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Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters

Ivan Reitman

USA, 1984

Credits

Review by Chiranjit Goswami

Posted on 23 October 2006

Source Sony Pictures DVD

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If it requires categorization, Ghostbusters is a tremendously nerdy film. Applying such a label isn’t to say that the film primarily appeals to nerds, or that the film concentrates entirely upon nerds, but it might be difficult to completely refute such claims. Indeed, while it does provide a few legitimately creepy creatures and a handful of playful chills, Ivan Reitman’s buddy-comedy innately exudes an inordinate amount of anxiety regarding a variety of qualms and insecurities that are thought to typically hound frequently obsessive, often introverted, intellectual males.

Reitman’s film tells the tale of three peculiar parapsychology professors who are fired from their comfortable jobs at a prominent university in New York City. Despite obvious visual verification of their theories regarding paranormal activity in New York, they are branded as incompetent by the university’s crusty-old Dean. Assuming a considerable degree of personal financial peril, the three associates decide to set up their own business at an overly neglected, slightly dilapidated firehouse as exterminators of supernatural beings. Calling themselves “Ghostbusters,” the team initially struggles for respect while trapping and snaring various irritating supernatural spirits, occasionally having to humorously extort stingy customers who balk at their steep bills.

As New York continues to experience increased paranormal activity, the three amigos enjoy a boom in business. Along the way, the crew stumble onto a mystical portal hidden in a client’s refrigerator, which provides a pathway for a demonic deity to pierce through dimensional barriers and conquer our world. Alas, our heroes are too busy becoming a pop-culture phenomenon worthy of mentions in everything from national newspapers to influential political journals, and the relentless demand requires them to hire a fourth wheel to lessen the load.

Unfortunately, the team also attracts unwarranted attention from a jealous EPA bureaucrat who misguidedly seeks to shut down their honourable operation without properly their immense contribution to the protection of society. Instead, the invidious “pencil-pusher” procures the assistance of the police to cut the power to the Ghostbusters’ storage facility, thereby releasing a colossal accumulation of ghastly ghouls from a crucial containment unit. Meanwhile, the aforementioned destructive deity named Gozer has annexed a Manhattan high-rise after initiating the possession of two ill-fated residents and is now determined to demolish the surrounding metropolis by unleashing an apocalypse. Naturally, our heroes are the last line of defence against certain catastrophe and warily storm the apartment building in order to save the world.

Of course, the spook-story starts off with a much less elaborate scare. Swooping in from the heavens amidst eerie chimes and whistling winds, Reitman pauses to emphasize the intimidating presence of the large ominous stone statues that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library before wandering indoors. Massive stone statues, typically of ferocious mythical beasts looming over the miniature hapless citizens below, play a prominent role in Ghostbusters, usually indicating danger, but also evoking a connection to ancient history. Once inside the library’s orderly confines, Reitman dwells on a librarian collecting the assorted texts that have been abandoned by various patrons, focusing specifically upon a cart where she aligns the books she amasses. Once the lone librarian descends downstairs to a deserted basement, Reitman elongates each aisle of shelves, making them appear narrow and constrictive for the librarian, thereby heightening the tension of her rather mundane activity. While the librarian is distracted by her duties, we witness a few texts fly across the shelves seemingly by themselves. Within a moment bedlam erupts in the basement, as the old wooden drawers of a file card catalogue begin to burst open by themselves, spewing index cards into the air. Understandably startled by the sudden inexplicable incident, the librarian scurries through the aisles in an attempt to get back upstairs to safety. Regrettably, the terror that grips the librarian causes the initially orderly rows of bookshelves to suddenly resemble a confusing maze of corridors, thereby increasing our collective sense of panic. Thankfully we are swiftly rescued by the film’s title-sequence, which is accompanied by the sounds of the catchy Ghostbusters’ theme-song, which further alleviates our fear by offering us the relief of 80s pop music.

While the opening sequence appears routine for another ordinary fright-fest, the filmmakers have astutely introduced a form of anxiety they will return to frequently during his film. By concentrating on the chaos that occurs at the library, the filmmakers have forced an institution dedicated to the collection and organization of knowledge — much of which has been researched and assembled by the efforts of scientists — into complete disarray. The ensuing mystical mayhem is distressing for any average spectator, but it is probably particularly problematic for scientists, who pride themselves on explaining the world through logic and reason. This is best demonstrated by Reitman’s decision to systematically repeat the same series of shots while the scientists descend to the library’s basement to investigate the eerie events that have just occurred, as if to establish order. The sequence then abruptly diverges after the somewhat symbolic collapse of a large bookshelf that signals the arrival of a paranormal presence.

