nostalgia fact-check

How Does Ghostbusters Hold Up?

Photo: Columbia Pictures
Photo: Columbia Pictures

The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered Heathers, Ally McBeal, and Ace of Base’s The Sign. Now, we move on to the classic supernatural comedy Ghostbusters.

Background: Ivan Reitman’s 1984 comedy Ghostbusters starred Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis as three parapsychologists (Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler, respectively). The trio decide to go into business fighting ghosts and are hired by the lovely Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) to investigate her apartment building, which is haunted by demon dogs and evil, gender-ambiguous Sumerian shape-changers. Ghostbusters was a giant hit in its initial release, taking in almost $230 million, a figure that made it one of the ten highest-grossing movies ever at the time. (Even now, 27 years later, that box-office take would rank it as the third biggest movie of 2011 behind The Hangover Part II and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.)

Nostalgia Demo: Though it was a four-quadrant success that plenty of people have a soft spot for, the most ardent Ghostbusters fans grew up on repeat viewings of the film and are now in their thirties, which is why so many film executives, entertainment bloggers, and comedic actors in that demographic seize on any chatter about a potential Ghostbusters sequel or reboot.

Nostalgia Fact-Check: And I’m one of those ardent fans. I don’t think any other movie could possibly compete with the amount of times I’ve seen Ghostbusters, owing mostly to once- and sometimes twice-a-day viewings when I was a kid. I wore out that VHS tape alongside my twin sister and my friend Brian, our movie-watching privileges revoked only once after 7-year-old Brian got in trouble for calling his mom a “prehistoric bitch,” the phrase Bill Murray spits out when the Ghostbusters decide to take on Gozer.

So how does it hold up in 2011? Pretty well! At the time, Ghostbusters was fairly novel for its genre mash-up (it was a big-budget supernatural adventure crossed with a standard group-of-guys comedy), but since then, plenty of other movies have taken on that successful combo platter format. Ghostbusters’ first spooky scene of the old woman haunted in the library is like the played-straight Drew Barrymore prologue in Scream, and indeed, Wes Craven’s horror comedy has a lot in common with Ghostbusters in the way that it toggles expertly between humor and genuine fright, with neither getting in the way of the other. Other genre mash-ups on the way, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, would be wise to take a few notes.

Let’s take a minute to address all the elements going on in the scene where Venkman shows up for his date with Dana only to find her possessed by Zuul. There’s some amazing comic timing at play from Murray; some terrific lines (“What a lovely singing voice you have”); a dangerous, sexy performance from Weaver; and some genuinely unsettling moments aided by Elmer Bernstein’s pitch-perfect score. Most movies would be lucky to get even a few of those things into one scene, and I haven’t even mentioned Weaver’s amazing hair, makeup, and ghost-possessed eighties-music-video-girl ensemble:

There are also some enjoyably prescient moments, like when Ramis dismissively declares to Annie Potts that “print is dead,” or Murray justifies his financial investment in the Ghostbusters by saying, “The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.” (How true that would prove!) And despite the subject matter, it’s hard not to be reminded of September 11th during the climax of the movie, when our suited-up heroes march up countless flights of stairs in a crumbling, doomed New York skyscraper. Ghostbusters would have actually made for a good post-9/11 movie, with all the time spent showing us the tough New York crowds that gather to cheer on and root for these heroic men. (And the last line before the closing credits? Ernie Hudson coming out of the rubble and shouting, “I love this town!”)

Still, there are a few flaws in Ghostbusters that have only become more apparent with the passing of time. The practical effects remain pretty good, but every time the stop-motion demon dogs run around … yeesh. Hudson’s Winston Zeddmore is hired halfway through the movie, but he’s never given anything to do, and he doesn’t even engage in any ghost-busting until the third act. And though I loved the chemistry between Murray and Weaver growing up, I noticed in my rewatch that they have barely any scenes together. Dana hires Venkman, he has a three-minute conversation with her a few months later, and then the next time they meet, she’s already possessed by Zuul.

Knowing how eager Hollywood is to reinvigorate the franchise, how different would this movie be if it were made now? (Besides the fact that Ke$ha would be cast as Gozer, and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man would be an easy mark for actual product placement.) Alongside the special-effects upgrade, there would surely be more action scenes, since the 1984 Ghostbusters are easily winded and do very little running. Their ghost-fights mostly involve standing and pointing, and the setback before their final confrontation is awfully laughable: There’s a wussy earthquake outside Dana’s building, they fall in a five-foot hole, and then they climb out of it. The crowd assembled around the building applauds for them, but the 2011 audience would expect a little bit more.

Most perniciously, each of the Ghostbusters would probably have an overly manufactured emotional arc. Character progression isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the original movie gets by just fine without adhering to that Syd Field screenwriting formula, and the closest thing to an arc is that Bill Murray occasionally seems a little more serious by the end of the movie. Were it made today, Ghostbusters would feature Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, and Danny McBride battling their personal demons by entrapping literal ones, and who needs something tired like that?

Better to let the original stand on its own. (Something that will never, ever happen, but at least I can dream!) After all, they’ve already tried to make a follow-up to this movie, and when I was a little kid obsessed with Ghostbusters and Nintendo, even I was embarrassed by the scene in Ghostbusters 2 where Bill Murray controls the Statue of Liberty using some positively charged slime and an NES Advantage joystick. If that same filmmaker and cast couldn’t recapture the magic back then, what makes anyone today think they’d have even a ghost of a chance?

How Does Ghostbusters Hold Up?