Before I pushed play I wondered if Melissa McCarthy would burst through a wall and torch my copy of the original Ghostbusters while I cried. The power of nostalgia is great and it sucks when something you loved years ago turns out to be terrible when viewed with fresh eyes (see: the Ruining My Childhood recaps on this blog), but can a reboot retroactively ruin something?
My memories of the movie from childhood are that it was a very funny and exciting adventure. My impression of Dana Barrett was that she was cool and tough and sexy and she formed my view of what a woman “should” be. I loved Peter Venkman because he was a smartass and “cool” to my kid eyes. I loved Egon Spengler because he was super smart and had things figured out. I was…vaguely aware that Winston Zeddemore and Ray Stantz were also characters, and I liked them because they rounded the whole thing out, but their personalities left no deep impression on me as a kid. My focus was probably primarily on Dana and Peter, heavier on Dana, and then on the cartoon it was all about Egon. Oh yeah, I watched the cartoon and loved it. I also loved Ghostbusters 2. At the age of seven, I created my first bit of fandom content and wrote a song titled “Ruby of the Zuul” which invented an intricate, mystical backstory to Zuul.
I was, in short, a big ol’ geek child.
But I hadn’t watched it in years. My only exposure over the last few years had been Cracked articles and videos on pop culture and the talk that sprang up in response to the reboot. With my memories from childhood dimming, I was starting to remember the movie more from quotes and other people’s opinions than my own view. For this rewatch, I grabbed my mom and my twenty-three year old brother. As near as we could tell, none of us had seen it in over ten years.
The movie begins with eerie music on a library exterior. Inside, it’s full of physical books and people and not a single device is in sight. I have a discombobulating sense of just how much the world has changed since this movie came out. A librarian is going through dark and narrow stacks to put books away. Behind her, books start moving themselves around on shelves when she isn’t looking. She passes a card catalog–ANCIENT HISTORY ZOMG–and it starts spewing cards. Now she finally notices that something is happening and is rightfully freaked out. She goes running through the stacks until she sees something and screams. There’s light, a blast of air blows her hair and… next scene.
Now we’re in a cruddy, cramped university lab. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) is testing a Paul Simon look alike and a blonde woman for psychic abilities with cards, electrocuting them when they’re wrong. Except he’s lying and saying the woman is right every time. He claims to be testing the effects of negative reinforcement on ESP, with entirely bullshit testing. This was funny as a kid, but this scene got more scoffs at the audacity of Peter’s behavior than real laughter in our viewing. After the guy leaves angrily, Peter starts touching the young woman and stroking her ego over her supposed power. At this point my mom and brother both started talking about how inappropriate this was and how neither of them remembered the sexual content of the movie. Peter gets upset when Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) shows up to tell him about the library event, because it interrupts his creeping on the woman, who is presumably one of his students.
From this scene, we get a sense of these two main characters. Ray has a childlike wonder, while Peter is cynical and self-serving to the point it’s not even clear if he believes in the paranormal at all or is just a con-artist using this for his own gain.
At the library, we get our introduction to Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). He isn’t as effusive in his enthusiasm as Ray, but is clearly very into the paranormal, just in a more analytical way. Peter is a dick to Egon and Ray, being very dismissive about their work:
As a friend I have to tell you: you’ve finally gone round the bend on this ghost business. You guys have been running your ass off meeting and greeting every schizo in the five boroughs who says he has a paranormal experience. What have you seen?
When they get to where the librarian is recovering from her traumatic experience, Peter begins questioning her:
Peter: Alice, I’m going to ask you a couple of standard questions, okay? Have you or any of your family been diagnosed schizophrenic? Mentally incompetent?
Librarian: My uncle thought he was Saint Jerome.
Peter: I’d call that a big yes. Uh, are you habitually using drugs? Stimulants? Alcohol?
Peter: No, no. Just asking. Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?
Library Administrator: What has that got to do with it?
Peter: Back off, man. I’m a scientist.
Again, those “did he actually say that?” half laughs/half gasps in our viewing. It’s a misogynistic trope, but does set up the idea that Peter wants to rule out natural causes before looking into the supernatural. He’s a psychologist and recognizes that the human mind doesn’t always get the facts straight. Egon gets a reading of the ghost moving and they head down into the stacks to look for it, while Peter continues to look unimpressed. Egon and Ray find stacked books and Peter makes fun of them: “You’re right. No human being would stack books like this.” Our little viewing party is warming up, too, laughing more genuinely and more often.
Soon they find the slimy, snot-like ectoplasm on the card catalog, which Egon and Ray are totally geeking out about and I’m right there with them, because it’s such an iconic part of the universe. Peter is unimpressed. What’s interesting here is that when the movie was made, I think Peter was supposed to be a sort of voice for the audience, scoffing at everything ridiculous around them. But when you already love the movie, the joy and wonder from Egon and Ray is actually closer to your experience. Egon asks Peter to collect a sample of the ectoplasm, which he does, grudgingly. He also gets some on his hand and tries to shake it off, but flips it into his eye. We laugh, because it’s gross and we’re all secretly five-year-olds giggling over boogers deep down inside.
They find the ghost–who looks like an older woman floating in the air as she reads–and they all stand there in silent awe for a minute. Peter drags the other two behind a bookcase and demands they come up with a plan. This is a great moment that establishes their group dynamic and what Peter brings to it. Ray is the excited idealist, Egon is the technical genius, and Peter’s cynicism allows them to keep it all grounded in the real world. Ray suggests making contact. Peter goes to speak to the apparition and uses basically the worst opening ever: “Hello. I’m Peter. Where are you from? Originally.” We’re already laughing, but then the ghost shushes him and Peter tells the guys, “All right. Okay, the usual stuff isn’t working.” Since this is their very first ghost, the implication is clear. It didn’t just sound like a pick-up line. This is his pick-up line.
Ray says that he has a plan. He knows “exactly what to do” and advises the others to stay close to him and do exactly what he says. He leads them as the three creep up on the ghost. When they get close enough, Ray shouts, “GET HER.” The ghost turns on them and they run screaming out of the library.
As they’re walking back to the university and giggling over how terrible Ray’s plan was, Egon says he might be able to catch ghosts to study them indefinitely. Peter looks stunned, clearly thinking over the potential of this.
Peter: Spengs? You serious about this catching a ghost?
Egon: I’m always serious.
Peter: Egon, I’m gonna take back some of the things I’ve said about you. You… you’ve earned it.
And he gives Egon a reward candy bar.
Their high is short-lived, however, because when they get back to their lab the dean is clearing their stuff out. The board of regents has decided to terminate their grant and they are to vacate the university immediately. Peter demands an explanation and is given one:
Dr. Venkman, we believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of dodge or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy and your conclusions are highly questionable. You, Dr. Venkman, are a poor scientist.
After what we’ve seen of Peter, there really isn’t any arguing with this, is there? He does treat it like a hustle. His methods are sloppy. There’s no mention of his inappropriate flirtation with a test subject earlier, but that was pretty bad, too. Probably not a firing offense at this university, especially not at this time, but if nothing else it makes his research absolutely useless.
Outside, Peter is drinking while Ray paces in a panic over what’s going to happen to them now. Peter proves the dean right about him by saying that this is actually a business opportunity. Ray points out that Egon’s containment system would require a lot of money and wants to know where they could possibly get that kind of funding from now that they’re on their own. Peter feigns that he could not possibly know.
Except he does. In the next scene, a stunned and shaky Ray is walking out of a bank, having mortgaged the house he was born in, clearly having been talked into it by Peter. Egon makes a comment about how terribly high the interest will be over the next three years. It’s $95,000, at a 19% rate. Some wonderful person actually crunched the numbers based on this. Their loan was probably only $100,000. This is a horrifically bad start to a business venture, but Peter insists all will be well:
Will you guys relax? We are on the threshold of establishing the indispensable defense science of the next decade. Professional paranormal investigations and eliminations. The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.
Whether or not Peter’s right will have to wait for another day. This is already one of my longest recaps if not my longest one, so I’ll continue it in another post. This far into the movie, we were all enjoying ourselves. It felt a little different from the nostalgia (Peter is far less of “the cool” Ghostbuster and more of “the jerk” Ghostbuster), but was still quite funny. Of the seven characters who’ve had lines so far (discounting the “shh” from the library ghost), two have been women. One was lied to and manipulated by Peter and one was asked about her period.
Since the Ghostbusters themselves are men, it’s no great surprise that male characters get the majority of lines in this movie. If this was something a director wanted to address, the easiest way to do that would be to make a movie where the Ghostbusters are women. Of Ray and Egon, we’ve seen nothing of their dynamic or roles in the film’s universe so far that means they have to be men. Peter fits a very specific straight male archetype with the way he interacts with women, but a Ghostbusters movie without that interaction wouldn’t suffer. And, regardless of what other movies exist, this one is still here and isn’t going anywhere.
I’ll try to get the next recap edited and up soon.