Who You Gonna Call? 30 Years On, The Answer's Still 'Ghostbusters'

Aug 29, 2014

Aside from the furniture in her apartment and the costumes and hair worn by actress Sigourney Weaver, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters hasn’t aged much.

You have to wonder why.

Of the actors in the picture, only Bill Murray has currency now. You wouldn’t say that a story about ridding New York City of an invasion of ghosts is particularly timeless, and at least on the surface, Ghostbusters doesn’t stand out as a weightier or more substantial film than others from 1984. That was a good year for movies – Paris Texas, Stranger than Paradise, The Terminator, The Killing Fields, and, if you’re so inclined John Hughes’ teen pic Sixteen Candles. But Ghostbusters is getting a 30th anniversary re-release to theaters, and after 30 years it’s a good-humored antidote to recent movies that unleash mayhem on our cities.

It’s even timelier now than it was then.

In case you’ve been asleep for the past 30 years, spectral beings have invaded New York City. They show up in the New York Public Library where they mess up both the books and the librarians. Worse, they get into the apartment of Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), and some real monstrous ghosts move into the deep, deep recesses of her refrigerator. Maybe worse than that, they take over the mind of Dana’s nudnik neighbor (Rick Moranis).

These dangerous entities threaten the entire city, but fortunately there are three scientists who specialize in such phenomena, played by Harold Ramis, Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray. They form a company to bust the ghosts, and that’s how the movie gets its name.

For this kind of looniness to work, Ghostbusters has to have a lot of self-discipline, and it does. The actors play it straight; they don’t mug or give away that they know they’re in a silly movie. The characters know that they’re engaged in serious business, and, strange as it may sound, the film doesn’t get so nutty that the audience can’t allow itself to believe in the premise just a bit.

What holds the whole business together is Bill Murray. People love Murray because he’s funny and a little weird, but only in the past few years has he been praised as a fine actor. The great critic Pauline Kael of  The New Yorker spotted it early, though, and wrote that Murray was the one talented actor from Saturday Night Live – the others were good at sketches.

Murray’s both in his time and out of it. He can be quintessentially hip, but at the same time dazed and slow-thinking, like someone who just woke up uncertain of space or time. In Ghostbusters, he’s a moving target; you can’t quite tell where he’s coming from.

Dr. Peter Venkman, vacillates between being ahead of the game and being behind it, being both naïve and canny about his naivete – he’s in the know and hopelessly out of it. Venkman thinks he’s suave and debonair, but he purrs cringe-worthy come-on lines to Dana. The dreamy, distant, almost demented look in his eye makes you wonder if he has any connection to actuality at all. Venkman is a guy who’s not quite in his own life; he seems to live it and watch it at the same time, like some kind of goofy yogi who’s transcended the silliness of the world of desire, but still wants to lust after Dana.

Ernie Hudson (Winston), Dan Aykroyd (Ray), Bill Murray (Peter) and Harold Ramis (Egon) in 'Ghostbusters.'
Credit Courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis are dutiful and predictable. Their lines come without nuance. They’re the straight men to Murray’s ambiguities. It’s a good mix; two Bill Murrays in one film could drive you crazy.

For the trivia buffs: Ghostbusters got its crisp, just slightly unreal look from the late Hungarian-born cinematographer László Kovács, who did Easy Rider, Shampoo and a lot of mainstream Hollywood films. In 1957, he and another young, distinguished Hungarian cinematographer, Vismos Zsigmond, fled the Hungarian revolution for this country with 30,000 feet of precious film documenting the fight against the Soviets.

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