Monday, June 27, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Who You Gonna Call?

When the remake of Ghostbusters is nigh, what else is there to do than catch up on a zeitgeist franchise of the sort we just don't seem to have anymore?

Ghostbusters (For our Scream 101 episode about this very film, click here.)

Year: 1984
Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver 
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

A trio of out-of-work paranormal scientists open a business busting ghosts, only to stumble upon an ancient demon bent on ending the world inside from of their client’s fridges.

It’s impossible to approach a review of Ghostbusters without a great deal of baggage. You can try to check as much of it as possible, but you’re at the very least still stuck with your carry-on. The obscenely popular horror comedy was so ingrained into the hearts and minds of those who were growing up or even alive in the 80’s, the remnants of Ghostbusters have drifted down from generation to generation like a Jungian cultural memory. 

I could make “don’t cross the streams” jokes long before I was old enough for my parents to even consider renting me Ghostbusters. And if you can show me any American alive today who does have at least a rudimentary working knowledge of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, I will show you an amnesiac. My spell check even knows that "Ghostbusters" is a word. Ghostbusters is an innate, primordial piece of cinema, and that’s the reason that the backlash against the remake has reached such shrieking, ludicrous heights.

That is to say, Ghostbusters adopts such a revered position in the pop culture idiom, it’s difficult to walk up to that hallowed door and nail your Theses there for all to see. But what can a lowly blogger do but try to say true to himself? Here goes: Ghostbusters has flaws. Deep-seated, crippling flaws that loudly announce themselves while the world plugs its ears. Does that mean it’s not a good comedy film? Hell no! In fact, it’s a great comedy film. But as a holistic narrative piece, it can occasionally be a bit of a shambles.

Born as it is from the minds of extremely talented sketch comedians, the deliciously high concept of Ghostbusters (underemployed scientists become a modern, macabre twist on New York exterminators) is populated by a handful of wacky, paper-thin characters not suited for the long-term scrutiny of a feature film. More a collection of (admittedly funny) tics and mannerisms than fully rounded personalities, it’s extremely challenging to get a sense of what makes them tick and how the dynamics of their relationships operate. 

Comedy is a genre uniquely suited to contain these types of characters (and Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis especially have the chops to pull it off), but there’s just no excuse for a character like Winston Zeddmore (played by Ernie Hudson), who shows up halfway through the film, integrates himself into the group offscreen, says and does next to nothing that can be perceived as funny on the visual or aural spectrum, and then is arbitrarily handed the climax’s closing line. This guy is a non-entity, there’s no discernible reason for his presence in the film (other than the fact that the casting director probably looked around at lunch and realized there was not a single black person on set), and he doesn’t even have the decency to make us laugh. The producers really should send Mr. Hudson a fruit basket or something, because he is well and truly f**ked by this film.

Similarly vexing is Sigourney Weaver’s Dana, who gets plenty to do when she’s possessed by the demonic Zool, but it hardly more than set decoration in human form. Ghostbusters is haunted by this kind of half-finished feeling (and in fact there are some effects shots that literally weren’t completed by the deadline), with a heavy sprinkling of sedate hang-out scenes, a ghost BJ scene clearly shoehorned in for… personal reasons, and an altogether too easy climax.

But even a half-finished Ghostbusters is an incredible one. The state-of-the-art effects are designed with the gleeful creativity of a fairy tale yet are just dangerous enough to earn the horror half of that horror-comedy hyphenate. And there’s no denying that this cast assembled some of the brightest comic minds of the 1980’s, delivering an endless conveyor belt of quotable dialogue with some of the keenest, most off-kilter readings in the business. Ghostbusters is a tremendously funny movie and yes, that really is the only thing that matters.

Rating: 7/10

Ghostbusters II

Year: 1989
Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The now defunct Ghostbusters must reunite when an underground river of ectoplasm and an ancient Sumerian spirit threaten to destroy New York.

Ghostbusters II is kind of a miracle sequel, if only for the fact that it managed to reteam the director, writers, and entire cast (down to the bit parts) five years down the road after the original became a massive hit, spawning an empire of merchandise, imitators, and a cartoon series. For that fact alone, we must thank Ghostbusters II, but bringing back that crew brought back their particular set of problems, with a handful of new ones for flavor.

