We’re going further than your imagination would dare in order to give you the exclusive lowdown on the celluloid that’s inspired a tranche of film fanatics very different to ourselves.
The first in this series takes a look at Stanley Kubrick’s Ghostbusters.
We know Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’ supernatural comedy as one of the defining blockbusters of the Eighties. A seemingly effortless fugue of Thirties style screwball patter and Saturday Night Live wit, our version is rightly lauded for its humour, high concept hijinks and sense of fun but there’s another version that isn’t so upbeat. In a parallel universe this story of paranormal investigators and ectoplasm is considered one of the most nihilistic movies ever made. Stanley Kubrick’s version refashions the laughs into a meditation on death, mental illness and existential desolation. HUG can now publish her sister site’s review for the first time. Brace yourselves.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Review: Ghostbusters (Stanley Kubrick, 1984)
Ghostbusters is a natural progression for Stanley Kubrick. Since the mid-70s epiphany that saw him move toward genre fare having “wasted a career” in the purview of novels and historical dramas, he’s embraced high concept and defied the critics that saw it as a vulgar capitulation to populist filmmaking. His 1978 acquisition of the rights to DC Comics’ Superman, resulted in a movie that recast the man of steel as a sedentary homosexual who used his enhanced strength and heightened senses for sexual gratification. Brando’s turn as the man of steel shocked audiences raised on the two tone Americana of the source material. Those that balked at Clarke Kent’s kryptonite and cocaine fuelled masturbation were equally unimpressed at General Zod’s coprophic perversions. The ‘tarmacing’ scene, in which Terrance Stamp commands Margot Kidder to “kneel over Zod” before committing the act, was recently voted the 5th most shocking moment in film history by the AFI. But such criticism ( Robert Ebert called the four hour film, “a hallucinatory shock to both the eyes and the intellect”) missed the point. Kubrick was prepared to push the blockbuster into a thematic underpass populated by society’s fringes and cinema has never been the same since. It remains Pauline Kael’s favourite film.
Now, having just wrapped on Star Trek III: Vulcan’s Shame, which imagines Spock’s home planet embracing slavery, he’s retooled a script by comedians Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis; imagining a coterie of academics who abandon their scholarship to pursue the spectral remnants of the dead in New York City.
Malcolm McDowell plays Peter Venkman; an academic grieving for the girlfriend who killed herself. We’re treated to the suicide in a gruesome opening flashback in which Kurbrick’s static camera maintains emotional and critical distance from the woman who disfigures her breasts with a broken bottle before coating the lens with the spray from a severed artery. It’s a horrific, brutal sequence and its shock value is an upfront statement of intent for a film that cuts between sterility and violence with clinical precision.
Venkman, who’s devastated by the death, sees New York as an unmapped necropolis in which his love is trapped in purgatorial torment. Enlisting the help of colleagues Stanz (John Cassevetes) and Spengler (Jack Nicholson), the three invent a technology for detecting and entrapping spirits. As Venkman gets closer to his lost love, the space between the living and the dead begins to collapse, threatening to drive Venkman to a similar fate.
Trust Kubrick to take a script that was originally touted as a comedy and invest it with almost unbearable gravitas. Kubrick’s New York, shot in a bleak, reductive palate, reminiscent of a Rembrandt painting, is a city in which the spiritually decimated walk amongst the dead. More than once, particularly in one heartbreaking scene in which Venkman admits “I envy them, because they at least know they’re gone. We’re obliged to pretend”, Kubrick suggests that the scientist’s obsession with the afterlife has deprived him of any chance of living in the real world. With Michael Nyman’s ambient hum underscoring the gloom, Ghosbusters demands much of its audience and the overall effect is exhausting and occasionally the stuff of nightmares. Like Superman, visual effects are kept to a minimum in favour of emotional realism and psycho-sexual discomfort that batters its audience with stillness, sorrow and existential torment. Special mention should go to Canadian actor Rick Moranis whose turn as a social lepper who wistfully watches ghosts from his apartment window is both haunting and the closest Kubrick comes to a human touch.
A striking and melancholic tour de force.
Key Scene (from the screenplay by Stanley Kubrick):
INT. NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY – DAY
Venkman is interviewing Alice, a librarian who’s claimed to see a ghost.
Alice, why don’t you tell me again what you saw?
It ““ it had arms and legs, and ““
Alice, I need you to stop talking now. I need you to consider the possibility that as a woman you may be hysterical, possibly deficient in common sense. Do you understand?
I think so.
I don’t think you do understand Alice. I think you think you’re fine, but you’re not. You’re sick. My girl, Dana, she used to say she was fine but she wasn’t Alice. She was very sad. She slit her throat. She couldn’t go on you see. Life, she understood, was a question to which there’s simply no good answer. It’s a trick question Alice. A trick question.
Can I go now Doctor Venkman?
Where would you go Alice? There’s only one destination that awaits all of us. Death Alice. I’m going there soon and I encourage you to follow me. There’s nothing for us here. Nothing.
Alice stares at Venkman, a haunted expression on her face.
Next week: David Lynch’s Return of the Jedi.