Why the Original 'Ghostbusters' Was Awful

From left, Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon star in 'Ghostbusters.' Columbia Pictures

Why do ghosts need to be busted anyway? Who decided to make Ghostbusters once, much less twice? And is there any way to capture Ray Parker Jr.'s eponymous theme song in one of those paranormal fly-catchers Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis used in the 1984 film and exterminate it for good?

I won't see the updated, distaff version of Ghostbusters that will be released on July 15. I'm no misogynist, but why make the same mistake twice? A lot of people loved the original Ghostbusters, which was released in the summer of 1984. It grossed more than $240 million domestically, and Siskel and Ebert agreed that it was "very funny." But I give their review a thumbs-down. I remember leaving the theater as a teenager wondering if Aykroyd, Murray and Ivan Reitman had just perpetrated a wonderful psychological prank on us based on the following hypothesis: People will laugh at anything we do because they are afraid of seeming uncool if they don't.

By the summer of 1984, Ramis had already written or co-written a pair of comedy classics, Animal House and Caddyshack, and two others that were above par, Meatballs and Stripes. Murray had starred in three of those films (he did not appear in Animal House). Aykroyd, like Murray a Saturday Night Live alum by this stage of his career, had already co-starred in The Blues Brothers and Trading Places.

With that lineup, Ghostbusters should have been funny. With James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Houston Rockets should have finished higher than eighth place in the West this season. Who can explain chemistry? Ghostbusters is not funny. Hell, Ghost is funnier than Ghostbusters, and the male lead is murdered in the first act.

Let's begin with the old Hollywood trope "save the cat." The expression refers to the standard three-act format of every film with the possible exception of My Dinner With Andre. Act 1: Meet the cat. Act 2: Put the cat up in a tree. Act 3: Save the cat. What cat needs to be rescued in Ghostbusters? What is our rooting interest? That a trio of failed academics, one of whom just happens to land an inheritance, succeed in business without really trying (or dying)? That Bill Murray hooks up with Sigourney Weaver? That a phantom will give Dan Aykroyd a blow job (this actually happens)?

Here was the setup: After losing their gigs at an unnamed university in New York City, our alleged protagonists open a paranormal pest-control business, cornering the market on a service for which there is no need. Almost immediately ghosts start popping up all over Manhattan, none of which look as pale or ghastly as Larry King, who has a brief cameo.

And that's the movie. There's no clever reveal. There's no plot twist explaining how three losers opened a business for which consumers had no need and then the market just serendipitously arose out of thin air, like a ghost. Instead, there's just a seesaw battle between special effects and the deadpan delivery of lines from Murray and Ramis, who co-starred in a much funnier film three years earlier as New Yorkers who find themselves unemployed a few scenes into the film: Stripes. There's also the appearance of a 40-foot product-placement figure in the climactic scene that somehow audiences managed not to find contrived.

In between, there are ejaculatory ghost-hunting gadgets that our three heroes spray recklessly at their prey, a Casey Kasem voice-over, and midway through the film the introduction of a black guy (Ernie Hudson) as the fourth Ghostbuster, probably because halfway through the shoot director Reitman realized that there were no black people in his film.

There's a scene late in Ghostbusters in which our trio of paranormal exterminators emerge from their ghostbuster-mobile and are cheered raucously by throngs of New Yorkers. As if a city that in the previous few years had survived the Son of Sam and the 1977 blackout and was at the time enduring George Steinbrenner, Ed Koch and a murder rate of more than six people per day (as opposed to less than two now) would have even cared. To paraphrase Ray Parker Jr., "They ain't 'fraid of no ghosts."

The only funny thing about Ghostbusters is Rick Moranis as Weaver's sad-sack, slightly creepy neighbor. Granted, a few years later he'd play nearly the same role in Little Shop of Horrors (with better results), but at least he engenders some empathy. There really is never a single moment in Ghostbusters where you genuinely believe that Aykroyd, Murray and Ramis are Ph.D.s or in danger of doing anything besides smirking.

Watching Ghostbusters, it almost feels as if the three of them were out drinking one night and someone bet that it was physically impossible, at this point in their careers, to make a film so bad that audiences wouldn't laugh. That it was impossible for them to bomb. And then one or more of them agreed to the wager on the proviso that they would be able to hang out with that brunette babe from Alien (now there was a film with a scary monster that needed to be exterminated) during the shoot.

If you want to see a classic comedy from 1984, I suggest This Is Spinal Tap. It too is the story of a band of four men who have no clue what they're doing but succeed anyway. The only differences are that it's funny and has a better theme song.