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Lunatics and Laughter Day 6: Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters movie posterDirector: Ivan Reitman

Writers: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis

Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, William Atherton, David Margulies, Slavitza Jovan

Plot: A librarian in the New York is terrified by an apparition that levitates books and spits cards into the air. A team of university parapsychologists are called in to investigate the phenomenon: Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). They find a fully-materialized ghost in the stacks, and when it attacks, they flee. Returning to the university, they find that they’ve being evicted for sloppy and inconsistent results, not to mention Venkman’s immature behavior. But Venkman has an idea: Ray and Egon are on the verge of developing a system to capture a ghost. Venkman convinces Ray to mortgage his family home to fund their new operation: the Ghostbusters.

The team buys an abandoned firehouse and sets up shop, but are initially low on clients. They finally get a break when contacted by a violinist named Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver). When Dana opens her refrigerator, she sees a bizarre temple with a hellhound that growls a name: “Zuul.” Although she is skeptical of the Ghostbusters’s credentials, she doesn’t know where else to turn, and she winds up bringing Venkman to investigate her apartment. Although he finds no evidence of ghosts, he makes a pass at Dana and vows to solve her problem.

They finally get a paying job when a swank hotel summons them to investigate a disturbance on the 12th floor. Using Egon’s new inventions – a proton pack to use as a weapon against the creatures and a trap to contain them – the three of them locate and capture their first ghost, a little green spudball that manages to slime Venkman before they take him down. Egon does give them one bit of safety advice while working: don’t cross the streams from your proton pack, as “it would be bad.”

Suddenly, the New York area is awash with reports of spectral activity and the Ghostbusters are swamped with work, rushing from one bust to another and becoming media darlings in the progress. They get so busy they hire more help, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson). As they train him on the equipment, they get a visit from Environmental Protection Agency representative Walter Peck (William Atherton). Venkman refues to show him their storage facility, and Peck promises to come back with court order. Egon, meanwhile, is growing concerned that the amount of spectral activity in the city is growing to dangerous proportions.

Venkman goes back to Dana, telling her he’s found the name Zuul in his research: Zuul was a minion of a dark Sumerian apparition called Gozer. He convinces her to go to dinner with him so they can “discuss the case.” That night, a gargoyle on the roof of her building cracks open, revealing a living hellhound underneath. The beast attacks and pulls Dana into a glowing doorway. A second beast attacks and possesses Dana’s neighbor, the nebbishy Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). When Venkman arrives to pick Dana up, she is clearly possessed, asking him if he “the Keymaster.” She introduces herself as “Zuul, the Gatekeeper,” preparing for the coming of “Gozer the Destructor.” Louis, now calling himself Vinz Clortho, the Keymaster, bumbles through the city seeking the Gatekeeper. The police pick him up and bring him to the Ghostbusters’s firehouse, where Egon examines him.

The next morning Peck returns with the police, an electrical worker, and a court order giving him access to the basement. Although Egon and Venkman implore the electrical worker to leave their machines alone, Peck forces him to turn the containment facility off. The machines blow up, spilling all of the captured ghosts back out into the city, and Louis escapes in the chaos. Peck has the Ghostbusters arrested and brought to jail. While in their cell, Ray reveals that he’s been studying the blueprints of Dana and Louis’s apartment building and believes it was designed to act as an antenna of sorts, drawing ghosts to that spot. It was designed by a Gozer-worshipper who wanted to use it to cause the end of the world. The Keymaster returns to the apartment building, where he and the Gatekeeper ascend to the roof.

The Mayor (David Margulies) has the Ghostbusters brought to his office, where Peck accuses them of using hallucinogens and light shows to take advantage of people. Venkman convinces the mayor to let them out, giving them a police escort and national guard backup all the way to the apartment building, where the roof has transformed into Gozer’s temple. As the Ghostbusters reach the roof an enormous doorway opens, spilling light into the city and transforming Dana and Louis back into the Hellhounds. Gozer appears in the form of a woman (Slavitza Jovan). Ray tries to make contact, but when he makes the mistake of telling her they aren’t gods, she blasts them, nearly hurling them from the roof. (This results in one of the greatest lines, not only in movie history, but in western civilization. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

The Ghosbusters go on the offensive, but Gozer easily evades them and vanishes. Her disembodied voice tells them to choose the form of their destroyer. Although Venkman warns them to empty their minds, Ray is unable to draw a blank. Gozer plucks a form from his mind and the city is suddenly attacked by the enormous form of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Egon concludes the only way to reverse the portal through which Gozer came to New York is to cross the streams of the proton packs. The plan works, Gozer’s power is eliminated, and the boys, Dana, and Louis miraculously survive. The city proclaims them to be heroes. Which is great, even when you’ve got 22 stories worth of marshmallow to clean up.

