‘Ghostbusters’ spoofed fantasy franchises, then it became one — Ultimate Movie Year

Ultimate Movie Year finds the best films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.

Dan Aykroyd’s family roots trace back to being in business with the supernatural. That history was clearly on his mind, along with a desire to revive a classic movie trope of pairing comedians against dead spirits when he started developing the idea for “Ghostbusters.”

But by the time “Ghostbusters” was released in 1984, filmgoers spent almost a decade packing theaters for adventure and fantasy. A story that involved a demonic takeover of New York City indeed continued that trend, but what made “Ghostbusters” unique was filling the movie with characters that were as willing to comment on the absurdity of these situations, as they were to participate in it. It lampshaded Hollywood’s transformation into a big-budget franchise machine, and then “Ghostbusters” became one itself.

You more than likely already know this story of the movie: Three out-of-work scientists Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) start a supernatural extermination service, just as an ancient, malevolent deity looks to move into our reality by way of New York City, and more specifically, through the apartment home of Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver).

But the strength of “Ghostbusters” is not its plot, it’s the personality, dominated by Murray’s opportunistic but sarcastic Venkman. Dana describes Venkman as a game show host, and it’s not far off, as he can’t take anything seriously for more than a minute before veering off to chuckle at something else. Venkman’s the main character of “Ghostbusters,” so the movie itself treats the impending supernatural invasion with the same kind of tone we’d take with a snotty pizza delivery guy.

1984 is the culmination of what’s been building in comedy over the previous decade. 1975 saw the television debut of “Saturday Night Live,” a late-night sketch show that immediately launched the careers of a half-dozen stars, like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Aykroyd, and Murray. The original cast left after five years (and began starring in their own feature films) and was replaced by new, featured players, one of which was a young Eddie Murphy. Murphy was a bright star in a transition period and jumped to movies even faster than the others. Their comedic personas helped fuel the two biggest box office movies of 1984, “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Ghostbusters,” and their individual sensibilities were born at SNL.

Meanwhile, the movie industry was rocked by the impact of “Jaws” and “Star Wars” in the late 70s and early 80s, and summer films became big business. Audiences grew to love adventure and fantasy, whether it was battling throughout the stars or more homegrown dangers on Earth. At the same time, many special effects artists and craftspeople were advancing their own work to new heights, allowing filmmakers to create new worlds and visuals that had never been imagined on the silver screen.

The individual evolutions of comedy and fantasy films set the table for the success of “Ghostbusters.” While many hit movies like “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Superman,” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” had elements of humor, there isn’t the main character like Murray’s Venkman who basically takes the piss during the entire story. On the flip side, the stakes in the popular comedies of the era were relatively benign and local, like the goofs and geeks vow to save the summer camp or win a bet against the snobs. “Ghostbusters” puts the entirety of New York City on the line. The combination of the day’s fantasy and comedy styles was joined at the right moment in time, giving audiences a fresh perspective on high spectacle, one that never lets the rising stakes stop the jokes.

“One political analyst said it was the perfect movie for the Reagan years because our opposition was the EPA,” Aykroyd said in the feature retrospective “Who You Gonna Call?” “We were new entrepreneurs — a startup company if you will — and we were contravening environmental laws. Nothing politically correct there about the Ghostbusters, but it very much hewed to the time of what was going on in (New York City).”

Casting, writing, and special effects set the production back several times, and the crew needed to complete the film on an accelerated schedule. The pressure worked because the “Ghostbusters” crew managed to catch lightning in a bottle. These comedic actors at the peak of their creativity and influence and the public’s enthusiasm for special effect-driven films were soaring. Murray’s Venkman is an iconic personality that has stuck with the actor, even after moving to more dramatic work. Aykroyd’s sharp in allowing others to have the focus often, but still finds the funny elements of a fully-realized character. For my money, though, the secret weapons here are Ramis as a flat and occasionally self-destructive genius, and Rick Moranis as the enthusiastic accountant Lewis. He steals every scene that he’s in.

The audiences flocked to “Ghostbusters” the first chance they got, scoring a huge opening weekend and going on to become the second-highest-grossing film of the year (just behind “Beverly Hills Cop.”) The theme song by Ray Parker Jr. was also massive. It helped nab “Ghostbusters” two Academy Award nominations for Best Song and Best Visual Effects.

“Do you, like me, hunger for movie characters who are aware of what’s going on around them, who have the presence of mind to say what everyone in the audience is thinking?” wrote Gene Siskel in his original review for The Chicago Tribune. “If so, Murray’s character and performance in ‘Ghostbusters’ are a paradigm of what you’re looking for.”

The success of the movie led to a cartoon series and toy line, followed by a live-action sequel in 1989 that wasn’t as well-received as the original, but then again, comedy sequels rarely recapture the magic once the joke’s been told once already. While the franchise stopped producing new material, the passion for Ghostbusters remained over the decades. The original was regularly replayed on cable channels for old fans to enjoy and create new ones. The really passionate advocates would purchase any merchandise they could find, along with dressing up as Ghostbusters themselves. That level of devotion has led to some divisions amongst the community about what Ghostbusters should be, not unlike arguing about Star Wars movies, and helped turned the conversation about a 2016 reboot starring female comedians toxic.

Some of that is mystifying to me, as “Ghostbusters” is just a movie I really enjoy when it’s on, and then rarely think about after it’s over. It’s a comedy, not mythology, but while the movie maintains the ironic distance of Peter Venkman, people talking about the franchise now have channeled Ray Stantz’s level of obsessive devotion. Jason Reitman, son of Ivan, wrote and directed another Ghostbusters sequel due for release this year, but if the teaser is any indication, fans might be in for more heartbreak. It’s hard to take the Ghostbusters franchise seriously when the original classic doesn’t even do that.

