so readily were it not, simply put, an all-time great comedy.

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I’ll provide a brief plot synopsis for anyone who might, for some unknown reason, be unfamiliar with Ghostbusters, but if you fall into the category I’d urge you to just go watch the movie and then come back to reading this. The titular Ghostbusters are Peter Venkman (Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Ramis), three out of work college professors with a special interest in paranormal phenomena. After they’ve lost their university jobs, the scientists decide to enter into the private sector, opening up an agency that specializes in the removal of supernatural and paranormal pests. Though business is initially slow, once the Ghostbusters break their first cases, they become a phenomenon themselves, and they’re joined by Winston Zeddmore (Hudson) to help them take on more cases. One of their notable early cases is for Dana Barrett (Weaver), who returns to her apartment one day to find a portal to another dimension opening up in her refrigerator, and whom Dr. Venkman falls head over heels for. As they pursue Dana’s case, the Ghostbusters discover that the portal is intended to welcome Gozer the Gozerian, an ancient God who travels through space and time destroying worlds, onto Earth. The Ghostbusters prepare to face off against Gozer and a host of otherworldly entities to save their city and the world.

There’s not a lot that I will write here that would do anything to affirm or deny the greatness of Ghostbusters. It’s an iconic movie, one that has earned its spot in the pantheon of great movies that will likely never be awarded by an Academy or earn a spot in the curriculum at a film school, but a movie that is widely acknowledged, nonetheless, as one of the best examples of brilliant, consumable, pop-culture entertainment. To me it’s every bit as important or meaningful as Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Though it doesn’t exist in a prestige genre, Ghostbusters stood for many as a gold standard for quality comedy in an era when competition was unbelievably stiff in that particular genre. I’m sure this is a biased opinion because of my age and having grown up watching all of these movies on cable television constantly, but the 1980s were the golden era for studio comedies as so many great and iconic film comedians started to emerge and find their voices, as well as finding writing and directing partners who understood how to harness their comedic energy. While Murray and Aykroyd were emerging as leading men, along with Eddie Murphy and Martin Short, as well as the prolonged great run of genius Steve Martin into the 1980s, directors such as Ivan Reitman and screenwriters such as Ramis were pushing the boundaries of the studio comedy in broad, unexplored directions. There’s a buzz surrounding classic comedies of this era that I just don’t feel in modern comedies. I think that it’s the slapdash feeling that comedies like Ghostbusters give me that I don’t feel in modern comedies, the knowledge that at least 50% of what made the final cut was improvised on the spot by gifted comedians so comfortable with riffing off of one another. There are plenty of comedies that have great chemistry, great scripted lines, and great adlibs, but Ghostbusters will always take the cake for me for the best and strongest comedic ensemble ever assembled.

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The focus of that ensemble, of course, is Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman. Though the film features a balanced ensemble of co-leads, and a supporting cast that receives nearly equal billing and several memorable moments, it’s always Murray who stands out to me in Ghostbusters. Venkman was never my favorite Ghostbuster when I was a child, but even though I related more to Ray Stantz, I could easily recognize that Murray was the movie’s star. He displays the timing, wit, and charm that turned him into a bona fide superstar in the 1980s and a comedy legend ever since. Venkman’s character is equal parts sleaze, cynicism, and off-the-cuff observational wit, and that characterization has largely followed Murray around ever since. Of course Murray has expanded his range and his choice of roles throughout his career, and there are no shortage of wonderful roles and performances for any fan to latch onto, but when I think of Bill Murray it’s Peter Venkman who I picture. His performance in Ghostbusters encapsulates everything that Murray has come to represent in his career and in the public imagination. I’m not particularly a Murray fanboy, but there’s no denying that he deserves a place on the film comedy Mt. Rushmore and that his likeness should include a proton pack.

