Bustin' Back Into Cinemas: Ghostbusters' 30th Anniversary
It's been thirty years since they grappled with evil on the streets of Manhattan, but watching Ghostbusters today it's as funny as ever. With a new movie in the works and a restored print in cinemas, it's a perfect time to look back at this 80s classic
Trace the modern summer comedy back to its epicentre and you’ll find Ghostbusters. Without this amalgam of National Lampoon sark and Hollywood spectacle, there would be no Hot Fuzz, 21 Jump Street or Anchorman; schlubs like Seth Rogen and Will Ferrell would be stuck playing the funny best friend or the goofy work colleague instead of the leading man.
Released in 1984, the premise of Ivan Reitman’s fantasy comedy about a trio of eccentric parapsychology professors (played perfectly by Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray) who start a ghost capture and storage business doesn’t exactly scream box-office gold, but it went on to be the most popular film of the year, beating out Beverly Hills Cop and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the box-office top spot. While its special effects have dated, the performances have remained fresh and the comedy zesty.
“Whenever you make a movie you never know whether it’s going to be successful or not,” says Dan Aykroyd at the first UK screening of Ghostbuster’s 30th anniversary rerelease print. “You’ve just got to have faith and hope that it’ll work.” He explains that test screenings of early cuts helped shape the film audiences know and love today. “We had one disastrous screening where nothing worked and we almost had to scrap the whole thing. And then once we tweaked it and did some editing we came out with a triumph. It’s always a process.”
“We had no permits, we were stealing scenes everywhere. We’d take the camera and shoot something down at the end of the block and we’d have a mob of real people in shot” – Dan Aykroyd
This process has become legendary. Originally written by Aykroyd with his pal and Blues Brother co-star John Belushi in mind for the lead role, plans were re-jigged when the live-wire comic died of an overdose in 1982. That original script leaned more heavily on the paranormal, and saw the ghostbusters travelling through several dimensions battling many different class of ghost. “The key was that I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to take a crack at taking paranormal research seriously,’” says Aykroyd of his initial concept, which was inspired by a real article on parapsychology and quantum physics, and his own family's history with the paranormal – his great grandfather Samuel Aykroyd used to asses the validity of mediums and psychics. “I thought, ‘It’s going to be a comedy, but we’re going to treat it as if it really exists and people are dealing with it every day.’”
While little of Aykroyd’s original story remains, that respect for science is still intact, despite all the wise-cracking. “It was a little darker than what became Ghostbusters,” he says of his original story, “but Ivan [Reitman, who directed] and Harold [Ramis, who reworked the script] saw a vision and they were able to twist that initial idea so it was more acceptable to a wider audience.”
Ghostbusters 30th anniversary trailer
Reitman and Ramis’s plan was simple: take the formula that worked on their two previous hits together – Caddyshack and Stripes – and apply it to Aykroyd’s out there fantasy. Dubbed ‘slob movies’ at the time by critics, their films are essentially class comedies where the little guys take on ‘the Man’. In Caddyshack's case it’s a golf resort’s staff vs its snooty members; in Stripes it’s army recruits vs their maniacal superiors. Ghostbusters, meanwhile, sees Stantz (Aykroyd), Spengler (Ramis) and Venkman (Murray) take on a whole raft of establishment figures. In the opening scenes it’s the academy (they’re kicked out of college for being lazy), later it's snobbery (see the relish with which they charge a snooty hotel concierge for their paranormal services) and finally the bureaucrats at the New York Mayor’s office who wants to shut them down. In between all this class warfare they also bust some ghosts.
The other element Reitman and Ramis brought from those earlier films was Murray, an actor with a very different comic energy to original lead Belushi. Essentially he plays the whole film like he couldn’t give a shit; he’s an action hero who’d rather be at home with a pizza and a six-pack. Oscar Wilde once said sarcasm is the lowest form of wit: you suspect he’d renege on that statement if he’d got the chance to see this performance, in which Murray lifts that maligned comic form to something approaching art.
At the movie’s beating heart, though, is Murray/Venkman’s sparky romance with Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett, who contracts the ghostbusters when her haunted apartment turns out to be a gateway to another dimension. Murray is as hangdog as Weaver is statuesque, but their chemistry is never in doubt. It’s a performance that shows you don’t need a chiselled jaw and abs to win over the girl – just be the funniest guy in the room. “He provides one of the greatest comedy romantic lead performances ever in the history of cinema,” says Aykroyd, and the hyperbole is justified. “I fully credit Bill with 50% of the success of the movie.”
The other star of the film is New York in all its scuzzy, pre-gentrification glory – “just walking down Madison Avenue in the rig,” is Aykroyd's response when asked about his favourite memories from making the movie. “We had no permits, we were stealing scenes everywhere. We’d take the camera and shoot something down at the end of the block and we’d have a mob of real people in shot.” This veracity is what makes all the craziness on screen tangible. It's also what makes Ghostbusters a bona fide New York movie. Like Annie Hall, or The Sweet Smell of Success, or Taxi Driver, it gets the city and its people. It wouldn’t work in any other town; it needs its irreverence. “They were looking at us, but being New Yorkers they were thinking ‘This must be some new kind of sanitation thing or something.’ They would have a double take then they would be on their way like New Yorkers do.”
The internet was all a flutter earlier this month with news that a female-oriented Ghostbuster reboot is in the works, helmed by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, and Katie Dippold, who wrote Feig’s more recent female cop movie The Heat, on screenplay duty. Until then, this beautiful new print should keep Ghostbuster fans sated.