“Well, let’s say this Twinkie represents the normal amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area. Based on this morning’s sample, it would be a Twinkie… thirty-five feet long, weighing approximately six hundred pounds.”
– Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), Ghostbusters (1984)
Last Tuesday I got to work, turned on my computer and was shocked to see a headline on a news website: ‘Ghostbusters star Harold Ramis dies’. It’s always alarming to hear about one of your heroes dying, especially if you didn’t know they were ill and the news comes out of the blue. It’s been less than a month since Phillip Seymour Hoffman died – similarly without any advance warning – but as much as I respect, admire and enjoy Hoffman’s work (I’ve been a big fan of his ever since I saw him in Boogie Nights), the death of Harold Ramis has meant so much more to me.
I was six years old when I first saw Ghostbusters. In those days, you went to see a film on the weekend – a matinee showing probably – and they were an event. I remember seeing The Karate Kid one weekend, and on the way out of the cinema all the kids were doing karate chops and kicks on each other. When we saw Back to the Future, everybody was pestering their parents for a skateboard on the way home. I even recall a showing of Rocky V where the entire cinema – and I mean the entire cinema – was chanting Rocky’s name during the fight at the end of the film. Sitting in a darkened room, with a few hundred strangers, all shouting – “Ro-cky! Ro-cky! Ro-cky!” – was truly magical. That’s what cinema should be – rather than the bathtub of apathy and sarcasm it’s become.
I would have seen Ghostbusters at the Roxy – an old-school cinema halfway between Oldham and Manchester. It’s been demolished now, but I saw so many great films there: Temple Of Doom, Back to the Future, Return of the Jedi, The Goonies, The Karate Kid, every James Bond film from Octopussy to License To Kill, the Police Academy films – the list is endless. In short, if there was a big film released in the 1980s, I saw it at the Roxy. When in the queue outside, you had to dodge the crazy old man who owned the place, but it was worth it. If you stood out of line, or were playing up, he’d “nudge” you with his walking stick; but you always knew that you’d soon be inside – in the dark, with the warm smell of popcorn taking you to a different place.
When you’re building a snowman in the schoolyard, you expect compliments from your friends; but when one of my friends looked at my creation and declared that it looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, I had no idea what he was talking about. Word was spreading around the school about this great new film, and I was taken to see it that night.
From that moment on, I wasn’t just into Star Wars and James Bond, I was into Ghostbusters too. The marketing people didn’t get it quite right though – perhaps they didn’t predict that the film would have such a following among kids – but I remember there was nothing you could buy. No toys, no t-shirts, nothing. When the Real Ghostbusters cartoon came along later in the decade, only then did the marketing machine catch up. I had all of the figures, the Ecto-1 car, Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I even had a t-shirt with an illustration of Slimer on it.
As co-writer of Ghostbusters – alongside Dan Aykroyd – Harold Ramis was responsible for one of the best films of the 1980s and undoubtedly one of the best comedies of all time. It might sound clichéd, but they really don’t make them like that anymore. Ghostbusters and Back to the Future – released a year apart – were very similar: a universal comedy, suitable for all ages, with a dash of science-fiction and making the most of the best visual effects available. Of the two, Ghostbusters always seemed a little edgier – it was more of a guy’s film, rather than Back to the Future which had a set of all-American family values at its core.
There was that scary ghost at the beginning too. It took me a long time to get over that. The librarian ghost looked harmless at first glance, but when she was riled up, it was truly frightening. When I look at it now, all I can see is a good-for-its-time piece of stop-motion trickery, but to a six year old, it provoked nightmares.
Harold Ramis’ character, Egon Spengler, was never my favourite Ghostbuster. The popular choice would have been Peter Venkman, Bill Murray’s character – the droll anarchist who didn’t really want to be there. Dan Aykroyd’s character, Ray Stantz, provided a lovable, childlike character, but Spengler was just as integral to the film as Venkman or Stantz. A straight man, Spengler was the real nerd of the team. Bespectacled and nebbish, he represented the respectable arm of the Ghostbusters. He was such a good fit for that role, that it always jarred when I saw him play another type of character. Watching him in something like Stripes just didn’t feel quite right.
Without really meaning to, I’ve seen nearly all of Ramis’ films, both as an actor and as a director. He’s always raised a smile, when he’s turned up recently in small roles like the doctor in As Good As It Gets, or Seth Rogen’s father in Knocked Up, but it’s always Ghostbusters he’ll be remembered for. What a great film – a true classic of my childhood. After not seeing it for a few years, I remember watching it in my bedroom at University, nursing the hangover from hell – and it was like watching it fresh again, just blown away by how strong a film it is.
I’m pretty sure Aykroyd was the driving force behind Ghostbusters – his name comes first in the screenwriting credits, and he’s never been shy at claiming the idea was his own in interviews – so I can only assume Ramis was brought in to add jokes and flesh out the script. Regardless, he’s had a hand in writing a film that has probably contributed more to my sense of humour than any other.
I salute Harold Ramis.