One morning in February 1984 a billboard appeared on Santa Monica Boulevard. Nothing unusual there: the Hollywood skyline is cluttered with them. This one, however, was different: you couldn’t tell what it was selling. A plump, startled white ghost was peering out from a red circle with a diagonal bar across its chest. It was like a No Smoking sign – not that there were many of those in 1984 – but for apparitions. Beneath it was a single line of text: “Coming to Save the World this Summer”.
Within months, that spooked spook logo was ubiquitous, as was an accompanying call-and-response theme song (“Who you gonna call . . . ?”). The mystery was over. The horror-comedy Ghostbusters, which combined the tomfoolery of Abbott and Costello with the hip, scornful edge of the Saturday Night Live wiseacres (including the film’s star, Bill Murray), was here. Or rather, there. In those offline, pre-global days, it took an age for American hits to reach this country, and UK audiences didn’t get to see the film – or Gremlins, its summertime bedfellow at the US box office – until winter.
I know this because my schoolmates and I watched both movies the day they opened: 7 December 1984. The wife of our headmaster had died a week earlier and we were excused from school for the afternoon so that anyone who wished to do so could attend the funeral. No amount of regression therapy would dredge up any feelings of sadness or sympathy on our part; if we didn’t cheer audibly at the announcement of those free periods, we did so in our heads. We realised, you see, that it would be possible to hop on the train to the ABC cinema in South Woodford, east London, at the start of lunchtime, catch Ghostbusters on screen two at one-thirty and be out in time to see Gremlins on screen one at five. Murray, whose slovenly, crumb-bum persona was the greatest asset of Ghostbusters, might have been proud of our callous obliviousness. Looking back, I can’t say I am.
For his new take on a film regarded erroneously in some quarters as a comedy classic, the director Paul Feig has made significant changes. This has attracted opprobrium from commentators who believe that a female version of Ghostbusters will unleash a vision of hell comparable to the one seen in the original film; online objections came to a head last year when Donald Trump raged on his video blog: “Now they’re making Ghostbusters with only women! What’s going on?” Wait until he hears that Sony Pictures was run until recently by a woman (Amy Pascal, one of this film’s producers). Or that the screenplay was co-written by Katie Dippold. Presumably she did her version in pencil and Feig went over it in ink.
It should go without saying that Melissa McCarthy, whose comic style see-saws between belligerence and buoyancy, features among the new ghostbusters. She and Feig already have a hat-trick of boisterous smashes to their credit – Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy. (“I want to make Melissa McCarthy a star,” he said in 2011. “That’s where my focus is now.” Mission accomplished.) She plays Abby, a paranormal researcher at a tinpot university. We first see her encased in bulbous headgear studded with blinking lights (shades of Doc Brown in Back to the Future), and the movie doesn’t stint on opportunities to render her ridiculous. Firing a gizmo with a mighty kickback, she ricochets down an alley and bounces off the walls.
McCarthy’s ungainliness stole the show in her previous films with Feig. Now there is a new-found ease and delicacy to her. Part of that is down to the fluid, give-and-take rapport she has with her fellow cast members. Kristen Wiig, the star and co-writer of Bridesmaids, plays Erin, an academic who is prim and reserved until she gets drenched in slime by a ghost. Then she can’t help clapping and yelping excitably: it’s the proof she was looking for that they exist.
When she and Abby set up shop as professional ghost-hunters, they are joined by Patty (Leslie Jones), a subway worker with first-hand experience of spectres, and Jillian (Kate McKinnon), a gadgets whiz in Tank Girl goggles whose punky hair looks like a scarf that’s about to be snatched by the wind. McKinnon, an SNL regular since 2012, is the find of the film. Her every wacko line reading and electrified mannerism (her smallest gestures resemble kung-fu moves) is a delight. If she played the lead in The Mask, she wouldn’t need special effects.
However, the evenness of the material ensures that no single performer steals the show. In the original Ghostbusters, the comedy emanated almost exclusively from Murray’s incredulous, slowed-down reactions. Everyone else was a stooge. Not any more. No one hogs any scenes here and yet everyone is funny, from the stars down to the tiniest bit-players. These include Steve Higgins as a needlessly insulting college dean, Michael McDonald (a Feig regular) as a theatre manager with a distinctive shriek and Nate Corddry as a cocky graffiti artist who inadvertently invents the Ghostbusters logo.
Each of the main characters is in his or her own world. Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), a dim-bulb hunk whom the women hire as a receptionist on the strength of his looks, talks in non sequiturs that have a logic to which only he is privy. Somehow everyone finds a common language. They don’t necessarily see the world the same way; they are simply committed to making it better. When Abby tries to convince a homicidal lunatic that there is so much to live for, she can only come up with one thing: “Soup.” (Patty chimes in helpfully: “Salad?”) Their exuberance makes its own case and the same goes for the film. Though there are plenty of scares from beyond the grave (a vomiting countess, a prisoner killed in the electric chair), there isn’t a nasty or misanthropic frame. It’s a joyful experience.
This Ghostbusters also improves in every way on the original, which has been insulated for years by nostalgia. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis began writing it in 1981 as a vehicle for Aykroyd and his comedy partner John Belushi, with whom he’d starred on SNL and in The Blues Brothers. After Belushi died of a drugs overdose in 1982, Aykroyd and Ramis took the script to the director Ivan Reitman, who foresaw budgetary problems in the universe-hopping, time-travelling adventure, and encouraged them to relocate it to New York instead.
Belushi’s role was taken by Murray but a tribute to him survived in the character of Slimer, the greedy green ghost who gobbles leftovers from room-service trays and frankfurters from hot-dog carts. Watching Slimer’s scenes in Ghostbusters alongside Belushi’s in National Lampoon’s Animal House, where he stuffs his mouth with food to impersonate a zit, is like playing spot the difference. Together with Murray and most of the original Ghostbusters cast, Slimer has a cameo in the new film; he’s got a girlfriend this time, who looks exactly like him except for lipstick and a Sandra Dee wig. Belushi lives to eat another day.
Reitman’s Ghostbusters was valuable for trying to deflate the bombast of the blockbuster from within, which may seem an odd claim to make about a film that grossed nearly $300m worldwide. In the era of Indiana Jones, Top Gun, Wall Street and Reagan, it was helpful to have a leading man like Murray, whose very existence was a rebuke to heroism. Yet watch it today and the pacing is leaden. The new version is far better at combining improvisatory banter with comic finesse. Although it’s baggy when it needs to be, so that the performers have room to play, you can still feel Feig zeroing in on the gags. In common with his sometime collaborator Judd Apatow, he shoots scripted takes of each scene before letting his cast riff and ramble. The choicest material is then harvested in the edit.
László Kovács’s stately cinematography in the first Ghostbusters was wrong for a comedy, whereas the work here of Robert D Yeoman, a Wes Anderson regular, is deliciously bright. Even the special effects, often muddy or indistinct in modern cinema, have a pleasing clarity. The sets are especially yummy; the production designer, Jefferson Sage, has decked them out in the sorts of vivid reds, oranges, yellows and greens usually found at the macaron counter.
That sweetness is present in the movie’s tone, though the makers do allow themselves one sneer at the misogynistic spoilsports. When a video of the ghostbusters’ first paranormal encounter appears online, a comment posted beneath it reads: “Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts.” The film has the last laugh, as well as the first one, and all the others in between.
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM