This past weekend I had a chance to take in Ghostbusters on the big screen at my local movie theatre, which was part of the celebration of its 30th anniversary. The fact that a movie I remember seeing in the theatre (other than Star Wars) is having a 30th anniversary is a bit of a head-spinner right there, but watching the film now, it does show its age. It also shows why it was such a defining moment for popular culture and why it remains a touchstone.
There’s a scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Spike, a 125-year-old Vampire, asks a character, “Who are you going to call?” and then immediately shakes his head, saying, “We’re never going to be able to use that phrase again, are we?” I remember well that one couldn’t go far in the summer in 1984 without hearing Ray Parker Jr.’s incredibly repetitive title song, with the drum machine playing the part of a sledge hammer. That certainly helped the film’s reception at the time, and gave it a far-reaching pop cultural niche. But the film itself, taking in context, is something of a last hurrah.
The veterans (or “survivors” might be a better word) of the venerable comedy shows the National Lampoon, SCTV and Saturday Night Live in the 1970s had dispersed into various film projects. The most successful of these was the 1980 classic The Blues Brothers, growing as it did out of an SNL sketch, but having the rock and roll energy of the National Lampoon. Before that, Animal House established what was to be the formula of teen comedies from then until the present day. Both of those films starred John Belushi, whose comedic force, combined with his vulnerability and intelligence, had already made him a legendary star.
Dan Aykroyd was writing Ghostbusters the night Belushi died, literally writing him a line of dialogue when he got the phone call about the drug-related tragedy that woke up so many in the industry. The film was conceived in the spirit of Caddyshack and Animal House, with smart, snarky types sending up the action around them and generally commenting on the genre in a tremendously post-modern way. In this case, the film was going to combine the humour of Saturday Night Live with the special effects from Close Encounters or Blade Runner: no expense would be spared to sell this film as a top-shelf sci-fi/horror epic, right down to the casting of Alien veteran Sigourney Weaver as the female lead. This, as with Animal House, became a formula that endures to the present day in films like Tropic Thunder and especially the self-referential effects-driven films of Edgar Wright, or This is the End.
It was the end of an era, with Belushi overdosing and Bill Murray, hired as his replacement for Ghostbusters, soon dropping out of the movie business to study History and Philosophy in France. The classic casts of SNL and the National Lampoon had dispersed, finding success, with, for example, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean making a film out of their Lampoon act, Spinal Tap. Aykryod was beginning a period of teaming up with his fellow Canadians (and SCTV veterans) John Candy and Eugene Levy for a series of inoffensive family comedies. The wild days of drugs and excess and edge humour were in the past, at least for the time being.
Ghostbusters, then, really is a valediction for the talent and creativity of that seventies generation, even though it’s a quintessentially eighties movie. The music is the most obvious “tell” on that score, although the pastel colours of Sigourney Weaver’s apartment and the cumbersome, two-unit video camera/VCR that Aykroyd totes around for the first sequence of the film definitely have the feel of artifacts. The political leanings of the film, although I’m sure these were to some degree accidental on the part of the filmmakers, are also in step with the times.
Consider that the villain in Ghostbusters, played deliciously by William Atherton, is an official from the Environmental Protection Agency, concerned about pollution being caused by the experimental and spookily powerful “containment facility” Aykroyd’s character has built to house the ghosts they trap. Consider as well that, early in the film, the three main Busters are fired from their University positions (in defence of the Dean, he seemed to have legitimate concerns) and have to go into private industry. This is a film about innovative scientists having to contend with nitpicking and meddling bureaucrats, whose insistence on sticking to the letter of the law and not trusting private industry to take care of its own affairs, sets off the chain reaction that almost leads to the destruction of the world. It almost seems to literally echo Reagan’s comments about government not being the solution to the problem, but the problem itself. Urban crime, the rise of the yuppie class (Rick Moranis’s endlessly quotable character is living the 80s dream, right down to watching “20 Minute Workout”) and even the wave of 1950s nostalgia in the old-fashioned ambulance they convert into “ECTO-1” and the classic fire station they choose as their headquarters mirrors the tendency in early 1980s America to yearn for a “simpler time”.
But above all, Ghostbusters is quotable. It was the first non-Star Wars film that I can remember my friends and I quoting endless on the schoolyard, and this was years before The Simpsons provided us with an endless supply of quotes. It was popular culture that appealed to kids like me, who loved the adventure bits, and older cynical teenagers and even dour ex-Punks with their newly-feathered hair and miserable expressions enjoyed Bill Murray’s constant snark. It occupied a previously unfilled niche in popular culture: the edgy comedy for all ages that doubled as a special effects extravaganza. (Those effects, by the way, once you accept the obvious matte paintings and some wobbly stop-motion on the hell hounds, hold up impressively well on the big screen today.)
Ghostbusters is now officially here forever, even if Aykroyd never makes his long-discussed sequel. Without the wonderful and badly-missed Harold Ramis, and apparently without Bill Murray, it remains to be seen if Ghostbusters 3 will be anything other than a curiosity. (The less said about Ghostbusters 2, the better.) But the original holds up. It’s been thirty years, and we still can’t say, “Who are you going to call?”