By the time Ghostbusters took the movie world by storm in 1984, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis had worked together on a number of projects that pretty well defined big-screen comedy in the late 70s and early 80s: Animal House, Meatballs, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Trading Places. All were pretty hilarious movies, but they were fairly adult—even raunchy—in their nature. So when these guys came together to produce a movie about a team of goofy parapsychologists running around New York chasing ghosts—and, if rumors were true, fighting an enormous marshmallow man—it seemed like there might finally be one of these movies a kid could see in the theatre without the parents tagging along. So off to Ghostbusters I went, ready to laugh my head off. And what happens? In the first five minutes of the movie, I get scared all to hell by the least expected monster scream of my young life. As we see our heroes bolt from the haunted building they were asked to investigate, I was practically right there with them. I loved the film, but I never got over that opening scare, and could never fully open myself up to its comedic sense. By the time it was over, I felt I had come out of a great movie that hit multiple notes. It was a horror movie. It was a science fiction movie. It was a comedy. It was…well, it was just Ghostbusters. There really wasn’t another movie like it, and there hasn’t been one since. There’s a reason why it’s on everyone’s all-time greatest movie lists.
The story involves three parapsychologists—Peter Venkman, Raymond Stantz, and Egon Spengler. Venkman and Stantz are earnest scientists trying to prove what the rest of the world regards as superstition: that extradimensional apparitions and poltergeists aren’t just real, but they can be captured and contained. Venkman is a sarcastic slacker who is along for the ride, appreciative to be in a field whose most ardent supporters are also extremely easy to swindle. But when the trio’s research grant is cut, they decide their work is far enough along to go into business for themselves, pushed by Venkman’s sense for an easy buck. Before long, they actually score some gigs, capture some ghosts, and become the talk of the town. They’re even so busy they hire Winston Zeddemore as the team’s fourth guy (or fifth wheel, depending on who you ask). But their success is simply good timing; the reason why all these ghosts are around to catch is because there is a major supernatural event threatening the city that involves one of the Ghostbusters’ first clients—Dana Barrett—and her dorky neighbor, Louis Tully. Turns out, an ancient demigod named Zuul is looking to return to the city using Dana’s apartment building as a kind of portal between worlds, so this is no longer a job for the police. This is a job for specialists. Who you gonna call? You know the answer.
The thing I liked most about this movie, and the reason why I kept coming back to it again and again over the years is because of how well is skips between genres and yet never feels adrift or unfocused. It’s a special effects spectacle, but still has plenty of room for Bill Murray to command the show with his signature mockery of everything around him, and still allows for us to get behind the weird wonder of why the Ghostbusters are trying so hard to prove the world wrong.
But still, there are still those moments of creepiness. Dana is taken captive in her own home in a scene that’s more than a little off-putting. That poor schmuck Louis gets run down by demon dogs in the middle of Central Park and his terror is real. (So is the indifference of his fellow New Yorkers—who, at that point in the 80s, were pretty used to seeing any kind of insanity and looking the other way.) And even when we see the iconic Stay-Puft Marshmallow man tower over Manhattan like Godzilla, it’s because not even a favored childhood memory is safe when Zuul’s involved. When even your own memories can kill you, that’s scary.
For me, that’s why the movie’s moment of truth isn’t in any of its classic bits of comedy that are quoted to this day—“When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!”, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!”, “Yes, it’s true, this man has no dick.”…the list goes on. And it’s not even in an instant of sublime improvisation when, during an early investigation, Venkman pulls a tablecloth off a set table, trashes it, but Bull Murray can’t resist shouting off the cuff, “And the flowers are still standing!” That kind of spirit is evident throughout the movie, and it’s a big reason why it’s so much fun.
But lest we forget, Dan Akroyd initially intended for this movie to be a bit more serious, as he is himself deeply fascinated with the paranormal. There is this incredible moment when that complete idiot from the EPA shuts down the Ghostbusters’ containment system and sets loose dozens of ghosts all at once. In a moment of truth, the movie quits goofing around and gets serious as we see streams of spectral energy racing across the skies of Manhattan, free to wreak havoc once more. And in that transition, we suddenly realize that Venkman might have been kidding around this whole time, but the stakes at play here are serious. Yeah, we get a few more big laughs before a final confrontation that will determine the fate of the Big Apple, but ghosts are no laughing matter, after all. Even as a kid, I appreciated that. As an adult, maybe not quite so much. But it sure makes for a heck of a story.