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Of course, a single performance doesn’t an all-time comedy make, and Murray is backed up by a supporting cast that knocks it out of the park at every turn. Ramis is suitably understated as Egon, the straight man of the team, while Aykroyd brings a hand-wringing, mealy-mouthed character to Ray, the most put-upon Ghostbuster. He’s a great foil for Murray’s outsize confidence, and the dynamic between the two actors feels real, with Venkman taking every opportunity to belittle Stantz. Sigourney Weaver more than holds her own in her scenes with Murray, engaging in quick verbal sparring worthy of the best screwball comedies. She also does a great job creating two different characters when Dana is possessed late in the film and her entire demeanor changes. By far, though, my favorite supporting performance in Ghostbusters is Rick Moranis’s nerdy neighbor, Louis. Moranis is perfectly cast as the nebbish, love-struck Louis, whose only desire is to get his neighbor, Dana, to notice him and come to his party. Like Murray, Moranis proves himself to be a master improviser, and he’s adept at both verbal and physical comedy. After probably 100 viewings, Ghostbusters doesn’t always get as many belly laughs out of me as it used to, but Moranis’s party scene in which he rattles off the market prices of the food that he purchased and introduces his guests based on their jobs, salaries, and the remaining balance of their mortgages, never fails to leave me in stitches.

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That’s the thing about Ghostbusters, for me. Sure I have an obviously strong nostalgic attachment to the movie and its related ephemera, but watching it today it still elicits genuine laughs from me every time. I know the movie inside and out, and I’ve been able to quote it, chapter and verse, basically since I learned to talk, but it never loses its humor for me. The simple brilliance of many of its punchlines, and the joy of watching master comedians riffing off of one another, never ceases to leave me in stitches. The day that I watched Ghostbusters to prepare to write this post, I was having a supremely bad start to the day, with my work encroaching onto the one day a week that I am supposed to get to myself, but as soon as I popped in the DVD and the film’s iconic opening shot of the lion statues in front of the New York Public Library filled my television screen, my concerns were all forgotten. Every time I watch Ghostbusters, I am able to fully submit myself to 105 minutes of pure, unadulterated comedy pleasure, and that’s why I still watch it two to three times a year. It’s a movie that can instantly change my mood, taking me back to a place in my life before jobs and social responsibilities and constant stress. Even though I know every punchline, I find myself laughing at a different joke every time. Ghostbusters provides me with a guaranteed respite and a trip down memory lane like no other movie I’ve ever encountered. I’ve had lots of favorite movies over the course of my life, but few, if any, have had the persistence of Ghostbusters. It’s always exactly what I need when I pull it off the shelf.

Ghostbusters is a perfect movie for this project, and it’s one that I’ve been eagerly anticipating getting to write about since I started doing this work in late 2016. I’ve written about tons of movies that I have various nostalgic attachments to for one reason or another so far, but I don’t think any encapsulate the idea of going back and digging through physical media that I’ve collected so perfectly as Ghostbusters. Last year, writing about Apocalypse Now, I briefly touched on the fact that Ghostbusters was the first movie I ever saw on DVD, and I think that’s interesting because my relationship with the movie has always been related to physical artifacts as much as the film itself. In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was an avid collector of the action figures associated with the animated series The Real Ghostbusters, and my early fandom of the movie was strongly associated with those toys. At that point, for me, Ghostbusters was as much about its ancillary properties as it was the original movie, and I think that the nostalgic bond that I have to the entire franchise extends as much from the toys that I played with, and the good memories that I associated with engaging in the fan discourse of the movie through play and dress up at Halloween, as it does to my early experience of watching the movie itself. I guess it’s fitting that a movie about ghosts would be so associated to me with memory and repetition, now for thirty years playing the movie over and over, engaging with it in so many different contexts and through so many different lenses at various points in my life. It’s a pleasant sort of haunting that I’ll probably never really grow out of.

Animal House

Animal House (1978)

Dir. John Landis

Written by: Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller

Starring: John Belushi, Tom Hulce, Stephen Furst, Mark Metcalf

 

Animal House is, without question, one of the most influential and best comedies of all time. An entire subgenre of comedy that dominates the cinema to this day was largely born from the DNA of this seminal classic. Animal House is the first film from the National Lampoon, the humor magazine that would go on to expand into a media empire throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, and it is the distillation of the brand of humor that that magazine would come to represent over its first decade of existence. The film’s creators were already stars in the niche world of underground comedy, but Animal House launched the careers of Harold Ramis and John Landis who would go on to make some of the most iconic comedies in the history of film in the next decade. It also marks the first feature film performance by the great John Belushi. All that being said, I never watch Animal House anymore, and I don’t think I have sat down to watch the whole movie in nearly two decades.

It isn’t that I ever disliked Animal House. It was a staple of a mine and my friends’ movie rotation during high school, along with other classic teen movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Say Anything. Back then I could quote the movie from memory, and I aspired to party as hard and be as cool as Bluto (Belushi) and the Deltas. I also appreciated the movie for its historical importance. I was (and am) a big fan of raunchy comedies, and I knew that without Animal House, there would be no P.C.U., Dirty Work, or Road Trip. The Deltas sticking it to the system at Faber College through partying and pranking is a familiar trope in comedy now, and Animal House may not have completely invented the format, but it certainly crystallized and advanced it. As perfect a comedy as it may be, however, Animal House loses its punch the further away from adolescence one becomes. I will never not laugh at Bluto’s impression of a zit, or at Neidermayer’s (Metcalf) over the top sadism, but I don’t ever feel the need to watch the whole movie anymore.

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That’s probably because, as a movie centered on adolescent hijinks, Animal House is designed to primarily appeal to a certain demographic of the general public. More than its sophomoric sense of humor, however, it’s the period setting of Animal House that I really have trouble relating to anymore. Though it came out in the late 1970s, the movie is set in 1962, when college men were expected to wear blazers and pledging a fraternity was the pinnacle of social networking. The period setting doesn’t at all hinder the humor in Animal House, which is commendable. So often, humor can be topical or not translate from one generation to the next, but Animal House could really be transposed to just about any era, largely keep the same jokes, and it would be a successful comedy. There’s just something about the film that doesn’t really resonate with me the way that it used to. I can recognize its importance in the genre, but actually sitting down and watching the film for this post was a bit of a chore. I laughed like I always have, but over the years my desire to watch a full length feature that is so focused on physical comedy and gross-out humor has diminished greatly.

For me, Animal House and films of its ilk work best in little pieces. The film is somewhat elliptical, with many scenes simply existing to highlight one joke, and I think some of the film’s best moments are just as funny when taken out of the context of the larger film. My very favorite scene in the film is the scene in which Bluto and D-Day (Bruce McGill) convince Flounder (Stephen Furst) to put Neidermayer’s horse in Dean Wormer’s (John Vernon) office. After locking the horse in the office, the three are having a laugh when D-Day hands Flounder a pistol and tells him to “finish the job.” Though he doesn’t know the gun was loaded with blanks, Flounder can’t bring himself to kill the horse, so he fires into the air. Of course, the horse drops dead of a heart attack anyway, and the reaction shot of D-Day and Bluto is priceless. Later in the film, a worker is briefly shown measuring the door to the office and measuring the space between the dead horses upturned legs before revving up a chainsaw. It’s honestly a fairly one-note joke, but the absurdity of the situation has always stuck with me and the idea of sawing a dead horse in half to get it out of an office never fails to crack me up, no matter how many times I see the scene.

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Animal House is full of scenes just like that one. Hilariously absurd situations and non sequiturs that don’t advance the film’s plot but provide some of the most memorable jokes and the biggest laughs. Think about Bluto casually spying on the sorority girls’ topless pillow fight and then winking at the camera, or about the record scratch moment when the Deltas walk in to the Dexter Lake Club. These are the scenes that make the film the classic that it is, so when I think back about Animal House I almost think of it more as a sketch comedy than as a feature film. Its roots in the short form satire of the National Lampoon are obvious. Undeniably, the film is a comedy classic, and as I mentioned, was hugely influential in shaping the direction of mainstream comedy filmmaking, but as a film it leaves something to be desired. Landis and Belushi would team up again in 1980 to bring Belushi and Dan Akroyd’s “Blues Brothers” characters to the big screen, in a film that works much better on the whole, for me. With Animal House, however, the whole does not always equal the sum of its parts.