Ghostbusters I & II Review
It’s a rare occurrence for me when a beloved movie or TV show from my childhood is not only as good as I remember it, but is actually even better. Ghostbusters is one of those such occurrences. The premise is high concept but really very simple: three New York college grads with an interest in the supernatural get thrown out of their alma mater and decide to go into the spook-hunting business for themselves, uncovering a paranormal plot intended to bring about the end of the world. Written by Saturday Night Live veteran Dan Aykroyd and fellow Second City troupe member Harold Ramis, the script not only has unrivalled comedy chops and more than a hint of sensuality, but also a genuine sense of verisimilitude, what with Aykroyd’s strong real-life belief in unexplained phenomena. The main characters in the film are quite simply sketched, featuring an aloof sceptic, a straight-laced geek and an over-enthusiastic believer, but it's the terrific performances which bring them all to life.
Aykroyd and the dearly-departed Ramis took a role each as the excitable Ray Stantz and businesslike Egon Spengler respectively - Ramis almost steals the show with his deadpan pokerfaced delivery - and Bill Murray (another white-hot SNL star) came on board as the supremely sardonic Peter Venkman, a man who doesn’t let science get in the way of finding a hot date. This never holds truer than when Dana Barrett, a young cellist who’s experienced some very strange goings-on in her kitchen, walks through the Ghostbusters' door and Peter is instantly smitten. Played by Sigourney Weaver, Dana’s a strong-willed woman who can see right through Venkman’s schtick, but the otherworldly forces in her apartment building have their own designs on her, as does her neighbour, Louis Tully, a well-meaning but socially inept goofball played delightfully by Rick Moranis. The rest of the cast is rounded out with Annie Potts as Janine Melnitz, the Ghostbusters’ gruff Noo Yawk receptionist, Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore, the pragmatic fourth Ghostbuster (“if there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say”), and William Atherton as the oleaginous Walter Peck, an interfering busybody from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Directed by Ivan Reitman, who’d previously helmed the Murray vehicles Meatballs and Stripes, the film has a keen comprehension of rhythm and timing. With all of these comedic geniuses under one roof it could’ve gotten messy but everyone gets their chance to shine, even the day players. Reitman never lets a joke carry on for too long at the expense of the story which is always moving the plot forward even if it’s only in smaller increments, allowing the tension to build until it becomes apparent that the recent influx of spectres may well herald the end of days. The excellent music score by the legendary Elmer Bernstein is another key factor in maintaining that creepy vibe, combining a traditional orchestra with several synthesizers and an ondes Martenot, a French keyboard instrument that generates a wavering ethereal sound not unlike a theremin. Bernstein was not happy that his score was supplanted with several pop songs but they also work brilliantly to set the tone of certain scenes, not least the smash-hit title song by Ray Parker, Jr.
I adored this movie as a kid, so why does it work even better for me now that I’m all grown up? Because I can appreciate just how finely tuned it is. The timing of the laughs is almost surgically precise (Murray ad-libbed most of his best lines), the performances are perfectly pitched and never undermine the material for cheap gags, there’s some authentically menacing moments and also a layer of naughty sexuality which I'm more cognizant of as an adult (a feeling shared by the BBFC who recently upped the UK rating from a PG to a 12). Add to that some outstanding VFX work by Richard Edlund's EEG/Boss Film Co., plus Bernstein’s uniquely eerie score, and it’s no wonder the film went over like it did with critics and audiences alike, raking in a gigantic $229 million dollar box-office haul (roughly $527m when adjusted for inflation!) that still ranks it as one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time. It’s one of my favourite movies and it seems to get funnier every time I see it, so I can’t award it anything less than a perfect 10.
Made a full five years after the incredibly successful original, Ghostbusters II was riding on the wave generated by The Real Ghostbusters cartoon on TV, which gave the kiddies their fix of spooktacular antics and offered them a whole bunch of licensed toys to pester their parents for (guilty as charged, m'lud). To cater for that slightly younger audience the sequel was softened somewhat, so out went the guys' smoking and the more risqué moments (no more ghostly blowjobs!). Elmer Bernstein declined to return, leaving the scoring duties to Randy Edelman who delivered more conventional music that’s a world away from Bernstein’s unearthly efforts. And even the customary addition of pop songs seemed to be a little more calculating this time around, working in a pointless cameo from Bobby Brown that highlighted how unfocussed the screenplay was. Reitman's follow-up is damned near a remake of the first film, with Dana being put in danger by an ancient evil and the guys have to thwart the disbelieving New York establishment in order to do their job and to save the world.
