REVIEW: REAL GHOSTBUSTERS RETRO-STYLE PETER VENKMAN
By Thomas Wheeler
Is there something strange -- in the neighborhood -- who ya gonna call?
Those opening lyrics by Ray Parker, Jr., set the stage for one of the most enduring pop culture concepts to come out of the 1980's -- which is especially notable for a concept that, at the time, had all of two movies and a surprisingly long-running animated series to keep its name in the minds of fans.
But the Ghostbusters have endured. There have been video games, comic books, ongoing promises of a third movie which seem increasingly unlikely as the principals are getting up there in years, and of course -- action figures, of which Mattel is the primary licensee these days.
Largely through their online store, MattyCollector.Com, Mattel has produced both 6" as well as cloth-costumed 12" action figures, based on the character likenesses from the movies. This review will take a look at something -- a little different.
The two Ghostbusters movies are comedies only insofar as that they star actors whose specialty is comedy, and the characters they portray manage to be off-the-wall enough to be funny without being insulting. The movies themselves are an astonishing blend of comedy, action-adventure, and some sort of borderline supernatural branch of science-fiction-fantasy. And yes, I'm a fan. Have been for a long time.
And yet, on two distinct occasions, they managed to save the world -- their world, anyway. And in between, in animation, they busted more ghosts than have ever been seen in every paranormal investigation show put together.
And it is that animated series that I'll want to focus on to a large degree. Because this review will take a look at the Retro-Style REAL GHOSTBUSTERS figure of the leader of the Ghostbusters -- PETER VENKMAN!
Now, why "Real Ghostbusters"? Well, not too long after the first movie came out, Filmation reminded certain people that, back in the 1970's, they'd had a short-lived live-action series on Saturday morning TV, also called "The Ghost-Busters". When plans were afoot to do an animated series based on the recent movie, that was sailing a little close to Filmation's territory, so the name was slightly changed. Filmation tried to capitalize on the popularity by doing their own animated series based on their original characters. Guess which one fared better?
As for "Retro-Style" -- it's no secret that the most popular action figure company in the 1970's was Mego. They produced a wide range of 8", cloth-costumed action figures. Admittedly, they never did the Ghostbusters, because by the time the Ghostbusters came along, Mego was pretty well defunct. But the format of their figures has endured, and several companies have, in more recent times, duplicated their original efforts, including Mattel, largely with a line based on the DC Comics Universe. But they decided to extend the format to include figures based on the animated versions of the Ghostbusters.
Let's consider a bit more of the history of the Ghostbusters movies, and animated series, and then have a look specifically at the character of Dr. Peter Venkman, and then his Retro-Action Animated-Style figure.
Ghostbusters is a supernatural comedy, multi-media franchise created by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis in 1984. Its first product was the movie Ghostbusters, released on June 8, 1984 by Columbia Pictures. It centers around a group of eccentric New York City parapsychologists who investigate and capture ghosts for a living.
The concept of the first film was inspired by Dan Aykroyd's own fascination with the paranormal, and it was conceived by Aykroyd as a vehicle for himself and friend and fellow Saturday Night Live alum John Belushi.
Aykroyd came up with Ghostbusters after reading an article about quantum physics and parapsychology in the American Society of Psychical Research Journal and then watching movies like Ghostchasers. Aykroyd thought, "Let's redo one of those old ghost comedies, but let's use the research that's being done today. Even at that time, there was plausible research that could point to a device that could capture ectoplasm or materialization; at least visually."
The original story as written by Aykroyd was much more ambitious—and unfocused—than what would be eventually filmed; in Aykroyd's original vision, a group of Ghostbusters would travel through time, space and other dimensions taking on huge ghosts (of which the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was just one of many).
Aykroyd pitched his story to director and producer Ivan Reitman, who liked the basic idea but immediately saw the budgetary impossibilities demanded by Aykroyd's first draft. At Reitman's suggestion, the story was given a major overhaul, eventually evolving into the final screenplay which Aykroyd and Harold Ramis hammered out over the course of a few months in a Martha's Vineyard bomb shelter, according to Ramis.
Aykroyd and Ramis initially wrote the script with roles written especially for Belushi, Eddie Murphy and John Candy. However, Belushi died during the writing of the screenplay, and neither Murphy nor Candy could commit to the movie due to prior engagements, so Aykroyd and Ramis polished a basic, yet sci-fi oriented screenplay for their final draft.
In addition to Aykroyd's high-concept basic premise and Ramis' skill at grounding the fantasy elements with a realistic setting, the film benefits from Bill Murray's semi-improvisational performance as Peter Venkman, the character initially intended for Belushi.