But to complain too much about the complicated legacy of “Ghostbusters” also runs the risk of taking ourselves too seriously. Whatever came afterward, the 1984 movie’s truth is simple: It’s the funniest blockbuster summer movie ever made, and it’s the perfect chaser after weeks of action and adventure.

The Weekend: As we head into June, several classic movies could have fit the bill for the Ultimate Movie Year, including one that was released the same weekend as “Ghostbusters.” There are only three rules you have to follow to care for a Mogwai, but if you don’t, all hell will break loose. Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” debuted on the same day as “Ghostbusters” in 1984, featuring a healthy mix of fantasy and humor to win over audiences. “Gremlins” is one of many strong films that could have easily been chosen for the Ultimate Movie Year. Still, it is a subjective one, so the weight went toward “Ghostbusters” because of its long-term influence in culture, and I also like it slightly better than “Gremlins.”

A year later, in 1985, Spielberg’s feeling touched Richard Donner, who directed the kids’ adventure movie, “The Goonies.” Again, “The Goonies” is one of those movies that is a more natural watch when you realize it’s not an unimpeachable classic and unleashes it from the high standards of nostalgia.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll repeat it: The summer of 1982 was a banger. The run of modern classic films continued in Week 22 with the debut of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” While the first Star Trek film featuring the original television cast was a modest hit, it didn’t win the love that the Star Wars films received. That changed with the sequel, as director Nicholas Meyer put the Enterprise crew in an outer space submarine thriller, chased by a vengeful foe from the TV series Khan (Ricardo Monalbán). Between an all-time great film villain, the scenery-chewing conflict between Monalbán and William Shatner as Kirk, the tense starship battles, the beautifully tragic conclusion, and the poignant story about the burdens of age and regret, “Khan” is rightly regarded as the best Star Trek film ever. 1982 saw another great release on the same weekend, with “Poltergeist” providing audiences with the unsettling frights that ghosts are more generally known for.

In addition to Murray, other comedy stars of the 1980s performed in movies that are considered to be one of the highlights of their great careers. Aykroyd teamed with another comedian made famous by SNL, Eddie Murphy, in 1983’s “Trading Places.” Tom Hanks was primarily a comedic actor in this decade, with the peak arriving in 1988’s “Big” before he would go on to add more dramatic work to his filmography. Billy Crystal was also a notable star during this era. He became ubiquitous in the early 90s as the host of the Academy Awards and his hit movie, “City Slickers,” released this weekend in 1991.

While Brian DePalma didn’t reach the heights of his directing peers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he became a reliable and respected filmmaker with movies like 1987’s “The Untouchables.” Based upon the real crime book, the film stars Kevin Costner as the famed Prohibition agent Elliott Ness, as he recruits a specialized law enforcement unit to take down famed mobster Al Capone (Robert De Niro). “The Untouchables” is a good movie, and probably a forgotten and underrated gem at this point, and well worth your time.

The fantasy films of the early 80s made way for the action movies of the late 80s and 90s, and a couple of favorites from the era made their debuts during this weekend. 1994’s “Speed” had a simple but catchy hook: A public bus cannot slow down, or it will explode, plus the chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock is off the charts. Michael Bay started to hit his trademark groove with his sophomore effort, 1996’s “The Rock,” with Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris. Bay didn’t direct 1997’s “Con Air,” but boy howdy, it does feel like it, doesn’t it? Cage stars in this one as well, along with John Cusack, John Malkovich, and a host of other familiar faces, as prisoners hijack a jumbo jet during a routine transport. 90s action movies sure did love their elevator pitches.

“The Truman Show” was great upon its release in 1998, but now it’s ahead of its time. Jim Carrey stars as a man who is unknowingly living his life as part of a television show, and everybody he knows are just actors. The constant surveillance and documentation of Carrey’s Truman speaks to our modern lives on social media and is one of the best movies of that decade.

It’s also a great weekend for family films. One of the popular new franchises of this century is the Harry Potter series, and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” from 2004 is one of the best adaptations. The Studio Ghibli animated films directed by Hayao Miyazaki are almost always imaginative, spellbinding, and beautiful, and that includes “Howl’s Moving Castle,” released this weekend in the states in 2005. Pixar’s “Cars” isn’t regarded as one of the studio’s best films, but it’s pleasant enough and still better than many other computer-animated movies. Jack Black led an all-star voice cast for 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda,” which is a funny, family martial arts movie.

Todd Phillips’ “The Hangover” brought four guys to Vegas for a bachelor party they’ll soon forget, and it turned into one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time during its release in 2009. But for my money, 2016’s “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is the better choice. Produced by the Lonely Boys team and starring Andy Samberg, “Popstar” does for modern music as “This Is Spinal Tap” did for aging British rock bands.

I’ll admit that I’m not that big of a fan of horror films as others, but 2018’s “Hereditary” is one of the best I’ve seen. Directed by Ari Aster and starring Toni Collette, the movie is about a family in grief and continues to turn the screws to a horrific and unbearable degree. Skip the spoilers and summaries and just watch it, as it’s filled with shock and surprises.

Other movies released this weekend include Best Picture winner “Mrs. Miniver” from 1942; “Ocean’s Thirteen” from 2007; “Super 8” and “Prometheus” in 2012; and “The Purge” in 2013.

Next Week: “Psycho”

Originally published at https://ultimatemovieyear.com on June 4, 2020.

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

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