For starters, despite expanded screentime for both, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver are still treated like tagalong little siblings that the movie just doesn’t have time to deal with right now. We see Hudson in the opening, where we’re shown what the former Ghostbusters are up to, but in the climactic first act trial scene that predicates their reformation, he vanishes in a puff of ectoplasm. He continues this Houdini act throughout Ghostbusters II, reappearing only when it would look cool for there to be four beams of light instead of three. 

And Sigourney Weaver is yoked to a particularly unforgiving role: divorced single mother/damsel in distress. All she’s asked to do is coo at a baby, waltz about in a towel, and be just strong enough that she can resist Venkman’s advances until she is broken in like a horse. It sucks to be an actress in an 80’s comedy, don’t it? She is trapped in this insipid part, which commits the egregious sequel sin of breaking her up with Bill Murray just so we can see their inexplicable romance blossom yet again in the exact same pattern. Whee…

And then there’s Rick Moranis. His performance in Ghostbusters is perhaps my favorite of the bunch, and he continues to excel here. But his character is shoehorned in so poorly that he hangs from the film like a throbbing goiter, a constant reminder that what you’re watching is entirely pointless, a ramshackle artifice created only to capitalize on the brand of a lifetime.

Naturally, the third act also has the same problems, depicting a generic evil threat with no discernible stakes that’s defeated in about 2.5 seconds flat. And the film has the audacity to tack on a nauseating “power of positive thinking” vibe to the whole thing. At least the desperate Stay-Puft substitute (an animated Statue of Liberty stomping its way through the street of New York) is achieved with some tremendously convincing special effects.

In fact, all the effects here are particularly well-rendered. Five years of technological development and time to actually complete the work does wonders for Ghostbusters II. Although the ghosts are much safer and more Henson-esque this time around (thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the Ghostbusters cartoon), there are actually multiple ghosts busted in this movie, wreaking convincing havoc about town with lavish detail. In this respect and this respect only, Ghostbusters II is a vast improvement over the original.

But, like I said before, the whole point of Ghostbusters is to make us laugh, and this sequel doesn’t quite cut mustard. Although Murray and Ramis still punch up their material with effortlessly kooky line readings and franchise newcomer Peter MacNicol is delightfully camp as an improbably accented museum curator, the script just isn’t up to snuff. It falls back on too much weak slapstick (especially where the river of slime is involved), awkward improv, and ill-thought-out plotting. It’s a very messy film that has little reason to exist, and while there’s still a spark of what the original has to offer, it’s not really worth your time.

Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1397
Reviews In This Series
Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984)
Ghostbusters II (Reitman, 1989)
Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016)


  1. Way too harsh on Hudson! I love ol' Winston, enough to forgive the fact that she's thrown into the mix something like only forty minutes before the movie ends. Plus he gets one of my favorite moments in the film, him and Ray talking about the end of the world on the drive back to Manhattan.

    I suppose the characters aren't that terribly well-rounded--Moranis, Ramis, and Akroyd are bona fide cartoons--but that's never hurt it too much in my estimation. Plus, it does something almost no horror-comedy aside from Evil Dead 2 does: it take its horror elements seriously. Even the Stay Puft Marshallow Man is (kind of) legitimately scary.

    1. I just feel like they completely wasted Ernie Hudson's potential. He does next to nothing in any of the movies, and the portentous lines he's given don't work well because we have no idea who he is or why he's here. He deserves better.

    2. He's a swell blue-collar dude, just looking for work, and falls into a mad world of ghosts and goblins. Just saying that it worked for me, is all. Admittedly, I also first attained consciousness during Ghostbusters fever.

      I'm not at all sure how much I'm looking forward to the new one. On one hand, I don't think it's gonna be great. On the other, I think it's a huge shame that this one movie gets to carry the burden, essentially, of answering the question of whether women can headline summer blockbusters. (Besides, that question already got answered by Fury Road and Gravity, respectively, and the answer was "yes, obviously.")

    3. I'm nervous about the remake because the trailers are NOT selling me, but I dig the cast and the director. Plus, I've learned not to trust the trailers for Paul Feig/Melissa McCarthy movies. I have some tentative hopes for this one.

  2. (Oh, and as for Ghostbusters 2, I remember liking it just okay, but I haven't seen it in something like a decade.)