Winston Zeddemore was written with Murphy in mind, but he had to decline the role as he was filming Beverly Hills Cop at the same time. When Murphy had the role, Zeddemore was going to be hired much earlier in the film, and would accompany the trio on their hunt for Slimer at the hotel and be slimed in place of Venkman. When Ernie Hudson took over, it was decided that he be brought in later to indicate how the Ghostbusters were struggling to keep up with the outbreak of ghosts.
A problem arose during filming when it was discovered that a show was produced in 1975 by Filmation for CBS called The Ghost Busters. Columbia Pictures prepared a list of alternative names in the event the rights could not be secured, but during the filming of the crowd for the final battle, the extras were all chanting "Ghostbusters", which inspired the producers to insist that the studio buy the rights to the name.
For the test screening of Ghostbusters, half of the ghost effects were missing, not yet having been completed by the production team. The audience response was still enthusiastic, and the ghost elements were completed for the official theatrical release shortly thereafter.
As to the animated version, the series ran from 1986 to 1991, and was produced by Columbia Pictures Television, DiC Enterprises, and Coca-Cola Telecommunications. "The Real" was added to the title after the dispute with Filmation and its Ghost Busters properties. The series continues the adventures of paranormal investigators Dr. Peter Venkman, Dr. Egon Spengler, Dr. Ray Stantz, Winston Zeddemore, their secretary Janine Melnitz and their mascot ghost Slimer.
A short pilot episode was produced, but never aired in full. The full four-minute promo was released on a DVD set in 2008. Scenes of the pilot can be seen in TV promos that aired prior to the beginning of the series. Among differences seen in the promo pilot, the Ghostbusters wore the beige jumpsuits they had worn in the film instead of the color-coded jumpsuits they would wear in the finished series, and the character design for Peter Venkman bore more of a resemblance to actor Bill Murray than the character design seen in the finished series.
When he auditioned for the voice of Egon Spengler, Maurice LaMarche noted that while he was asked not to impersonate Harold Ramis, he did so anyway and eventually got the part. LaMarche also noted that Bill Murray complained that Lorenzo Music's voice of Peter Venkman sounded more like Garfield (who was also voiced by Lorenzo Music at the time; ironically, Murray voiced Garfield in the 2004 and 2006 Garfield films). Ernie Hudson was the only actor from the films who auditioned to play his character (Winston Zeddemore) in the series; however, the role was given to Arsenio Hall.
Although the "Ghostbusters" concept was tinkered with, the finalized show does feature many tie-ins from the films. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man made numerous appearances. During the third season, Walter Peck, the Environmental Protection Agency antagonist from the original film, reappeared. The uniforms and containment unit were redesigned, and Slimer was changed from a bad ghost to a resident and friend, events which are explained in the episode "Citizen Ghost" that flashbacks to what happened to the Ghostbusters right after the movie's events. Gozer is also mentioned repeatedly throughout the series, usually in comparison to a ghost they are currently battling.
At the start of the series' third season in 1988, the series was retitled to Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters. The opening was completely redone to centre around Slimer. Eventually the episodes were expanded from their original half-hour format to last an hour, and the overall feel of the show was changed to be more youthful, with episodes having a lighter tone to be less frightening. When Ghostbusters II was released, the character of Louis Tully was introduced to the show, and later episodes referenced events from the film.
With the departure of story editor and writer J. Michael Straczynski, more changes were also made. The show was canceled in 1991, with Straczynski returning to the series to write a few of the episodes in the final season in 1990.
On May 27, 2008, Time-Life announced they would be responsible for the complete series' release on DVD in the fall of 2008. Released on November 25, 2008, the set spans 25 discs containing all 147 episodes of the series. Which is a heck of a run for any animated series.
As to the character of PETER VENKMAN -- Peter Venkman, Ph.D. is a parapsychologist and member of the Ghostbusters, appearing in the films Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II and in the animated television series The Real Ghostbusters. In both the live action films, he was portrayed by Bill Murray, and was voiced in the animated series first by the late Lorenzo Music and then by Dave Coulier.
In 2008, Peter Venkman was selected by the magazine Empire as one of The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time, described by Empire's Nick de Semlyen as "the ultimate New York hero: cynical, sarcastic, secretly sweet-natured", "a man possessed by manic spontaneity, with a wont to twirl in circles around a public concourse or declare undying love for a woman he's just met", and the "most popular" character played by Murray.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Peter is one of three doctors of parapsychology on the Ghostbusters team. He holds PhDs in both parapsychology and psychology. Originally his professional interests were focused on paranormal phenomena like ESP; he appeared not to believe in ghosts until he actually saw one. In the movies, he is characterized by his flippant persona, his approach to his profession as a scientific charlatan, and his womanizing demeanor.