Having been ostracised by the powers-that-be for the events that happened five years ago, the Ghostbusters have disbanded so essentially they're back to being the same characters as before: Venkman’s a world-weary cynic who’s chasing after Dana, Egon’s busy with research experiments and Ray and Winston are making ends meet with odd jobs. It's fairly lazy in its construction because it hits a lot of the same beats from the first movie, but 'twas ever thus with sequels. There are a couple of little twists as Dana now has a young son, having split up with Venkman and married someone else, and instead of Louis hitting on her she's got to put up with another kooky little twerp: Dr Janosz Poha, her boss at the museum where she works. Like Louis before him it's not long before Janosz ends up being possessed by the big bad, in this case it's the spirit of Vigo the Carpathian, a despotic 16th-Century warlord lurking inside a painting at the museum. (Louis himself is now part of the Ghostbusting team, albeit as their sometime lawyer/accountant.)
The 'bad guy living in a painting' device is hardly new, but I'll give them points for getting Max von Sydow to voice the demented Vigo, and I'll also give them points for the "mood slime" idea. It's a not-so-subtle allusion to the miserable feeling that permeated New York during the '80s thanks to AIDS, the crack problem, the crime epidemic and so on, as if all that negative energy was somehow channelled into creating this pink sludge. I'm not so enthusiastic about the finalé however, as they probably thought they were being clever by subverting the climax of the first movie - having a giant icon walking through the streets of Manhattan for good instead of evil - but by that point it really does feel like they're not trying any more. In fact, they originally wanted the Stay-Puft man to rise out of the river next to the Statue of Liberty in the first film, so I guess they finally got the old girl out of their system with the sequel.
The film’s saving grace is that it brings the funny, and a whole lot of it. Venkman is once again the star of the show, and even though Bill Murray seems a bit disinterested to me, Murray on autopilot is still far funnier than most people on top form. And regardless of the story, it’s nice to see that central trio of Venkman, Spengler and Stantz together again, their comedic strengths bouncing off each other with Peter’s sarcasm, Egon’s rational mind and Ray’s boyish glee recapturing some of the old magic. Peter MacNicol’s Janosz is one of the film’s few surprises; while the device of a bumbling foreigner mangling the English language is a hoary cinematic staple, MacNicol plays him straight and delivers a performance that’s as hilarious as it is sinister. So even though the sequel doesn’t match up to the first and its dumbed-down nature is all too obvious, it manages to capture enough of the spirit (so to speak) of the original to make it a very entertaining couple of hours, and it’s still superior to a lot of the modern toss that passes for comedy today. I'm torn between marking it as a 7 or an 8, but I just enjoyed myself so much it's got to be 8/10.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the franchise (thought this is also Ghostbusters II's 25th) Sony have issued new Blu-ray editions of both films, presented on this import US release in a region-free double-disc digibook which contains a 25-page booklet and a personal message from Ivan Reitman, plus an Ultraviolet digital copy of each movie. It's also been released in the UK already as a double pack in a standard amaray, see the best prices here: Shopping @ The Digital Fix
Released in 1984, Ghostbusters had the unfortunate timing to have been made during a period when motion-picture film was in a state of flux, owing to the constant revision of faster stocks necessitated by the wave of gritty realism in the 1970’s which used lots of naturalistic lighting. Ghostbusters was saddled with an extremely grainy 35mm stock, shot in anamorphic along with large-format 65mm for certain VFX scenes. Minted from a new 4K transfer, this 1080p Blu-ray is faithful to those original circumstances, starting with the 2.40 (approx.) widescreen aspect. There’s grain and lots of it, but there’s a staggering amount of fine detail too with no overdone sharpening, and the image takes on an almost three-dimensional quality at times. The patina of grain seems to heighten that remarkable impression of depth, although the eagle-eyed among you will note that some VFX shots are virtually grain-free because of the 65mm origination.
The colour lacks eye-popping saturation but cinematographer Lázsló Kovács - part of the flock of Eastern European émigrés famed for their realistic cinematic style - was not aiming for such glossy images so this is not a concern. Skin tones lack consistency but it's hardly a dealbreaker. Blacks are good and deep, deeper than they are on the original 2009 Blu-ray but this is for a reason: the higher gamma is needed to better blend the seams of the VFX comps, like the shot of the Terror Dog scampering across the street which has a horribly obvious garbage matte in the old Blu-ray but is virtually seamless on the new edition. At the other end of the scale this new transfer doesn’t share the extremely blown-out highlights of the old one, restoring more detail in brighter areas of the picture. That jacked-up contrast also made the grain look extremely coarse to the point of being a visible distraction on the 2009 disc, whereas this new scan has resulted in a much finer representation of the grain, and it really does look vastly superior. Sony are masters of their art, and this latest Blu-ray of Ghostbusters is a very fine piece of work. 9/10.
N.B. The new transfer was previously released on home video in 2013 as part of Sony’s ‘Mastered in 4K’ range of Blu-rays, and although this 30th anniversary Blu-ray is also released under that Mi4K banner it’s actually a different encode. The average video bitrate is a full 10 Mb/s less than the barebones Mi4K version, which could potentially cause visible compression issues with such an intensely grainy film. But after having scrutinised both releases from my regular viewing distance I simply couldn't tell them apart, so there's no reason to hang on to the old Mi4K version.