Thoughts: The eighties, by my way of thinking, produced three truly great film franchises. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg gave us Indiana Jones. Robert Zemekeis and Bob Gale gave us Back to the Future. And Ivan Reitman and the boys gave us Ghostbusters. Here we are, nearly 30 years later, and the love of this franchise remains undiminished: a sequel and a beloved cartoon series spun off, we’re still seeing video games and comic books, and despite the fact that they haven’t seen the inside of a movie theater since 1989, it’s still one of the most popular Halloween costume choices a person can make. Dressing as a Ghostbuster brings the same cache and recognizability you get if you’re the Boris Karloff Frankenstein or Bela Lugosi Dracula. If you don’t love the Ghostbusters, you are objectively wrong.

To me, this is the quintessential A-Type of horror/comedy. Every beat of the plot is straight out of a horror movie – the opening scenes where the monsters are first identified, the building tension as they grow stronger and stronger, the situation worsening due to the stupid actions of an interloper, and finally a grand climax with the fate of the world at stake. The comedy isn’t slapstick, is rarely broad, and is entirely character-based. Ghostbusters is funny because Bill Murray, Dan Aykroid and Harold Ramis are funny, funny guys.

From the Marx Brothers to the Stooges, these guys have picked up on the comedic power of three by developing a trio of unique, highly entertaining characters. Venkman is all libido, driven by lust and impulse with little regards to the future, the idof the group. Egon is the ego, driven by logic and reason to the detriment of those same baser urges (he barely realizes the way Annie Potts’s Janine throws herself at him throughout the movie). Even in Egon’s rare moments of humanity, such as when he embraces a frightened Janine, he breaks away quickly, clearly uncomfortable showing even that minor hint of feeling.

You’d think this would make Ray the superego, but he’s hardly a balance between the other two. Although his character isn’t as pronounced as it would be in the sequel or the cartoon series, Ray is a sort of wide-eyed innocent, technically very knowledgeable and every bit Egon’s equal, but with a naivety and a love of simple things (like sliding down the fireman’s pole) that serves him well. Of course, this comes back to bite them in the ass when Ray is unable to empty his mind and accidentally chooses the Stay-Puft Man as the form of the destroyer, sent to annihilate New York City. It’s a great moment, in fact, as Mr. Stay-Puft marches down the street, the huge smile on his fluffy face, as he steps on and crushes everything and everyone. Way to go, Ray.

Ray is a child’s id, Venkman an adult’s. If there is a superego in the group (and even this is stretching the metaphor) it would be the mid-film addition of Ernie Hudson’s Winston – the everyman, the audience’s viewpoint character. Winston is the blue-collar guy in the group. He’s the one you can throw back a beer with, the one who is there so Egon can explain the technical stuff, but also to cut through some of Ray and Venkman’s crap. He completes the group in a very unexpected way.

All four of the Ghostbusters serve vital functions, both in comedy and in terms of relatability. We all want to be Venkman, most of us are more like Ray or Winston, but for my money the real underrated comedy gem of the team is Harold Ramis’s Egon. He has a sort of clinical distance, a way of looking at the world as though he isn’t really a part of it, that makes the movie. I was in elementary school when this movie came out, and I remember all the kids talking about Slimer, about the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, about Gozer slithering around in her skintight suit that looked like it was made of bathtub bubbles. But if I’m ranking the great moments in this movie, I look at the bit in the hotel when Egon, waving his PKE meter, casually scans a hotel guest, then gives him a little poke in the arm and walks away, clearly disappointed that he’s just an ordinary man instead of a walking corpse. The classic Twinkie metaphor is a close second, but that’s more due to Bill Murray’s brilliant delivery: “What about the Twinkie?”

The film also passes the true test of a memorable comedy: quotability. Aside from the aforementioned Twinkie line, we get such classics as “There is no Dana, only Zuul,” and “Yes it’s true, this man has no dick.” And If not for the Ghostbusters, how would we ever know the correct response if someone asks you if you’re a god? (Hint: “Yes.”)

There were a lot of great movies made in this time period, a lot of great horror films and a lot of great comedies. But here we are, all these years later, and people are still hoping for a third film in the series. Is it the tone of the film? The cast? The way that kids and adults alike can lock on to these characters and this story and enjoy it on totally different levels? I think it’s a combination of all these things, frankly. Whatever the reason, Ghostbusters has permanently chiseled a place in my heart. It’s a fantastic comedy, it’s an awesome monster movie, and it is simply put, one of my favorite films of all time.

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 23: Alien (1979)

alienDirector: Ridley Scott

Writer: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Plot: In the far future, the mining ship Nostromo is making a run to Earth, hauling a refinery and 20 million tons of ore for a Corporation. The ship’s computer awakens the crew from its cryogenic sleep, and they expect they’re approaching hope. Captain Dallas (Tom Skeritt) informs the crew they’re only halfway to Earth, but the ship has intercepted a strange transmission that may be of intelligent origin. The ship is damaged upon landing on the planetoid, and Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go off to search for the source of the transmission while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) remain behind to monitor them and make repairs to the ship. Kane’s team discovers an alien ship in ruins. The body of the creature inside the alien craft is enormous, and was apparently destroyed from the inside-out. Kane discovers an alien egg, which bursts open, allowing a tiny creature to affix itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert return him to the ship, but Ripley initially refuses to allow him to enter the ship, citing quarantine regulations. Ash defies her and allows them inside, where he tries to examine the creature. Dallas and Ash try to cut the creature off, only to discover it has acidic blood. The creature dies and Kane wakes up, seemingly in good health. As the crew sits down to dinner, though, he begins going through horrible convulsions. He falls over on the table and his chest explodes, setting free a tiny creature that escapes into the ship.

