Thursday, 21 July 2016

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats, living together... mass hysteria!

Ghostbusters
(1984)

(SPOILERS) I was never an uber-Ghostbusters fan. I liked it alright, Bill Murray was really funny in it, but Bill Murray was really funny in everything at that point (well, except The Razor’s Edge), so that didn’t explain its enormous success. I think part of it is that, even now, that theme, and the images of those guys, used to maximum montage effect in the movie itself, suggest a popular classic of folk memory even to me, knowing otherwise. Much as Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F, and the presence of Eddie Murphy, mask how thin Beverly Hills Cop essentially is.


Although, Beverly Hills Cop is at least well-directed, and Murphy is the whole picture, which counts for a lot. Notably though, both movies, both starring breakout Saturday Night Live comedians, outgrossed the other big hits of ’84, the much better crafted Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins. What both had going for them in abundance was the schoolyard cachet of repetition, particularly so with Murray’s lines (“Yes, that man has no dick”, “Okay, so, she’s a dog”, and, most iconically, “He slimed me”). Murray and Murphy were effortlessly cool, albeit with diametrically opposite modes of delivery, and audiences lapped them up.


So how much did the ghostbusting side have to do with the box office? That might be asked all the more pertinently now the reboot has failed to set the world on fire (barring the world of those objecting to the female ensemble, albeit in a differently flammable fashion). It was certainly front-and-centre of some quite brilliant marketing, with iconic logos everywhere, memorable spooks in Slimer and Mr Stay Puft, Shreddies transfers, computer games, and Ray Parker’s pop-powered tune making an unlikely US Number One (I still love it, cheesy as it is, and it instantly takes me right back into a movie that is suddenly a far superior movie whenever it blasts over the soundtrack; the same can’t be said for the reboot’s cacophonic cover version).


Dan Aykroyd is winning as the eternally enthusiastic Stantz, reflecting his own fascination with the supernatural, but unfortunately, even aided by Harold Ramis in honing the finished screenplay, this doesn’t translate into a sprightly storyline. While much of it works, on the basis of the performers, the actual ghostly element is often stodgy in terms of exposition and scant in scares, and if Ramis’ Egon can deliver laugh-free lines with likably dry banality, Ghostbusters ultimately suffers for there being no sense of stakes come the end of the movie.


We’ve rather drifted towards the climax, at which point crossing the streams becomes a magical curative that only garners a “get out of jail free” card because it has been announced as very dangerous at an earlier point (even Murray struggles to get the gags in; “He’s a sailor, he’s in New York. Let’s get the guy laid”). Of course, if there was any actually energy or life in the production, it might make the plot itself feel less hidebound.


It’s worth remembering too how sluggish Aykroyd’s idea for the sequel was, and how his murmurings for the third one didn’t exactly capture imaginations. His passion for the material is commendable, but he’s too geeky about the subject to be sufficiently irreverent with it. Which may kind of work for his and Ramis’ characters, but it doesn’t for keeping the comedy engine turning over. So that’s left to Murray, since Ivan Reitman has little idea of what he’s doing.


Reitman’s the biggest problem with the movie, in that everything about the way he makes it has that rather artless “Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter. We’re only shooting a comedy here, guys” vibe. His camerawork is wholly uninventive, while his sets are shot to look entirely like sets. He has no particular facility with the effects. The difference to the same year’s also very funny Gremlins couldn’t be more marked. A much better choice to helm, particularly given his superior blend of scares and laughs in An American Werewolf in London, would have been John Landis. But what you have instead is Reitman encouraging the vibe of an extended skit, an extension of SNL, because unlike even the ramshackle The Blues Brothers, there’s nothing cinematic about the filmmaking (to be fair, Reitman did a much better job nearly two decades later, with Evolution, a failed attempt at an aliens-busters).


If Reitman isn’t up to much (Pauline Kael was spot-on when she singled out the “sluggish, kids-movie pacing”), Elmer Bernstein’s score is stranded out of time, as if written for a decades-old revue rather than a supernatural comedy (how different it could have been, given his contribution to American Werewolf). And, aside from Ray Parker Jr, the supporting soundtrack is uniformly awful.


Generally though, the response from critics was as effusive as it was from audiences (Kael also noted it was one of those comedies, “acclaimed for all the things it wants to be but isn’t”, although she invokes Trading Places in this assessment, which almost is). Bart Mills, in The Film Yearbook Volume 4, called it “the best silly movie in years” and “two hours of heaven for 12-year-olds” (he’s out by about 15 minutes, and as one of approximately that age at the time, well, you know what I think, but mostly he’s probably correct in terms of the target audience).


Stantz: I guess we should split up.
Venkman: Yeah, we can do more damage that way.

However lukewarm I am on the picture as a whole, the cast deserve full credit. Well, with the exception of Ernie Hudson, who, sadly, sucks all the energy out of the room whenever Zeddmore’s on screen. Not funny, not dramatic, not much of anything really. When Murphy opted out, they should probably just have excised Winston altogether. As it is, the character’s inclusion ends up looking like half-hearted tokenism. There’s a scene with Stantz where they’re discussing the Book of Revelation, memorable only for how leaden it is. That, and for both characters smoking (there’s a LOT of smoking in the movie).


Aykroyd and Ramis are very much relegated to Murray’s straight men (well, not exactly, as they aren’t really reacting to him), but give off an agreeable vibe, while Annie Potts’ broad Brooklyner is utterly beguiling. William Atherton (he and Reginald ValJohnson would reunite for Die Hard four years later), is on the receiving end of the best insult in the movie (second paragraph) and also gets to paint the Environmental Health Department in an unequivocally bad light (you won’t be seeing much of that again, barring the Murdoch press). Rick Moranis (replacing John Candy) gives it the full nerd, and it’s understandable that, after a decade of the same role, he’d decided to call it mostly quits by the mid-90s. His couldn’t-be-greater contrast with Sigourney Weaver as Key Master and Gate Keeper respectively, is most amusing.


Ah, yes, Sigourney Weaver. The undoubted highpoint of Ghostbusters is any scene between Murray and Weaver. Whether it’s Venkman trying to woo Dana Barrett, and her being dismissive of his advances (“You’re more like a gameshow host”), or her inability not to be charmed by his very act of being Bill Murray, there’s an explosion of playful energy on screen when they’re together. His scene with her possessed has probably the best coverage of jokes per square minute in the movie, and Weaver is thoroughly, seductively game (telling him she wants him inside her, he replies “No, I can’t. It sounds like you’ve got at least two people in there with you already”).


Knowing most of Murray’s lines were ad-libs (even his wresting Stantz into debt feels entirely, unscrupulously Murray) rather underlines how inert the picture would be without him. Maybe some of the variously considered options (the Slimer-inspiring John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Michael Keaton) could have been equally as arresting, but I have a feeling Ghostbusters would have ended up as one of those less-remembered capers. Like most of Aykroyd’s other screenplays, in fact.


I certainly get the nostalgia with this kind of movie, or with say The Goonies, or The Lost Boys, or whatever it may be. A certain formative viewing period makes it invulnerable to critiquing. I just tend to find that many of those ‘80s classic weren’t my instant faves at the time either, though. Where I end up is that Ghostbusters is far better on paper than as a movie, and the cause is a mix of Aykroyd’s clunky screenplay and Reitman’s direction. While I don’t think it has anything to lose from the movie being remade on that score, it is a drawback that’s those making it revere the original, so can only really strive to make something “as good”. Give me The Ghost Breakers any day.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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