Saturday 7 June 2014

GHOSTBUSTERS! Thirty years of the Boys in Grey

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the premier of Ghostbusters. As if 1984 wasn't memorable enough for being my year of birth, it also gave us one of the greatest sci-fi comedy films of all time, a movie that kicked off a franchise that remains a favourite to this day.

Ghostbusters is  pretty much absolute favourite thing in the world, after Doctor Who. The original film is, of course, a classic, but it was the animated series that captured my heart. The Real Ghostbusters aired from 1986 to 1991, and continued in syndication for a few years both on American and British TV. I was obsessed with this show as a kid. I taped the episodes off CITV, and watched them so many times that I actually wore out one of the videos (not the tape, the case. It buckled through overheating.) That, however, is a subject for another article. No, today we talk about the original, the movie that inspired the cartoons, and which I was shown a few years later.

Needless to say, I loved it. Much of the humour went over my head, of course, being a small boy. When I watch it now - which is often - I can never get over quite how rude the film is. There's a lot of adult humour in there that I was simply oblivious to as a child. And there are still little jokes that I spot that somehow passed me by on previous viewings. Ghostbusters seems almost perfect in its set-up and production. It's surprisingly slow to get going, gradually moving from university labs to the knackered firehouse to the first, spectacular battle with the green ghost. Most of the Ghostbusters many jobs as spectral pest-controllers are glossed over in a rapid montage as the film moves onto its climax. The possession of Dana and Louis, leading to the manifestation of Gozer, is pure horror movie material, the humour tempered by some quite unnerving imagery. Then it all goes nuts when Gozer takes the form of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Being steeped in the franchise, it's hard for me to appreciate just how strange this movie is. One thing I love is the very rare opportunity to show Ghostbusters to someone who has never seen it before. Stay Puft usually takes the cake.

Considering how utterly perfect the cast are, it's odd to learn that initially some very different names were attached to the project. While Aykroyd and Ramis were there as Stantz and Spengler from the beginning, their script was written as a vehicle for John Belushi, originally intended to star as Peter Venkman. Belushi's death by overdose put paid to that, and so Bill Murray stepped in to play the parapsychologist lothario. Murray's semi-improvisational performance is, inarguably, a high point of the film, and it's bizarre imagining anyone else in the role, even someone as comically gifted as Belushi. Not that the late actor was forgotten. The green ghost, who became known as Onionhead by the production team, and finally, by the fans, as Slimer, is popularly held to be the ghost of Belushi.

Other casting changes bring to mind a very different production. Somewhere in the multiverse, there is a version of Ghostbusters featuring the great John Candy as businessman Louis Tully, and Eddie Murphy as 'buster recruit Winston Zeddemore. In the event, we got what is, for me, an unbeatable cast of Aykroyd, Ramis and Murray as the core trio, with Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson and Rick Moranis as able support. Even the lesser roles are spectacular. Fans rarely praise him enough, William Atherton is bloody fantastic as the insidious Walter Peck, and is the one figure whose absence hurts the sequel. The lesser roles are brilliantly cast too, with eighties comedy greats such as Jordan Charney as Dean Jaeger, veteran actors such as Alice Drummond as the terrified librarian, and Larry King as himself.

Considering that Ramis and Aykroyd took their inspiration from early cinema ghost-hunter comedies, the initial treatment for the film went off in wild and bizarre directions. They pitched to Ivan Reitman a script that had teams of ghostbusting professionals travelling between dimensions, battling gigantic monsters, of which Stay Puft was just one of many. Realising that he could never finance such a film, Reitman encouraged the boys to pair it down. Rick Moranis is said to have had some major input into the final script, which provides a far more relatable, less comic-booky approach. We can easily empathise with these hopeless graduates as they try to carve out an utterly insane niche in the world. Lucky for us that they did, or Gozer would have annihilated New York City, and probably the world, had he been left unchallenged.

Is it perfect? We, no. Reitman's direction is more suited to comedy, and he struggles a little with the climactic action sequences. Hudson and Potts are underused. And, while it's not a flaw, most fans miss that Peck, for all his arrogance, is absolutely right to call the 'busters up on their illegal, unlicensed nuclear-magnetic equipment. He's still stupid for switching it off, though. Still, just watch the film. The effects still looks impressive today, after thirty years of progress - a benefit of practical and film effects over the rapidly developing use of CGI. The comedy is dark, eccentric and often slight, but it perfectly fits the story. Then there are the ghosts. Not just Slimer and Stay Puft, but all the wonderfully strange and unnerving designs. The Terror Dogs, Zuul and Vinz Clortho. Eleanor Twitty, the library ghost. The cab-driving corpse. The shrieking thing that flies out of the subway. Gozer's humanoid manifestation. All spectacular.

Ghostbusters is a classic, no doubt about it, and it spawned a host of other elements.The underrated Ghostbusters II. The aforementioned animated series, its own sequel Extreme Ghostbusters, also unfairly aligned. Comics and video games, action figures, a huge Lego set on the way. Where it will go now, is uncertain. Supposedly, Ghostbusters 3 is happening. Over the years, there have been several attempts to make a de facto third instalment. Scholly Fisch penned the rather mediocre, but extremely collectible novel Ghostbusters: The Return. The 2009 video game is essentially the third movie, featuring as it does the voices of the original cast, with Ramis and Aykroyd involved, albeit minimally, in the scripting. The IDW comic series currently progresses the story forward from this, incorporating certain elements from the animated canon to create a new Ghostbusters future. And they're finally able to use Dana, which really makes it feel like the third chapter.

The movie itself is meandering along, we here. Ruben Fleischer is said to be involved as director, which sounds perfect, since his previous hit, Zombieland, is pretty much the honorary third Ghostbusters for many of us. (Bill Murray's cameo sealing the deal, of course.) But with Murray not interested in reprising the role of Venkman, Aykroyd slowly losing the will to make the film and Ramis sadly deceased, it's looking less and less likely a satisfying third movie will be made. Still, we'll always have that first classic movie. Happy anniversary, Ghostbusters.

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