Despite Venkman's lackadaisical attitude, from time to time he has created inventions that help the Ghostbusters save the day, and he is shrewd and more street-smart than either Ray Stantz or Egon Spengler. Venkman serves as the front man for the group and possesses more social ability, albeit having a tendency to be a con-man, than the more academically inclined Ray and Egon. For instance, he is the one who is able to persuade the city mayor to release them after being arrested, return their equipment and otherwise support their attempt to stop Gozer.
In The Real Ghostbusters series, Peter's womanizing is toned down somewhat (though he is still quick to approach attractive women), but he retains his dry wit and sarcastic demeanor, and his vanity is played up more. While not the official leader of the group, Venkman is the closest thing they have to one, and often makes the decision whether the Ghostbusters will take a case or not. He often reinforces the prospect of Ghostbusters being a business and, with rare exceptions, opposes ghostbusting without the promise of equity. He is originally opposed to the idea of Slimer living in the firehouse, but quickly develops a love–hate relationship with the ghost; mostly hate whenever he is "slimed" on an episodic basis.
The episodes "Venkman's Ghost Repellers", "Cold Cash and Hot Water", and "Treasure of the Sierra Tamale" feature Peter's father, a con artist/businessman who could not make an honest dollar and was often away on business during Peter's childhood, as mentioned in "X-mas Marks The Spot". He is depicted as a negligent, even manipulative father; his relationship with Peter often tumultuous. One of Peter's favorite hobbies is trains, and he used to dream about driving a big locomotive when he was a child (Peter even studied engineering in college for two years before discovering it had nothing to do with trains).
So, how's the figure? Really very nicely done. I'll admit, I've tended to think that the animated versions of the Ghostbusters took a few liberties with the character likenesses, perhaps too many, but there can often be issues regarding using exact likenesses, and the animated series managed to come up with its own distinctive style while remaining true to the concept. The designs weren't entirely realistic to begin with, as one might expect in an animated series like G.I. Joe, for example.
It's worth noting that the caricature style continues to this day. IDW's popular Ghostbusters concept uses a caricature style, although it is not based on the animated series, and in some respects is perhaps close to the live-action Ghostbusters, but it works. And it's a fun comic.
I find myself wondering how much of a challenge it was for Mattel's sculptors to come up with a series of figure heads that achieved several purposes. First of all, they had to take a 2D animated image and render it in three dimensions. Although this sort of thing happens all the time in the toy world, I cannot help but think that it's not terribly easy. Secondly, they had to be a reasonable match for those animated likenesses, and in conjunction with that, thirdly, have a certain "retro" look to them, reminiscent of a toy company that had basically ceased operations by the time the Ghostbusters came along.
Not too much of a challenge, eh? And just to throw in a bonus, they had to look good perched atop a far more realistically designed body.
In the animated series, Peter Venkman was given a somewhat more angular face, and more hair, than Bill Murray typically had. Venkman had a rather long face, and a considerable tuft of dark brown hair up front, like Superman's "S" curl taken to a new level. Bill Murray's hairline seemed to be receding a bit at the time.
Interestingly, the way the figure's head has been sculpted, it almost looks as though that huge tuft of hair up front is an attempt to compensate for a receding hairline. The face is a little less angular than its animated counterpart. This could be due in part to an attempt to match the generally rather soft features that Mego was known for in the 1970's. They could create superb likenesses, don't get me wrong. But the sharp angles and deep cuts into the plastic that we're used to seeing these days just didn't really happen back then.
The end result is quite interesting. While certainly clearly based on the animated Peter Venkman, the final headsculpt in some respects looks just a little more like Bill Murray than the animated series ever did, at least in my opinion.
The figure has a pleasant smile on his face, and a generally very friendly expression. This might be a little unusual for the character, but it's not unusual for the type of figure upon which this is based. Mego wasn't really much for doing harsh facial expressions in the 1970's. I think the only really fierce-looking figures that I can recall offhand were those of the Incredible Hulk and Conan the Barbarian -- neither of them especially genial sorts. Even Batman didn't look all that intense.
The various details on the head are very neatly painted, although I'm reasonably certain that the eyes were imprinted, not painted. They're just a little too neat to have been painted through a stencil, but I could be mistaken about this.
Mattel has come up with a good basic body design. They couldn't duplicate Mego's body pattern precisely -- that design is being used by EmCe Toys for some of their figures -- but they came up with a reasonably close counterpart. The only really negative thing I can say about it is that the lower torso piece is a little small, which tends to make the hips look unusually large, and can give the legs rather loose articulation.
