THE TOP 28: #21, GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)
Bill Murray: Dr. Peter Venkmann
Dan Aykroyd: Dr. Raymond Stantz
Harold Ramis: Dr. Egon Spangler
Ernie Hudson: Winston Zeddmore
Sigourney Weaver: Dana Barrett
Annie Potts: Janine Melnitz
Rick Moranis: Louis Tully
The thought occurs to me perusing the character list of GHOSTBUSTERS that Sigourney Weaver's character is the only one with a relatively normal name. Sure, Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) isn't bizarre, but it's cadence fits perfectly with the kind of character Louis is. He looks and sounds like a Louis Tully. The Ghostbusters, though. Venkmann, Stantz, Spangler, Zeddmore. Those are strange names. Even their receptionist has the last name Melnitz, which, while certainly the surnmae of many people, still stands out against the benign Dana Barrett. This makes sense because Dana is the outsider in this movie. The normal one. Venkmann, Stantz, and Spangler are oddballs and academic rejects. When Winston Zeddmore joins the crew of paranormal investigators and exterminators, he's just looking for a steady job. After dozens of viewings of this movie, I've determined something I hadn't thought of when I first watched in 1984. GHOSTBUSTERS mattered to me because it was one of the first movies I watched that embraced the idea of the weirdos and outsiders as heroes.
Many characters now reflect this notion pretty regularly. That theme drives a lot of Young Adult novels and the recent glut superhero and detective shows display nerds and geeks as pivotal to the success of a team and performing heroic feats. In 1984, though, I wasn't regularly exposed to heroes other than dashing beautiful people with a solid moral compass saving the day. Sure, many superhero origin stories involve an outcast, but they involve transformations into something else. The Ghostbusters, though, are just three strange scientists and a blue collar guy trying to make a buck. They're not taken seriously at first. They are laughed at and mocked. Then, the dead start rising from the grave and, well, who ya gonna call?
GHOSTBUSTERS was something of a landmark, anyway. This was a high-concept, big budget comedy employing state-of-the-art visual effects normally reserved for blockbusters. Nowadays, we have GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, the new JUMANJI, and even the awful PIXELS as a mere sampling of blockbusters that fuse hi-tech special effects and comedy.
Venkmann is practically a charlatan dabbling in pseudo-science. Stantz and Spangler are obsessed with the paranormal. Zeddmore says he'll believe anything as long as he can get a steady paycheck. When Dana hires the team to investigate the presence of an entity called Zuul in her apartment, Venkmann hits on her. Since it's a comedy, it's played for laughs and Bill Murray nails the performance, but there's no denying Peter Venkmann is a very strange person. Egon Spangler is socially awkward and seems only comfortable talking about science and the occult. Ray Stantz doesn't know anything about running a business, but he knows about ghosts and how to capture them. Even Louis Tully, Dana's neighbor, is essentially a nerd who clumsily attempts to interact with Dana. Dana Barrett is normalcy and accepted behavior. I think this is why the movie has a Marx Brothers vibe to it at times.
GHOSTBUSTERS has remained a classic because it's funny, yes. It's quotable and contains, for my money, the funniest sight gag ever in the appearance of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. The reason GHOSTBUSTERS has mattered to me so deeply (we watch it every Halloween) is it was the first major comedy I saw that presented these kinds of characters as the superheroes, the one to save the world. This opened a world of possibilities. These guys weren't anti-heroes, per se, but they were outcasts, goofballs, and eccentrics. They were not the popular kids in class. Bill Murray was cool, sure, but only in that anti-establishment kind of way.
Films had presented comic characters as people who saved the day in some shape or another prior to GHOSTBUSTERS, but not to this level. Prior to my multiple first encounters in that summer of '84, though, I had not seen a movie so openly embrace the idea of a band of complete misfits stepping up to save the world. Every time I watch it, I love it even more.