That the damage was perpetuated by an entity that defies traditionally accepted beliefs only enhances the entire enterprise of Ghostbusters, as the film seeks to drolly exhibit the havoc caused when paranormal elements are introduced upon the conflicting practices of science and religion. Though ordinarily thought to be in opposition, the institutions of science and religion allow their crusaders and practitioners to make sense of the surrounding natural world through diverging methods, and thus essentially seek to create order out of chaos. Ghostbusters attempts to humorously explore just how exactly these traditional systems might react when confronting entities that undermine the fundamental principles of both institutions.

Ghostbusters repeatedly returns to the notion of disorder, whether it’s an irritation at an establishment dedicated to the illusion of cleanliness, such as the mess caused by a gluttonous green glob at an impeccably elegant Manhattan hotel, or a disturbance at a structure dedicated to providing a sense of security, such as the demolition of a comfortably secure New York apartment, or the panic within a bureaucracy dedicated to the maintenance of civilization, such as the pandemonium displayed at the mayor’s office created by the anarchy suddenly gripping the streets of New York City. Obviously a significant portion of this turmoil results from the unexpected intrusion of supernatural beings into the natural world, which itself is a blatant defiance of generally accepted scientific theory.

Thus, it’s rather ironic that the tasks of cleaning up this mess falls to a scientist who cannot even keep his office tidy, let alone prevent his office door from being vandalized. When we first meet Dr. Peter Venkman, he is preoccupied with an electroshock therapy experiment supposedly design to test the effects of negative reinforcement on ESP ability. The actual purpose of the scene is to test the audience’s tolerance for dark humour and their ability to allow a protagonist to exhibit purposely malicious behaviour, as Venkman is intentionally electrocuting a helpless male student while sparing an attractive woman from any potential trauma. The sinister scene is mildly self-referential to the horror genre in general, as filmmakers also coerce their audience to endure a series of harmlessly vindictive shocks. However, our anxiety is momentarily alleviated by witnessing another party enduring mischievous torment. Venkman’s amusement at messing with his volunteers mirrors the similar sense of enjoyment we obtain through watching the temporary discomfort our protagonists must experience in order to resolve their frivolously frightening predicament.

Though Bill Murray is more animated and lively in Ghostbusters than in his later, more weary and restrained roles, Peter Venkman serves as another extension of his smarmy comedic persona. The brief introductory scene allows us to grasp that Venkman is a rather shallow individual, seeking mostly just to avoid any amount of substantial work, entertain himself by goofing off, and abusing his inconsequential position of authority to seduce gullible young women. In fact, despite his apparent qualifications in the dubious field of parapsychology, one gets the sense that Venkman survived his secondary education via unscrupulous methods. However, as intended by screenwriters Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, and embodied by Murray, Venkman is endlessly clever, readily providing ample amounts of sarcasm and capable of understanding the absurdity of the situation that frequently eludes his more stern and sincere companions. By delivering a steady stream of cynical wisecracks, Venkman assumes the role of sceptical observer to the illogical proceedings and thereby serves as the viewer’s proxy to the absurd events that unfold. Venkman also aids the viewer by simplifying each scenario to the essential dilemma and focusing his exuberantly distracted colleagues, at one point even grabbing them by the ears like children in order to gain their attention.

Venkman’s more incredulous and overly jocular personality is a stark contrast to the mentalities of his colleagues and creates an interesting group dynamic. As played by Aykroyd, Dr. Raymond Stantz is a sincerely obsessive enthusiast in the supernatural, incapable of doubt or boredom. Meanwhile, Ramis interprets Dr. Egon Spengler as equally absorbed in his work, but capable of remaining an impassive, composed, and rational scientist throughout the increasingly ludicrous proceedings. Though Reitman sporadically stresses their unwavering camaraderie by composing several three-shots, the three scientists frequently differ on their perspective of the spectacular situations that they encounter, with Stantz and Spengler starring in stunned amazement while Venkman is far less impressed with their findings. Reitman emphasizes the deviation in personality and perspective between Venkman and his colleagues by allowing Murray to occupy frames by himself while often pairing Aykroyd and Ramis in a two-shot during the trio’s numerous debates.

Unfortunately, no matter how enthusiastic or talented they may be, the three scientists are kind of a joke around campus since the concept of scientific study of the supernatural seems as incongruous in theory as applying comedy to the horror genre. Branded as “poor scientists” who apply sloppy procedures and lack proper documentation, the three men are dismissed from the University. The label of mediocrity may carry some merit when applied to Venkman’s academic ability, but the term seems inappropriately applied to Stantz and Spengler, who rigorously study their results and routinely invent marvellously potent equipment. Nevertheless, these men are unfairly sacked mostly due to their chosen field of study, which is not recognized with the same reverence as countless other academic departments. Venkman attempts to see the bright side by noting that Einstein — a nerd icon — made great strides while working as a patent clerk, but Stantz quickly counters by mentioning Einstein’s measly salary at the time. Essentially these men have dedicated their lives to scientifically studying the paranormal and must now endure professional embarrassment. Thus, by accentuating the instability of the protagonists’ chosen profession, the filmmakers have introduced the anxiety of having one’s obsessions reduced to being considered insignificant. Hence, by introducing financial and professional insecurity the filmmakers have carefully manipulated the collective dread of having one’s work unfairly deemed to be irrelevant, which effectively translates to having wasted a substantial portion of one’s entire life.

The ultimate solution to their financial and professional woes is to become entrepreneurs and start their own “ghostbusting” service. The operation basically functions as a fourth branch of emergency assistance services within a city that is in the midst of experiencing an increase in criminal activity. Thus, the shared sense of panic within the population created by the antics of the numerous supernatural entities that have flooded the metropolis could be viewed as parallel to the wave of crime that New York is suffering during the mid-80s.

Not surprisingly the Ghostbusters begin their new mission to purge the city of paranormal activity by cleaning up, as they restore a decrepit old firehouse, determined to have it serve as their headquarters, thereby reinstating order from turmoil. However, no matter how much restoration and invention that they complete, the Ghostbusters remain resolutely amateurish in appearance and avoid acting professional. Their crude equipment is effective, but also troublesome, and accentuates their amateur status, thereby increasing the anxiety of inadequacy. Luckily the team succeeds due to the inordinate amount of demand for their services.

Regrettably, despite experiencing a phenomenal level of success, the crew are destined to wage the same bureaucratic battles. Though they are now rid of the University Dean, one bureaucratic nemesis is simply replaced by another, as an EPA henchman hounds them for the unknown environmental impact of their storage and containment facilities. In similar fashion to the ignorance exhibited by Dean Yager, the EPA enforcer named Walter Peck is unable to comprehend the Ghostbusters’ collective brilliance because he discards their research and practices as parlour tricks designed to swindle the public. By placing them in opposition to yet another asinine bureaucrat the Ghostbusters appear as rebellious underdogs attempting to fight against an inattentive system. It also serves to enhance the thrill of overcoming the obstacles placed by clueless authority figures that lack an adequate mental capacity to properly recognize genius.

Fittingly it’s Venkman that repeatedly antagonizes authority figures, suitably using a deadpan delivery to donate the film’s most offensively humorous zinger by suggesting the inadequacy of Peck’s male anatomy. The insult Venkman throws at Peck exemplifies the film’s subtle preoccupation with male sexual inadequacy. Despite news stories claiming that the Ghostbusters party with a bevy of beautiful woman, the only “action” we actually witness is an incident involving mystical maidens invading the trio’s dreams. Indeed, in reality the crew seem somewhat inept in their relationships with females. Actually, the only vaguely sexual scenario involving the Ghostbusters in the film’s reality is when Venkman is violated by the aforementioned green glob, a floating ball of primitive urges later to be named “Slimer,” who leaves his victim covered in a sticky clear bodily fluid. In fact we’ve previously come across this gooey substance in the library, when it was left behind by another spirit. At that point Venkman is ordered to take a specimen and wipes the liquid on the bookshelves, though this specific scene may only have sexual implications after watching The Squid and the Whale.

While Stantz seems too engrossed in his work to even attempt participating in a meaningful relationship with a female, Spengler is so distracted with science he is oblivious to his geeky secretary Janine’s infatuation with his intellect. Meanwhile, Venkman’s persistent attempts to coerce various women into intimate situations, while amusing, exude a certain degree of desperation. Venkman’s chief target is a client named Dana Barrett, an imposingly sophisticated cellist played by Sigourney Weaver, who initially refuses to consider the scientist’s advances, which includes Venkman’s insistence that he examine her bedroom, his resulting disappointment at the lack of activity in her bed, and his immediate proclamation of love. Dana finally relents after his sarcastic humour gains prominence in the media and charms her in person. The couple is improbable not only due to their divergent physical appearances, but also since their personalities appear so incompatible, with Dana even exclaiming that Venkman doesn’t resemble a typical “stiff” scientist, but rather he reminds her of a game-show host. However, considering the only competition Venkman has for Dana’s affections are either an uptight cad at her symphony or a nerdy neighbour named Louis, Venkman appears downright appealing in comparison.

Sadly, their unlikely union is barred from beginning due to an ancient demon named Zule the Gatekeeper who has possessed Dana’s body, which Reitman signals by changing Weaver’s makeup and having her dress more provocatively. The intruder seeks an encounter with another demon named Vinz Clortho the Keymaster, who has simultaneously possessed Louis, in order to ensure the arrival of Gozer. Venkman realizes something amiss on their first date and refuses Dana’s sexual advances. Venkman’s decision is obviously due to his moral stance that such intimate actions would be inappropriate under the circumstances and displays a rare instance of decency by the otherwise sleazy scientist. However, Venkman’s hesitation also hints that he is somewhat intimidated by Dana’s unexpected sexual aggression. Indeed Dana’s overt sexuality sounds daunting to Venkman and considerably emasculates a man already uneasy with his subsidiary status within their relationship, especially as she orders him to “take [her] now, sub-creature!”

Upon the release of every crude paranormal prisoner the Ghostbuster’s had previously captured, Zule and Vinz Clortho are finally able to get together in Dana’s now decimated apartment. Aided considerably by Weaver’s impressive physical presence, which dwarfs the more meek Rick Moranis, the filmmakers allow Dana/Zule to once again act as the sexual aggressor, assuming the more dominant role within their relationship by grasping the more submissive Louis/Clortho in her arms to initiate their physical contact. Given that the names “Gatekeeper” and “Keymaster” have vaguely sexual connotations regarding gender roles and that the supernatural beings that possess Dana and Louis are apparently demonic dogs, it’s not surprising that Zule and Clortho immediately act upon their most primal urges. Though the film only implies off-screen intercourse has occurred, we are privy to the aftermath where both bodies awaken, with Dana/Zule remaining insatiable and licentious, while Louis/Clortho appears dishevelled but satisfied. Whatever their individual reactions may be to the event, the sexual encounter between Zule and Clortho seems to have a dramatic impact on the surrounding physical world, as it rips apart the fabric of our reality and provides the action required to open an inter-dimensional portal for Gozer to slip through into our dimension.

Amazingly it turns out, Gozer, the deity bent upon destruction, is a female. Given the film’s simultaneous attraction and trepidation regarding imposing female personalities, it’s especially apt that the Ghostbusters must ultimately battle a woman in order to save the world. In many ways Gozer is a manifestation of a clichéd perception of women that any insecure male may mistakenly presume, as she wields an immense and fearsome amount of power, and the geeky Ghostbusters initially approach her with a mix of apprehension and reverence, fully admitting their inferiority. Thus it’s appropriate that these men avoid clashing with Gozer one-on-one, but rather require the reinforcement provided by their quartet in order to overwhelm their female opponent. Oddly, at this point, the film becomes faintly misogynistic, with Venkman spouting a variety of derogatory dialogue, referring to Gozer as a “nimble little minx” and a “prehistoric bitch.” Equally peculiar is the terminology they apply as the swagger up to Gozer with their rather phallic weapons drawn, as Venkman orders his crew to “heat ‘em up” and “make ‘em hard.” Moments later, after misguidedly assuming a victory and proclaiming that “it’s Miller time,” the crew brag about their mutual conquest, boasting that they had the “tools” and the “talent,” in effect declaring the supremacy of both their physical equipment and their experienced expertise.

Their celebration is obviously premature as Gozer has only been toying with our geek-squad. Within moments she twists a childhood memory that Stantz cannot keep hidden and unleashes a gigantic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man upon the Big Apple. The entire scenario is consciously silly and serves as a slightly satirical dig at the purposely extravagant endings in countless other conventional action-movies, most of which focus on extremely masculine heroes. However, the corny conclusion is also apt for such an intentionally adolescent film, as the Ghostbusters must essentially overcome their own immaturity to save mankind.

Unexpectedly, at this point, the Ghostbusters find that the science that they once devotedly accepted as conclusive truth may not provide them with the means to survive such an irrational dilemma. The crew must concede that the safety net that their science provides them has limits and they must instead embrace their usually unspoken spirituality. Other than a few passing mentions of fate and karma by Venkman, mainly designed to inspire Stantz when the original trio embark upon their business venture, the Ghostbusters are decidedly secular for the most part.

The circumstances change considerably with the addition of Winston Zeddmore to the squad. As played by Ernie Hudson, Zeddmore’s presence on the team is significant for a few reasons, most notably because his status as an African-American makes him the only ethnic-minority member of the group. Zeddmore is also far more blue-collar than his scholarly co-workers, so his addition signifies that the Ghostbusters are no longer an insular club of nerdy white-guys. Sadly, Zeddmore still appears to be a second-class citizen within the action of the film, often relegated to the background of group shots and distinctly detached from the other members, at one point even requesting his own lawyer. More importantly the hiring of Zeddmore brings an element of faith to the unit, which is welcome as the apocalypse nears. Zeddmore’s spirituality is immediately contrasted to the cold rational of his colleagues, as exhibited during one of his first missions when he questions Stantz directly regarding his spiritual beliefs as the supernatural swarm begins to swell. Naturally, when Zeddmore asks Stantz whether or not he believes in God, Stantz replies with cold logic, casually stating that he’s “never met him before.”

As the apocalypse inches closer, Reitman’s film becomes even more enamoured with the idea of faith. Perhaps the most prominent display is the arrival of the Archbishop at the Mayor’s offices. The Archbishop informs the Mayor that the Church cannot take an official position on the spiritual implications of this unprecedented and unpredictable supernatural situation, but counsels the assembled parties that preparations should be made for the impending anarchy. Zeddmore quickly chimes in by reaffirming his staunch faith, but also professing he has witnessed some spectacularly strange events since recently joining the Ghostbusters, humorously describing these sightings as “shit that will turn you white.” Venkman then seizes the moment adding his voice to the chorus by jokingly predicting the ensuing pandemonium to be “old-testament stuff” or “biblical proportions” with “mass hysteria” eventually resulting in unholy unions between cats and dogs.

Armed with political and spiritual blessing, the Ghostbusters are somewhat inspired by the city’s enduring faith. After observing small cultural congregations engaged in various forms of prayer, it’s the destruction of a religious building by the Stay Puft Marshmallow monster that stirs their final actions, as Venkman exclaims “nobody steps on a church in my town.” The Ghostbusters are then provoked into making a dangerous decision that contradicts their previously accepted scientific theories. Obligated to generate a massive amount of power in order to defeat Gozer and ensure the survival of mankind, Stantz and Spengler hypothesize that the four Ghostbusters must “cross the streams” that emit from their equipment. The hazardous strategy has a slim chance for success, but a greater potential for death. Despite their probable demise, our heroes are willing to sacrifice their lives to save their city and they bid farewell to one another before proceeding with their improbable plan. Luckily their noble actions result in a glorious triumph over Gozer, accompanied by the liberation of both Dana and Louis, and the delicious detonation of the gigantic Stay Puft Marshmallow man that had been running amok in New York. Having vanquished their female adversary, our courageous crew (as well as Peck) is smothered in creamy white marshmallow debris, which wouldn’t seem so sexual if Venkman didn’t mention that it makes him “feel like the floor of a taxi-cab.”

The conclusion of Ghostbusters provides a rare instance within contemporary culture where science and religion act in harmony. While the Ghostbusters operated upon some form of imaginary scientific speculation when deciding to make their noble sacrifice, they also take a substantial risk without much theoretical support, mostly just hoping for the best possible outcome. The combination of faith and logic may seem unlikely, but it feels appropriate in a film that takes so much delight in mixing seemingly incompatible elements from a variety of genres. Indeed, while Ghostbusters makes a charming appeal for us to value the contributions science makes to our society it also acknowledges that occasionally even science requires a little leap of faith.

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