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The plot of Ghostbusters is exceedingly simple–ghosts are taking over New York City and a team of ghost busters fight them–but layered within that premise is a richly textured story of well-crafted characters and sharp, intelligent dialog, a surprisingly effective mix of light horror and comedy, and visual effects that still hold up decades after release.
The story follows three scientists named Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) who recognize an increase in paranormal activity and open a business to catch and contain ghosts and spirits. Soon business is booming and they hire a fourth member, a blue-collar worker named Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson). Meanwhile, their first client, a young woman named Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) is having the most trouble with these pesky poltergeists and eventually gets possessed by a demonic spirit, Zuul, a demigod who is in service to Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian shape-shifting god who is looking to cause some major havoc.
Directed by Ivan Reitman, Ghostbusters found the bullseye for success because it created a rule and never broke it, even while everything around it should have made it collapse. That is, it’s always, always, about the characters. That might seem like an easy thing to do, but it’s surprising how few films truly keep sight of this philosophy, sacrificing development for special effects or plot or both. Writers Aykroyd and Ramis put the emphasis on crafting a core set of characters that are supremely written, dripping with personality and background that make watching them the greater joy than the things they are doing. Think about that a moment. In a time when current movies are a cacophony of visual effects, how often are you watching the hero because you care about them compared to watching the incredible spectacle they are immersed in? That’s the wonder of Ghostbusters, where we want to see these characters all the time.
Of these remarkable people, naturally, and by design, one came to the forefront, Murray’s Peter Venkman. Now to this point, the “Murray” acting style of deadpan delivery and dry wit had already been well-established, but not universal. A regular for three years on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, he had been on the big screen in Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), and Stripes (1981), all directed by either Reitman or Ramis and each featuring his coolheaded laissez-faire character attitude. Then came Tootsie (1982), which was only a small supporting part but earned him huge acclaim, where again, he led with his charming mordant humor. As Venkman, he found the perfect part to showcase that bemused indifference to the larger picture, a stoic pillar in a world of chaos, balancing like a finely tuned mechanism the double whammy of nervous Ray Stantz (Aykyrod) and quirky Egon Spengler (Ramis).
While Murray had a huge canvas on which to paint with his comedy brush, and he did so with some of the best work he’s ever done. Let’s discuss an early scene when Venkman agrees to check out Dana’s apartment after she claims something is living in her refrigerator.
There is an important distinction between Venkman and his colleagues that is played upon frequently in the film. Venkman is not in this for the science. He’s clearly a highly intelligent and resourceful man, but from the start, what drives him are two things: money and sex. All the flair is just to the get these two baser needs. From the opening ‘experiments’ with grad students where a nerdy boy, even when he guesses correctly the hidden shapes Venkman is asking him to describe, gets an electric shock while the pretty blonde is given much better treatment, to his seeing ghosts as a source of income rather than research, he’s in it for himself. So when the attractive Dana Barrett shows up with a legitimate concern, Spengler and Stantz are excited for the opportunity to study the paranormal. Venkman is just as excited but for entirely different reasons.
Dana has witnessed some rather strange goings on in her apartment, including what looked liked a demon in her icebox. She goes to the ‘Ghostbusters’, as seen on the advertisements on television, wondering if they are legit. They are. Mostly. And as Spengler and Stantz run their science-y tests, Venkman runs his own diagnostic. He volunteers to head over to her place and check her out, er, her place. Check out her place.
It starts the moment they get to her apartment and he comes through her door, telling her that if anything is to happen, he wants it to be to him first, pushing open a closet just beside him next. It’s for show of course because the whole ghost thing is really about meeting girls and making cash. And even though he’s actually seen a free floating full torso vaporous apparition at the public library, and he and the boys have opened their own ghost busting business, he’s still not quite sold on the ghost part. Moving on.
Carrying a gadget (more on this in a minute) that is meant to look scientific, he moves on to the piano and repeatedly taps on the highest register keys, saying that “They hate this. I like to torture them.” While we know otherwise, he tries to establish more credibility. He’s begun his seduction, playing the part of an expert, as if what he’s doing is an everyday job. A swagger in his step develops and he moves into the living space and announces to the ‘ghosts’ that he’s arrived.
Now comes the personal questions, and while he frames them like they are investigatory, there is an underlying barroom one-liner quality that is unmistakable. He skips to a door and she says it’s the bedroom, though nothing ever happened in there, to which, as we expect, he replies, is a crime. He is the used car salesman of professorial pick up artists. Or as Dana says after catching on, a game show host.
