Citizen Kane? The Godfather? Blade Runner? Keep ’em. The best film ever made, hands-down, is Ghostbusters.
In 1984 I was seven, and I loved Ghostbusters so much I saw it three times in one week. Twenty-seven years later, I sat in a cinema watching a brand new digital projection, re-released for Halloween, knowing every line, every tick of Bill Murray’s face, every giant dollop of melted marshmallow.
But what makes Ghostbusters so enduring? The film spawned a huge franchise of toys, cartoons, and video games; and lines from the title song—like the instantly recognisable “Who ya gonna call?”—have entered the common lexicon. There’s clearly something different about this film, and here’s my list of ten things that not only make Ghostbusters great, but make it a film well deserving of its ongoing legacy.
1. The setting
“I love this town!” cries Winston Zeddemore, the film’s pitch-perfect closing line. For a movie about a team that specialises in paranormal investigations and eliminations, there is a remarkable lack of creaky haunted houses. Setting the film in New York—one of the most recognisable cities in the world—is a stroke of genius, making it a thoroughly modern ghost story. Any visitor to Manhattan will have looked up at the Art Deco skyscrapers and marveled at their history and architecture, both of which play a vital role in the film.
2. Science fiction versus the supernatural
Like the stereotypical haunted house, the traditional ghost hunting tools of bell, book, and candle are out. The Ghostbusters fight the forces of darkness with unlicensed nuclear accelerators and positron colliders, measuring psycho-kinetic energy with a handheld meter and storing the captured spirits in a high voltage laser containment grid. Even the ghosts themselves have classifications, from the free-roaming, vaporous, full-torso apparition at the New York Public Library to Slimer, a focused, non-terminal repeating phantasm or Class Five Full Roaming Vapor (“A real nasty one, too”). Dana Barrett’s apartment building was constructed as a superconductive psychic antenna, with a design resembling the telemetry equipment NASA uses to locate dead pulsars in deep space. Ghostbusters blends SF and the occult together, spawning something completely new and, quite possibly, inspiring a whole generation of 21st century paranormal investigators equipped with night vision goggles and EMF meters.
3. The monsters
Only the apparition at the library bears any resemblance to a traditional spectre. The others are a mix of horror tropes, such as the zombie cab driver, and unique design, like Slimer and the Terror Dog forms of Zuul and Vinz Clortho.
4. The music
All great films have a memorable soundtrack, and Ghostbusters might have the most famous title track of all. Ray Parker, Jr.’s theme song continues to be heard to this day, while Elmer Bernstein’s orchestral score, heavy with the Theremin-like sounds of the ondes Martenot, is instantly familiar.
5. Bill Murray…
While the legend that Bill Murray ad-libbed his way through the entire film is certainly spurious, examination of the shooting script for Ghostbusters does reveal that the version of the film that made it on screen features a lot of Murray’s improvisation. Murray is a master of subtlety—just watch his face when Ray tells Venkman how much he paid for Ecto-1.
6. …And the rest of the cast
Bill Murray’s superlative performance as Dr Peter Venkman may be one of the keystones of the film, but the rest of the cast are pitch perfect. Co-writer Harold Ramis only took the role of Egon after they failed to find a suitable actor, but his deadpan portrayal is now a classic. Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, and William Atherton form a superb company.
7. Ancient mysteries
There are tantalising hints of a deeper, darker history to events. The film’s primary threat, Gozer the Gozerian, a.k.a. Volguus Zildrohar, is a Sumerian god, worshipped by Ivo Shandor’s cult in the 1920s. And through the Keymaster we get a glimpse of the world’s ancient, Lovecraftian alt-history, learning a little about the rectification of the Vuldronaii and the third reconciliation of the last of the Meketrex supplicants.
8. Playing it straight
Ghostbusters may be billed as a comedy, and may be filled with wit and sparkle and terrific one-liners, but really there’s nothing funny going on. The dead are rising from the grave in ever-increasing numbers prior to an ancient god landing in Manhattan to destroy the world, belatedly heading the call of an insane occultist. Gozer’s final form—the 100-foot Stay Puft marshmallow man—is hilarious, but was simply an image plucked from Ray’s mind and its innocuous form soon proves horrifying.
Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’s script is packed to the gills with lines worthy of quotation like no other movie: “Back off man, I’m a scientist”; “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria”; “Tell him about the Twinkie”; “When someone asks if you if you’re a god, you say yes!”; “There is no Dana, only Zuul”; “Listen! Do you smell something?” Take your pick!
10. The special effects
Ah, the Stay Puft marshmallow man. You didn’t think I was going to leave him out, did you? I’m quite happy to claim that the shot of the famous monster walking through the streets of New York is on the best pieces of special effects photography seen in cinema. Model work has obvious limitations, but full credit here to the visual effects team, who lit and filmed the model sequence perfectly.