1984 • 107 minutes • Columbia Pictures
Should we watch Ghostbusters for Halloween?
Normally, I simply announce home screenings by texting Captain Cinema (which is how she found out we’re watching New Year’s Eve for New Year’s Eve, which is one hundred percent because Seth Meyers is in it), but Ghostbusters was a question. You see, I should love Ghostbusters. It combines Saturday Night Live, science fiction, and the eighties. Had my brother, actual child of the eighties, introduced me to the film at a young age, I have no doubt that I would love and adore it.
But my brother was a Back to the Future kind of kid, who also naturally kept a small child who destroyed comics at an arm’s length from the things he loved, so I didn’t discover Ghostbusters until the universe took pity on my utter ignorance of American pop culture and I Love the 80s aired on VH1. It was one of the first movies I tried to get my hands on in high school, but I was ashamed to find that I couldn’t get into it. I didn’t really think about it (The Sound of Music is always a much more impressive example of the pop culture I’ve never experienced than any eighties film) until I was seized by an errant, quickly fading urge to watch it. If I was ever to watch Ghostbusters, it had to be Halloween.
And, having finally watched Ghostbusters, I can safely say: I don’t think I like young Bill Murray.
I was introduced to Bill Murray at an errant screening of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou my brother took my mother and I to when I was twelve. For me, Bill Murray has always been a older man, whose bone dry, caustic wit comes off as a lovable curmudgeon’s attempt to fight back against a world that’s left him behind. Even Zombieland, which features Bill Murray playing himself, finds him poking fun at himself. (“So, do you have any regrets?” “Garfield, maybe.”) While I don’t love Bill Murray with the passion of some, I’ve always been fond of him on the same level that I’m fond of, say, John Lithgow.
But I’ve never seen young Bill Murray in action in the slew of eighties comedies that earned him his die-hard fandom. That bone dry, caustic wit sits poorly on young shoulders, punching down when it should be punching up. Murray’s Dr. Venkman is widely known to be a lovable asshole, but in the cold light of 2014, he’s just an asshole, introduced hitting on a student (!) while rolling his eyes at the paranormal activity that his colleagues, Dr. Egon Spengler and Dr. Ray Stantz, are obsessed with. It takes great care and balance to make an asshole lovable, and, had John Belushi lived and been cast in the role that was written for him, I think I could see it, with Belushi’s scruffy, weird, but ultimately warm energy. But Murray’s Venkman views the whole world with no small hint of disdain and entitlement, imposing himself on the haunted Dana Barrett until she just gives in. And given how much the film relies on him, that pretty much blows the whole film for me.
Not that the film is that stable in the first place, essentially duplicating Venkman with Winston Zeddemore, another, albeit far more palatable, cynic introduced halfway through the film. Here’s a thought exercise: imagine what would have happened had Eddie Murphy been successfully cast as Winston and Venkman had been dropped from the script as a respectful nod towards Belushi. The ensuing film, with a well balanced cast, is now much better than the actual Ghostbusters. This sounds harsh, I know, and I do quite like the cast. Dan Akroyd’s eternally optimistic Ray is an absolute darling, as is the late Harold Ramis’ deeply weird but self-confident Egon. (Egon is introduced protesting that his attempts to trepan himself would have worked if Venkman hadn’t stopped him. He’s fantastic.) Watching them geek out about paranormal activity, compare notes, and react is a treat. Even the infamous ghost blowjob sequence, often cited as a hilarious oversight in a film rated PG, is less tawdry and more Ray having a very confusing dream after an exhausting week.
And I am a fan of the eighties, so the film has some aesthetic charms. There’s little more eighties than a sequence of ghosts flocking to the newly possessed Dana to the languorous drawl of the second half of Mick Smiley’s “Magic.” Or Gozer, the big bad, first turning up as a red eyed glam rock androgyne. But none of that is enough to save the film, and I’m just left agog at the power of nostalgia.
I rented this DVD from the public library.