Right here is a wonderful little pause after she gives him that remark. Venkman is genuinely surprised by her assessment and it leaves him momentarily mute, his face a twist of confusion and most notably, angst. Dana is not the usual woman Venkman gets to know, and we suddenly get the feeling that the blonde girl at the start of the movie, who was wide-eyed and curious about her super smart professor is the kind of girl he spends most of his dating time with: young, naive, ingenue’s who see him as more than a man. With Dana Barrett, a mature, intelligent professional, he can’t play that same game and when he found that out, it stuns him . . . for a second.
But let’s stop for a moment and consider the ‘toy’ (as he calls it) that he was pointing and enthusiastically pumping about the room. In real life, a United Technologies Bacharach 300 Series “Sniffer” used at the time to identify gas leaks and other anomalies, here it has been retrofitted for busting ghosts, though Venkman extends that use to some obvious phallic symbolism, waving it about like a horny hound marking his territory.
The hand placement and continuous pumping motions are clearly suggestive and the rod itself and the manner in which he manipulates it leave little to the imagination. Like a divining rod, he points it about the room until it leads him straight to the bedroom. No surprise. But watch what happens after she doesn’t follow and she call him out as a game-show host. Basically emasculated, the pumping stops, and the whole get-up is shifted to one hand. In the kitchen, he gives the eggs two half-hearted squeezes of the pump, but the zest is gone and the gadget is for all intents and purposes, shelved. There will be no sex. The gadget is a wonderfully subtle yet visually illustrative way to portray that.
Back the game. He shifts track and gets to business, walking to the kitchen where he puts his efforts into the task at hand, though not quite abandoning the primary objective. He spies the countertop where earlier we saw eggs burst from their shells and start frying on the broad-shelf. His tone more one-the-job now, he inquires about the mess, which she answers and at last asks him to check the refrigerator. He does and of course, finds nothing but a disappointing array of unhealthy food. Naturally frustrated, she lashes out at the situation and wonders if she’s going crazy.
Ghost and demons unfound, two attempts at seduction failed, Venkman shifts gears again, refusing to see a dead end in this opportunity. Seriously enraptured by Dana, he, as he eloquently admits, goes for broke. He shambles to the living room and staring her straight in the face, confesses that he’s madly in love with her, to which she rolls her eyes in disbelief and tells him to leave. He adds a bit of external monologuing about being thrown out of her life, but when she notes that he’s odd, it sparks the next attempt. He pledges to ‘fix her little problem’ and win her heart, all the while as she gently pushes him through the door. Almost out, he pokes his head back and asks, “No kiss?” With Venkman, it’s more charming than inappropriate. We feel right away that there’s not a defense she can come up with that would have any effect.
Getting back to character development, there is a crucial element to this scene that makes it work so well, or rather, lack of one. Ghosts. There’s none of them. No monsters either, just two ordinary people in a small setting having a conversation. Why that’s noteworthy is because it’s not just rare, it would be almost unheard of now. Movies have become tethered to their premise and studios are reluctant to give up time or space that could otherwise be filled with whatever it is that generates the title of the movie. In this remarkably effective moment, Murray is given room to breathe, to build and define Venkman, to establish a tone and history without overtly making it so. Think of how much we learn about him in these brief few minutes and how important they are in connecting him to us. With this run of dialog, we witness traits that will be played out later, most specifically, his approach to obstacles. Unwilling to not just accept defeat, there is a sense that he’s not even aware the word exists. His tenacity is what makes him indefatigable, either in the rejection of an attractive professional woman or the aggressive attack of a hundred and twelve foot marshmallow man. Venkman never gives up.
Ghostbusters is a gem of a film, one that, so rare in the medium, is endlessly watchable and quotable, even thirty years on. To say the film is the starting point for Murray’s rise to stratospheric fame might be arguable, but there can be no denying the impact it had on the comedy landscape and the genre. One of the greatest film characters ever created, Pete Venkman is a hero to many, but more likely a comforting icon, a reminder of how movies were once about the writing and the delivery of dialog, and the characters they define. This one moment in Dana Barrett’s apartment is the jumping off point for Venkman and everything that happens after is traced right back to here. From his quick-thinking and winsome perspective, to his leadership mentality and take command authority. And it’s that moment in Ghostbusters that makes it one of the greatest of all time.
Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis
Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson