There are a select number of films held in such high regard in popular culture that to even faintly criticise them is considered heresy. Like Star Wars before it, Ghostbusters is a film which seemingly everyone is aware of, and even if you've never seen it you can probably hum the theme tune or quote the script. It's a seemingly iconic work, a high-water mark of American comedy that anyone with a sense of humour should enjoy.
What such an attitude fails to acknowledge is that film taste is inherently subjective, particularly when it comes to comedy. Regular readers of my reviews will already have a fair idea of what my tastes are: I like my comedies on the darker side, preferably surreal but crucially substantial - I like comedies that are about something. It may be, therefore, that I am predisposed to dislike Ghostbusters, being as it is a shallow, high-concept star vehicle. Or, just as probably, it may be that it just isn't funny.
There are a couple of aspects to Ghostbusters which we are able to admire regardless of how funny we find it. Despite being essentially a vehicle for former Saturday Night Live stars, the film is a reasonably literate affair, at least as far as the horror genre is concerned. There are big references throughout to the work of H. P. Lovecraft, including the isolated, academic nature of its protagonists, the slimy nature of the ghosts (such as Slimer himself), and of course the involvement of ancient gods who are at best indifferent towards humanity.
The film also deserves credit for being a mainstream blockbuster which has intelligent people as its protagonists. We've become used to our summer blockbusters being populated by characters who are complete idiots, bound up in plots which can only make sense if everyone involved is either stupid or doesn't care. Ghostbusters, one of the biggest blockbusters in history, bucks this trend: it unashamedly celebrates the cleverness of its male leads, giving us characters who succeed through brains rather than good looks or good luck.
Unfortunately, this bit of praise also brings us onto one of the big problems with Ghostbusters, namely the characters. While Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis made their heroes intellectual in nature, each of the three main parts are severely underwritten. Bill Murray's character seems driven only by a need to be sarcastic or seductive, while Aykroyd and Ramis do little else but stand around explaining the plot. No matter how many dry one-liners Murray gets through, the characters don't feel like real people.
The best way to illustrate this point is the words of Stephen Fry, when he was interviewed about the difference between British and American comedy. Fry argued that the archetypal American comic hero is a wise-cracker who is above those around him, embodiying the belief in American culture that everything can be bettered or improved. While British comic heroes are distinctive characters (and expressions of failure), American comic heroes are "not characters at all, they're just brilliant repositories of fantastic, killer one-liners."
Aykroyd, Murray and Ramis are all essentially playing to type, and there is no real chemistry between them because the types are constantly in awkward competition with each other. Murray's deadpan wise-cracking doesn't gel with Aykroyd's fast-talking or Ramis' forgettable geekiness. The same goes for Rick Moranis, whose socially incompetent accountant is excrutiating: it's played so broadly and unrelentingly that it always grates against the story. Even Sigourney Weaver is underused, with her character existing only to get hit on, first by Murray and then by Zuul.
Of course, it is possible for a film with stereotypical characters to still fire if its script has a strong enough story. The James Bond series is absolutely littered with archetypal characters, with the best films in the series having a good enough story to make them not matter so much. But despite its faithful nods to Lovecraft and its intellectual protagonists, Ghostbusters still manages to make the very least of its material.
The plot of Ghostbusters essentially takes the first half of the 1946 film Spook Busters and then slowly unravels it through a steadily increasing parade of special effects. Like the Beverly Hills Cop series, the story is not so much a story as it is a series of set-pieces; they are linked together loosely by montage, but you could still watch them in any order with the same impact. As for the dialogue, 80% of it is meaningless jargon designed to big up the characters' intelligence. But simply saying a lot of long words doesn't make a character smart, giving us even less reason to bond with them.
As with Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters could have had a much more complex and satisfying story if a little bit more effort had been put into it. The idea of man-made structures being engineered to harness the power of gods is a nice, pulpy idea; it's only a hop, skip and jump from the work of Erich von Däniken, whose writings were a big influence on the fourth Indiana Jones film. When allied to Lovecraft, this could have formed an interesting premise, with a team of scientists seeking to stop an individual driven mad by knowledge of ancient demons, and trying to unleash those demons onto the human world.
Part of the reason Ghostbusters doesn't work on a story level is its indecisive pussy-footing around spiritual questions. Any film or story in which ghosts are involved immediately raises questions about the afterlife - what ghosts are, how they function, where the boundaries lie between different worlds and so forth. But the film either fails to acknowledge such questions or provides contradicting answers; for instance, it accepts the existence of extremely powerful gods, but also believes that humans can conquer said gods with little more than beams of energy. It's another indication of the laziness present in the script, as the film squanders another interesting angle for the sake of a simple, easy-to-follow climax.
The special effects in Ghostbusters were provided by Boss Films, who later provided the effects for John Carpenter's cult disaster Big Trouble in Little China. In both films they dominate the visual landscape rather than adding to the physical sets, to the point where the characters become swamped by them. The big special effects ending, involving the gateway on top of the skyscraper, is a big anticlimax because it doesn't feel physical or like a natural continuation of the narrative. Even the physical effects, such as Zuul's appearance in the fridge, aren't that convincing even for the day.
Then we come to the problems with the film's direction. Ghostbusters looks and sounds perfectly okay, boasting decent cinematography from László Kovács (Easy Rider) and a score from John Landis' long-time collaborator Elmer Bernstein. But as far as its direction goes, Ivan Reitman is every bit at sea with his cast here as Martin Brest was on Beverly Hills Cop. In both cases the camerawork is overly basic and the editing is slack, as though Reitman just left the cameras on until someone said something funny.
In a further comparison with Beverly Hills Cop, there are a number of tonal problems with Ghostbusters. The film doesn't have the uncomfortable homophobic undercurrent running through it like Brest's film, but it doesn't have a great deal of respect for its female characters. The scene where Zuul captures Dana, in which hands come through the chair and grab her, is uncomfortably rapey, and the levitation scene (which rips off The Exorcist) is just another excuse to put the character in needlessly sexual situations. Blockbusters are often accused of being built around the needs of teenage boys, and looking at scenes like the latter, it's not hard to see why.
Ghostbusters is a deeply unfunny comedy which deserves little if any of its glowing reputation. Despite a number of dry laughs and admirable decisions, it squanders most of its potential in favour of cheap stereotypes, sex jokes and special effects, none of which engage to any satisfying degree. It's not the low point in the careers of any of its stars (which is very telling of each of them), but it hasn't stood the test of time anything like as well as we've been led to believe. In short, it's a massive disappointment that's even bigger than the Twinkie.