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A huge comedy hit in 1984, the original Ghostbusters built a merchandising tsunami that happened to hook my kids. Before we were through we had the cassette soundtrack, a pile of cool toys (including the Ecto-1 Ghost-mobile and the giant plastic Ghostbusters Fire Station) plus the Nintendo Game (which was fairly lame, sorry). As I was at the time a videotape editor, I even kid-safed the feature by trimming it by about 30 seconds. The trio of Venkman, Spengler and Stantz reverberated around my house for several years, until superseded by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. Boy, the science of marketing must have made big advances in those years. I wonder if there's a plaque commemorating our family's $ contribution at the corporate headquarters of Kenner Toys?
Behind it all was a very entertaining movie. Ivan Reitman and Dan Aykroyd outdid themselves with their Ghostbusters concept, a clever way to combine a new generation of Saturday Night Live & Second City talent into a genre that always paid off for Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and even Don Knotts. Way back in 1973 producer-director Ivan Reitman tried to slip some comedy into his horror opus Cannibal Girls starring a young Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. He also produced David Cronenberg's first commercial horror picture. 1 It's therefore no surprise that the screenplay is highly genre-aware. Poltergeist is an immediate reference, with its flock of spirits and demons from Hell. There are also some hilarious riffs on the possession motif from The Exorcist. More specifically referenced is the Exorcist- derived The Sentinel, in which model Christina Raines's Brooklyn Heights apartment turns out to be a doorway to Hell. And although the idea of trapping ghosts could easily have been Dan Aykroyd's original brainstorm, we'd think the horror-savvy Reitman would have been aware of the creepy English film The Asphyx. In it professor Robert Stephens traps human souls as they leave the body, imprisoning them with a special green light.
Of course, it's what one does with the concept that matters. Ghostbusters treats the supernatural as a fun throwaway -- nobody is expected to take it seriously. The job of ghost removal is roughly that of an exterminator, but armed with more intimidating technical doubletalk. The highly educated geniuses (well, at least one of them is) wear boiler suits suitable for hard-hat workmen. They strut about toting "unlicensed nuclear accelerators' on their backs, contraptions that shoot goofy blasts of rubbery animated color. Their enemy is a rabid bureaucrat from the (unfairly dissed) Environmental Protection Agency. But who can argue PC values in a film in which the 'cute' young heroes smoke cigarettes?
Co-writer / actor Harold Ramis makes his Egon a literal-minded egghead, myopically sweeping his tricorder-like ectoplasm detector over people, as if checking them for lice. There's just enough of Egon's romance with Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) to give the scientist a sweet aspect. Further elaborating on his unique screen persona, Bill Murray's Venkman is a likeable fraud faking his way through the research racket, leveraging his status to snag undergraduate girls and intimidate squares. Venkman's "Back off, I'm a scientist!" distills 40 years of posturing sci-fi heroes, in just five words. Murray's slightly detached attitude is a big plus...yes, he's fighting spirits of the damned, but his first priority is to impress his potential girl friend, Dana. Venkman's smug condescension doesn't fool anybody, but he knows he's not fooling anybody. His cute act is therefore actually sincere. Or something like that. Murray's screen persona gets away with behavior that wouldn't be tolerated in real life. Then again, he consistently elevates scenes to a wild-party mirth level: "Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!"
We've always liked Dan Aykroyd. His Ray Stantz is the dummy character stuck with the 'gee whiz' response to everything. The actor's facility with tongue-twisting dialogue does not in itself a character make, and he's the only one caught trying too hard to sell 'funny walks' and goofy reactions. I have a feeling that Reitman consistently went for takes that feature star Bill Murray's choice ad-libs, which provide many of the best comedy moments. Aykroyd gets stuck with the broad clowning while Murray gets the cool comebacks. As it all works fairly well this is not a major issue, but the dynamics involved are worth wondering about.