Hunting for the beast, Brett and Dallas are killed in short order. Ripley investigates the ship’s computer, only to discover that Ash is acting under special orders of the Corporation that sent them into space in the first place. They were deliberately sent to the derelict to find an alien organism and return it for study, and the crew is considered expendable. Ash attacks Ripley, displaying extraordinary strength and leaking a strange white fluid when wounded instead of blood – he is an android. Parker and Lambert save Ripley and destroy the mechanical man. Parker and Lambert go off to retrieve coolant while Ripley preps the escape shuttle, planning to blow up the ship. The alien kills Parker and Lambert and Ripley rushes to activate the ship’s self-destruct mechanism herself. She manages to fight her way to the shuttle and escape the Nostromo before it is destroyed, unaware the alien has boarded the escape craft with her. She comes across the creature sleeping, puts on an atmosphere suit and opens the hatch, blasting the creature into space. As the film ends she records a message to anyone who finds the ship and climbs into suspended animation, hoping she is found sooner rather than later.

Thoughts: I’ve largely avoided science fiction movies in this list, mainly because I hope this “story structure” experiment will be something I can do again and again, and science fiction most certainly deserves its own category (if not several). However, out of all the movies that straddle the fence between science fiction and horror, there are a few that keep to the horror side so firmly that to not include them in this project would be a disgrace. Hence, Ridley Scott’s Alien.

In essence, Alien is a haunted house movie in outer space. It meets the tropes of that genre very nicely – you’ve got a small cast in a confined area from which they cannot easily escape or summon outside help. (How many good Haunted House movies take place in a remote location, during a power outage, or in some sort of horrible weather? There’s always a reason the people trapped in the house can’t just leave, otherwise they look like idiots.) As they run around the “house” (or in this case, spaceship) they make their way through enormous labyrinthine hallways, find evidence of a creature that is beyond human that appears with greater, more violent, and more alarming frequency, and are picked off a few at a time until a single or small group of survivors finally manages to escape. You see parts of the monster, or shadows of its inhuman shape, long before you see the creature in all its glory, building the tension and the fear as you go along. This is why Alien had to go in this list – not only does it fit every Haunted House trope other than the ghost itself, but it does so brilliantly.

Aside from Ridley Scott getting great performances from his actors, much of the credit for this film’s success has to go to creature creator H.R. Giger. Giger’s artwork helped inspire screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and thus he really was the logical choice to design not only the alien creature itself, but also the environments found on the alien spacecraft. There are scenes, admittedly, where you can tell you’re looking at a matte painting, but it’s an H.R. Giger matte painting, and that automatically makes it 99 percent more awesome than any other matte painting you’ve ever seen, including the one you helped color on your 11th grade production of Oklahoma.

Even certain things that could have looked terrible under other circumstances really work in this film. When Dallas is attacked in the air vent, the beast thrusts its arms at him. If you do a freeze-frame on the image, it’s kind of goofy… the creature throws out jazz hands like it wants to give Tom Skeritt a big, motherly hug. When you only get a glimpse of it, though, it’s scary as hell. And like all good scary movies, you get caught up in it enough that you forget some of the logical holes, like why the ship’s self-destruct mechanism is so damn far away from the escape shuttle. (Seriously, The Corporation? Talk about a design flaw.) Or the fact that we can hear the big ol’ Nostromo explosion in the vacuum of outer space, which is impossible… and this from the film that uses that little nugget of science in its own tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

The English teacher in me also has to give O’Bannon credit for abandoning the film’s original title, Star Beast. This was 1979, both Star Wars and Star Trek were heavily on the public consciousness and going with the “Star” title probably would have made the film successful. But Alien is just flat-out a superior title. It works both as a noun – describing the creature that hunts the crew of the Nostromo – and as an adjective, describing the fact that the thing they’ve found is utterly unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the universe. It’s a nice bit of wordplay that I think helps the movie just a tad.

When the time came, inevitably, to make a sequel to this film, the filmmakers realized it would be nearly impossible to replicate the terror of the original. After all, much of what makes Alien so scary is the fact that you don’t really see the adult creature in full until the near end of the film, allowing the deadly power of the human imagination to do its work. By the time Aliens went into production, the creature was already pretty much public knowledge, so James Cameron took the film in another direction: instead of making an awesome sci-fi/horror movie, Aliens was an awesome sci-fi/action movie. This, of course, was followed by Alien3, a film that was a hybrid of science fiction and “a movie so poorly conceived and directed I got disgusted with the whole franchise and, to this day, haven’t seen the fourth one.” There are also, of course, the two Alien Vs. Predator movies, of which there isn’t much to say. I am looking forward to Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus, though, which is apparently going to be connected to Alien, although how tightly or in what way is something he’s still playing very close to the vest.

Tomorrow we return to Earth, Stephen King, and the more traditional haunted house idea with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.