Fast forward five years to Ghostbusters II, and they took advantage of significant improvements to high-speed film to deliver a very different looking movie. Forget about it being 25 years old, as Michael Chapman’s photography has been reproduced on disc with such gorgeous film-like qualities that it’d put many a modern movie to shame. Mastered from a new 4K transfer and framed at 2.40 widescreen, the colour is markedly more vibrant than the previous film though not in an overblown way. Skin tones have a more realistic hue and the mood slime looks wonderfully vivid. Fine detail is exceptional, revealing every pock-mark on Bill Murray’s face and the wider shots of the city are mesmerizingly deep, with no distracting edge halos, and there's no evidence of dirt or scratches either. It’s supported by solid blacks, nicely balanced contrast and the lightest dusting of grain. There’s not much more that can be said: Ghostbusters II an absolutely beautiful example of what the Blu-ray format can do. 10/10.
As for the sound, both movies get lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The first skews very much towards the front sound stage, which I would expect from a 30-year-old movie originally mixed in Dolby Stereo. The rears come into play with the occasional spot effect (like Slimer's slobbering when he sees Peter at the hotel) and to support the music, but the surrounds feel a bit disjointed somehow and lack the constant background activity of a more modern mix. LFE is present but it's very flabby and 'thwompy', for want of a real word. Still, the music is very clean (if a bit too strident at times) and the dialogue is also fine. It's not a bad mix, but they haven't really gone beyond the remit of the original so don't expect any aural acrobatics. 6/10.
The second movie is a noticeable step up, delivering a more active and nuanced use of the LFE (like the slight-but-ominous rumble of the far-off ghost train, or the river of slime) and smoother integration of the rears, with some choice surround steerage and split-rear effects, plus a fairly consistent presence of the day-to-day ambience of living in a city. The music also has a more playful role, the pop songs being blared at you from all corners of the room. Good stuff. 8/10.
For the bonus features, Sony has transferred across almost everything from the 2009 Blu-ray for Ghostbusters, omitting only the featurette about the making of the video game. Newly added material includes a "roundtable discussion" between Ivan Reitman and Dan Aykroyd, a gallery of 30th anniversary poster concepts, the original Ray Parker, Jr. Ghostbusters music video (it's creepy allright, but not in a spooky way) and also some funny alternate takes from the TV version. The 24-minute roundtable is okay but it’s hardly revelatory, as those two guys have said pretty much all there is to say about Ghostbusters over the years and Aykroyd still manages to work in a plug for his vodka brand. You’d be better off with the “Slimer Interactive Mode”, a picture-in-picture extra that plays various interviews and whatnot while you watch the movie, it’s very informative and well worth checking out. The rest of the archival extras (which date back to the original SE DVD) include a commentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, multi-angle VFX/storyboard explorations and the trailer, and they’re worth exploring again if you haven’t seen them in a while. 8/10.
This premiere release of Ghostbusters II on Blu-ray doesn’t fare quite so well on the extras front. The continuation of the roundtable discussion with Reitman and Aykroyd runs for a mere 16 minutes and barely scratches the surface of what it took to make this movie. While Aykroyd sings its praises, Reitman concedes that they waited too long to make it and that the novelty of the premise is what made them work so hard on the first one, whereas the pressure to deliver something as great as the original using the same concept meant that they were on a hiding to nothing. Then they move on to discussing the future of the franchise, where Aykroyd says that he's got several ideas on the table and Reitman is confident that there will be a third movie (albeit with him as producer, not director).
The long-awaited deleted scenes run for a mere seven minutes and are something of a missed opportunity. They include the much sought after (but ultimately disappointing) skit when Louis tries to bust Slimer by himself and a few other odds and ends, like Dana wondering if she's cursed. There's also a different version of the scene where the guys try to convince Venkman to go with them into the sewers, set in his apartment this time, but the lighting's terrible and the acting's even worse, it's a disastrous scene and it's no surprise that they reshot it. Unfortunately the Blu-ray is missing Ray’s possession by Vigo earlier in the film, when he goes crazy at the wheel of Ecto-1 (it's actually glimpsed in the “we’re back” montage in the film, look for Peter’s surprised expression), and Eugene Levy’s cameo as Louis’ cousin is also AWOL. Pity. The package is rounded off with the music video for Bobby Brown’s We’re on our Own and a selection of theatrical trailers. (Thank you for those, Sony!) 6/10
Whichever way you purchase these Ghostbusters Blu-rays – be it US digibook, UK double pack, individually, whatever – just make sure that you do purchase them, because you’ll be picking up one all-time classic and its routine-but-lots-of-fun sequel with superlative video quality (the latter in particular), solid audio and a wealth of bonus material, though the first film fares better in that regard.