Ernie Hudson's black Ghostbuster is an acceptable nod to diversity and inclusion, and he's given a couple of timeless dialogue bits: We've got the tools, we've got the talent! In the long run, untold thousands of white kids ended up playing with Winston Zeddmore black action figures. Extra-special delight comes in the form of Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver, both of whom made major career marks with their featured supporting roles. Weaver already had a horror cult going from her Alien movies, and SCTV alumnus Moranis is a perfect match as her destined lover / demonic counterpart in Gozer's reign of horror. Moranis is an instantly loveable dweeb, and Weaver's doorbell-answering running gag ("I'm the gatekeeper? Are you the keymaster?") is the sexiest-ever Abbott & Costello-derived bit of comedy schtick. Ghostbusters succeeds mightily as a comic horror spoof, but in a perfect world Moranis and Weaver's characters would discover that they're madly in love with each other and walk off into the sunset together. I mean, between Venkman and Louis Tully, who really deserves the girl?
Ghostbusters' marvelous special effects hit a solid note of creative cartoonishness. Besides the aforementioned ziggy-zaggy ghost rays, there are goofy globby phantoms, old-fashioned wispy phantasms, and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, a colossal Kaiju monstrosity to amp up the finale. Ol' Sta-Puft may have been a fallback option, if the Pillsbury Doughboy folk declined to participate (an unsubstantiated guess on my part). Sta-puft's sunny smile contrasts with the fact that he's really the demonic Gozer in a different form. There's something disturbing when he's blasted with the energy of the 'crossed streams', and his smile turns to a look of pain and horror.
The other unusual, successful effect are the ferocious Devil Dogs that guard the portal to Hell and provide alternate identities for gatekeeper Dana and keymaster Louis. A full-sized puppet is a decent match for the stop motion figures, nasty creatures that chase poor Louis into Central Park. Realistic but not too realistic, the dogs generate genuine scares between the jokes. Ghostbusters has the smarts not to be all comedy. Too many ghost spoofs of the 1980s (High Spirits, for one) end up working on the level of Scooby-Doo.
The show instead reaches for spectacle -- all those EEG visuals make the top of Dana's apartment building look like the parting of the Red Sea. The show also builds up the kind of mythomania that can launch a franchise. Our four heroes strut and pose like John Wayne & Co., rallying both the crowd and the theater audience to cheer them forward. Ghostbusters can't be bested for silly fun.
Coming five years later, Ghostbusters II delivers another 'save the world' mission for the supernatural clean-up crew. Success seems not to have harmed the relationship between producer-director Ivan Reitman and his collaborators, giving us the rare sight of a sequel that reunites all of its main actors in apparent harmony. The sequel develops the franchise and gives a special break to its supporting characters. It even has its own bouncy signature song, "On Our Own" to back up Ray Parker's hit theme from the first movie. In terms of impact, Ghostbusters II was upstaged by the near-simultaneous opening of Tim Burton's mega-monster hit Batman, with Michael Keaton. A teaser trailer for Batman was the top movie discussion subject; most of us saw it a month earlier, tagged onto Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The violent, stylish (code word: "dark") thrills of the DC Comics hero trumped Ivan Reitman's light comedy.
This time Ramis and Aykroyd come up with a truly ingenious story. Just like Carl Denham in the old sequel The Son of Kong, civil lawsuits have resulted in the Ghostbusters unit being disbanded. Ray and Winston augment their salaries by playing 'Ghostbuster' at kid's parties. Dana married somebody other than Peter Venkman. Her small child Oscar is targeted by art expert Dr. Janos Poha (Peter McNichol), who has been enlisted by the evil spirit of Vigo the Carpathian (Wilhelm von Homburg), a sorcerer now residing in his own portrait. The Ghostbusters must prevent Vigo's possession of Oscar's body, and the only way to do it is to mobilize the civic spirit of New York City on New Years' Eve. Can the powers of evil be defeated by the 'positive vibe' of the Statue of Liberty?
The upbeat Ghostbusters II is a 'Yuppie-ization' of the original formula. The actors have gained some weight, and a family friendly outlook puts the stress on being nice people and protecting babies. Number Two also has more technical polish, with ILM's far more expensive special effects putting (needed?) finesse on visual ideas realized more cheaply five years before. The effects in the first movie were icing on the comedy cake... in this second chapter every chapter relies on a fancy visual for its payoff. The illusions around the haunted painting are impressive, but we're more appreciative when our Ghostbuster heroes make with the irreverent comedy.
The characters have been softened up a bit. Peter Venkman and Dana are now a romantic couple, out for a fancy dinner while Janine and Louis babysit the adorable Oscar. A new bureaucratic nabob (Kurt Fuller of Miracle Mile) fills in for William Atherton, with diminished returns. Putting the baby in "funny" jeopardy seems an extreme way to inject tension to the story. The original Ghostbusters thrived on comedy spectacle and a lot of semi-adult jokes. The new show makes an old-fashioned appeal to civic good will. Our patriotic sentiments are indeed touched by the idea of the Statue of Liberty 'coming to the rescue': "She can take it -- she's a harbor girl!". I'm not saying that those feelings were out of touch for 1989, but it was the time of License to Kill and Die Hard, when audiences were primed for more cynical thrills. The 'dark' Batman pointed the way to a newer kind of mass youth appeal. Seen today, the sight of the Stature of Liberty gazing at the Manhattan skyline's Twin Towers elicits an immediate emotional reaction.
A big part of Ghostbusters II seems to have been targeted at young kids asking for Ghostbusters toys for Christmas. I was surprised to enjoy it more now than I did in 1989. It's fun seeing Annie Potts' Janine and Rick Moranis' Louis become a make-out pair (hey, did the Egon-Janine romance fizzle out?). It's also particularly endearing to see Louis Tully become a bona fide Ghostbuster hero, if only in his own mind.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's 30th Anniversary Edition of Blu-ray of Ghostbusters & Ghostbusters II is a fairly lavish double disc. As most fans have already owned more than one copy, they will want to know about the quality of the transfer and the extras.
The transfers are certainly clear and bright. The first film looks a little over-optimized, as if the contrast and color had been maximized in some shots. With the image lightened and brightened, some isolated effects are thrown off in color and texture. Other shots look as if the technicians had to made do with faded film elements. When a composite shot loses density as a result of fading, the colors in its various effects elements may no longer match well. A couple of Matthew Yuricich's matte paintings of Dana's apartment building now look, well, like paintings. Randall William Cook took great pains to match his animated Devil Dogs onto what were once very dark night shots, but in some angles the lightened scenes betray the illusion. The loss of density also makes some hard-matted elements look transparent. We now see animated rays bleeding through a distant building, and white street markings show through in a down shot of the gargoyles on Dana's building. I don't know if unavoidable negative fading is responsible, or an intentional revision to brighten the movie's look overall. 2
Although it is important to explain why the effects look slightly different, let me stress that the new transfer doesn't radically alter the film's overall appearance. The commentaries on the disc also mention that the effects work was rushed on the first film. On the sequel the effects have been given much more finesse. As ILM was then developing Computer Generated Imagery and digital compositing techniques, it looks as if some digital effects (especially around the Vigo painting) are mixed in with conventional matte work.
The disc extras will please any fan of the film. Every conceivable bit of back story trivia is covered, from the filmmakers' POV, of course. The congenial Reitman and Aykroyd return for new 'round table' discussion of the movies from a 30th Anniversary perspective. Both features have picture-in-picture tracks, music videos and deleted scenes; and most of the extras from older editions are included as well. On one we see an array of Entertainment Effects Group's (EEG) personnel sitting in a row, swapping stories about the shoot. Among them is the late, great Matthew Yuricich.
The 'digibook' packaging contains a colorful souvenir booklet. Also included is the necessary paperwork to access a Digital HD download of the features.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Reitman's no-budget quickie Cannibal Girls shows up in a Ghostbusters II sequence that emulates the movie theater invasion scene from the classic The Blob. Instead of engulfing a measly fast-food diner, this 'ectoplasmic slime' blankets an entire museum.
2. This footnote is more personal bias/conjecture. With some of the James Bond films, it really seems as if a Danjaq exec rejected the moody lighting of, say, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, giving instructions something on the order of, "I don't care what it looked like in 1969, we're selling it NOW. Make it look consistent with the newer movies -- it should be bright and high-key, like the Roger Moore pictures."
Some pictures are carefully transferred to video to reproduce their original theatrical appearance, whereas others are simply made to look as bright and colorful as possible. There are transfer 'colorists' that reference older transfers and film prints, but others that 'want to do it their way', you know, like the great John Doucette: "We wanna express our creativity too!"
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.