The visual result of this is less of an issue on the Ghostbusters than it tends to be on the DC Universe line, as Venkman and company are not wearing super-hero tights.
As has been noted, the animated series gave all of the Ghostbusters their own distinctive-colored uniforms, instead of the common beige that they all wore in the movies. The original uniforms were acknowledged in the occasional flashback, but I can understand wanting to make the animated series a little more colorful and eye-catching.
Venkman's uniform is brown, with turquoise trim at the collar, and the sleeve and pant cuffs. He is wearing a black belt and black boots. The boots are akin to those worn by the number of the DC Retro-Action Super-Heroes, and they're very clearly based on a Mego design.
The belt is also based, at least structurally, on a Mego design. It's made from plastic, not fabric, and it has a plastic clasp in the back, a sort of "insert Tab A into Slot B" sort of thing. I remember Batman's utility belt having the same sort of design back then.
The uniform is nicely tailored, especially the collar. Additional stitching on the front gives evidence of pockets. I'm not sure what type of fabric was used, but I've seen it often enough on cloth-costumed action figures, from Mego to G.I. Joe. It's not elastic, it's not designed to look like super-hero tights, but it certainly works well for the Ghostbusters' uniforms. And clearly it can be dyed in any color you want.
The uniform is secured in the back by a long strip of Velcro. Here we have a variance from a traditional Mego figure, which customarily used snaps. But the Velcro works just as well on these figures. Interestingly, the upper body of Venkman has been molded in black, giving the appearance of an undershirt beneath the uniform. I have no idea if any of the rest of the Venkman figure has been molded in black, and I don't intend to undress him to find out.
Completing the uniform are gray elbow pads, which have been made out of a slightly fuzzy fabric and secured on the arms by Velcro, and the Ghostbusters emblem, stamped onto the upper portion of the right sleeve, very neatly.
Notably missing is the nameplate on the front of the uniform that the Ghostbusters had in the movies. However, I don't recall that they used these in the animated series anyway. That's the sort of niggling little detail that would've driven animators nuts back then, trying to keep last names like "Spengler" or "Zeddemore" neatly lettered from frame to frame. You could do it with computer animation today, but that wasn't the case back then.
For those inclined to provide them to Venkman or any of these action figures, may I recommend some good adhesive labels and a rather precise computer printer capable of printing some pretty tiny fonts.
Venkman is very nicely articulated, as were the Mego figures upon which this body design is based, of course. Peter Venkman is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles, although the ankles are hindered by the boots. Not a major issue in my opinion -- so were the Mego figures.
Venkman comes with a Proton Pack, the device used by the Ghostbusters to capture ghosts. It's nicely detailed, and fits over Venkman's arms so it can be worn like a backpack.
Now, I do have a little mystery. The other three Ghostbusters figures in this line all come with a second, smaller accessory, some other piece of Ghostbusters equipment. Venkman doesn't. Now, in fairness, when I bought this figure, he was the last Venkman there. And I am always more concerned about figure condition than accessories. So perhaps he simply didn't have a second piece of hardware.
But it's worth noting the character illustration on the back of the package. It pictures a group shot of the four Ghostbusters, plus Janine Melnitz, who's available in a different set, as well as the popular green glob of a ghost known as Slimer. I find myself wondering if Slimer was originally intended as an accessory and was later dropped for reasons unknown. But that's just a theory. I really don't know.
So, what's my final word? I'm sincerely pleased to have this Peter Venkman figure from the Retro-Action Real Ghostbusters line -- and his friends. I remain dubious and rather skeptical that we'll ever get a third movie, and that's a shame -- a trilogy would've been nice. However, the Ghostbusters remain a significant part of pop culture. They currently have a great comic through IDW, and Mattel has done a really nice job with the entire figure line.
The animated series was a little more cartoony than some of its contemporaries, such as G.I. Joe, Transformers, or Masters of the Universe. But it still had a very healthy run, and it worked. I have no complaints about it, and I'm sure that it helped secure the popularity of the concept.
This Peter Venkman figure is almost a dual-retro in a sense -- looking back not only to the 1970's when Mego ruled the action figure world, but the 1980's when the Real Ghostbusters had a very prominent place in the animated world. It's a very cool figure, very well made, and if you're any sort of Ghostbusters fan, I'm sure you'll enjoy adding him to your collection.
The RETRO-ACTION REAL GHOSTBUSTERS figure of PETER VENKMAN definitely has my highest recommendation. And with him around -- I ain't afraid of no ghost!