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The Ghost Busters: The Complete Live-Action Series

Filmation Associates (September 6 1975), BCI/Eclipse (April 17 2007), 2 discs, 330 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital Mono, Not Rated, Retail: $29.98

Storyboard:

Years before Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis teamed up against Slimer and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, three other misfits took on the supernatural. This live-action show from TV animation outfit Filmation has our intrepid heroes on the hunt for – and scared by – various spooks, mummies, demons and creatures, from Frankenstein’s Monster to magician Merlin, the Abominable Snowman and even a duo of time-warped Vikings!

The Sweatbox Review:

Breaking into television animation through another project that took longer than hoped to deliver, Filmation became a force to be reckoned with in the late 1960s and 1970s when they ruled the airwaves along with their primary competitor Hanna-Barbera. Famous for their cartoon adaptations of major comic strip characters and superheroes, a move into live-action was inevitable after Hanna-Barbera introduced such elements into The Banana Splits (1968). It wasn’t until 1974, however, that the studio felt brave enough to abandon drawings, taking their chance on Shazam! featuring Captain Marvel. Like their animation, producers Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott made the show cheap and fast, though it was unique among the vast amount of strictly cartoon fare that made up Saturday mornings.

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One year later, Filmation tried the same trick again with a show that must have sounded perfectly suited for animation: the crazy set up has (Jake) Kong, Eddie Spenser (or Spencer, depending on if you believe the main title or the show itself) and Tracy the Gorilla running a ghost-catching office. Each week, the trio are sent by the mysterious “Zero” on another bumbling mission to encounter the supernatural and dispose of whatever things that go bump in the night they find. Somehow, it was decided to shoot the show “for real”, lending it a unique quality that actually helps it stand out as a curious oddity in this day and age. The show has nothing in connection with the 1984 megahit blockbuster put out by Columbia Pictures. The now-Sony owned studio did have to license the Ghost Busters name for their movie (which led to later complications from what I understand), but there the similarity ends.

While many shows of the time were shot either on locations or in the studio on film, The Ghost Busters leans heavily on studio-set video sequences, with only the odd film inserts (usually when a location is needed) and a spot or two of animation plates (for exterior “haunted castle” set ups). Shooting on video at least allowed for the then-fairly new trickery of paint-box effects to be added to the show, or fun old-school touches like split-screen and the like which, although able to have been achieved on film, would have been too cost-prohibitive on celluloid. Though the show is studio bound for much of its running time, a live audience couldn’t be accommodated due to some of the special effects and the non-realtime nature of filming the series. In true Filmation style, a laugh-track was added to simulate this presence and, to be honest, the nature of the studio setting helps in not having the laughs feel out of place.

And there are plenty of laughs, since The Ghost Busters is filled with throwaway gags, corny one-liners and ripped-off ideas from other sources in the best Filmation tradition! Perhaps most fun of all is the blatant Mission: Impossible steal of having the instructions (uniquely found in various random objects) self-destruct in less than five seconds…not giving Tracy enough time to move before the inevitable explosion. The names of the characters themselves are also good for a laugh, though slightly perplexing… I can see the comedic value, obviously, in having two characters named Spenser and Tracy, but the final one, Kong, isn’t the gorilla as you’d expect! I can only guess that Tracy is a girl gorilla (a gorilla ma dreams?), hence the attribution, but it’s another little quirk of the show that gives Kong the odd name out!

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As the three, long-time Filmation voice Larry Storch is Spenser, with Forrest Tucker as Kong and Tracy the Gorilla “trained” by Hollywood monster movie expert Bob Burns, here living out a childhood dream of portraying such a character onscreen and going on to play various gorillas in commercials and The New Mickey Mouse Club among others. Though not really an actor (and he’d be the first to acknowledge that), Burns is without doubt one of the pre-eminent experts on horror and sci-fi films, monsters and creatures, and nary a documentary or DVD featurette on these subjects concludes without a soundbite appearance or his name in the credits. His treasure trove of archive material is as extensive as it is priceless and, giant apes being a speciality, Burns jumped at the chance to appear as a gorilla on screen in The Ghost Busters and as Tracy again in a later student short, Superbman: The Other Movie.

Behind the camera, The Ghost Busters would be creator Marc Richards’ only major credit, while directors Norman Abbott and Larry Peerce were firmly established in the live-action comedy tradition, with past and future credits including Leave It To Beaver, Batman, The Munsters, Get Smart and The Bad News Bears series between them. Human leads Tucker and Storch were also old comedy hands, having been teamed in the popular prime time sitcom F Troop, with Tucker a veteran of countless film and television appearances, among them The Night They Raided Minsky’s and taking over Lee Marvin’s role as Kid Sheleen in TV’s Cat Ballou. Storch was a prolific comedian who started out in burlesque shows on Broadway before television beckoned with his own The Larry Storch Show and as the voice of Koko The Clown in the 1963 version of Out Of The Inkwell. He also took parts in such programs as Underdog and as many characters at Filmation over the years, most recently showing up among the one-hundred or so comedians telling the world’s filthiest joke in the documentary The Aristocrats.

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Here the act is suitably toned down for younger audiences, and even the “monsters” are of the comical variety that peppered Filmation’s similar Groovie Goolies animated show, leaning more on that kind of quick-fire, one-line humor rather than dressing up an action-styled show with a few jokes. But, true to form, each episode follows the same format: the Busters get the call (in another Filmation “cheat”, producer Lou Scheimer provided the voice of the job-dealing “Zero”), head to the outskirts of town to an old haunted castle (usually the same one), pratfall into a series of Scooby-Doo type chases and slapstick encounters, and finally corner the creature of the week, and any comical sidekicks, and zap ’em to particle dust with their Ghost Dematerializer (an old-style flash-bulb camera-type device that creates the height of limited video effects to disperse the spectre in a blue screen of chroma key)!

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On Disc One’s first side, the trio lock horns with the likes of a Spenser lookie-likey in The Maltese Monkey and Frankenstein’s creature in Dr. Whatshisname. The Canterville Ghost turns up in the next one, while Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf features a howling mad werewolf out to remove his curse. An appearance from the phantom Cap’n Beane and his Pirate deckhand Scroggs from the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman rounds up this side. Flipping the disc over for the continuation of the series, episodes 6 through 10 see the guys facing off against a bonkers ventriloquist and his doll in The Dummy’s Revenge, Queen Forah of the Nile and her Mummy in A Worthless Gauze and body-swapping hyjinks in Which Witch Is Which? The first ten episodes finish with They Went Thataway, in which the boys play cowboy when Billy The Kid turns up, and The Vampire’s Apprentice, naturally spoofing Dracula, here seen as an aged “old bat” who’s way past his blood-sucking prime!

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Disc Two’s side one completes the show’s run with the final five shows including perhaps the highlight of the series, Jekyll & Hyde – Together For The First Time!, which plays with added tongue in cheek thanks to guest stars Severn Darden and Joe E Ross. Darden, a veteran of the Second City cast, popped up on television in a variety of programs in the ‘70s including Wonder Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man and brings a great sense of over-theatricality to his Jekyll part, while Ross, famous for his shtick in The Phil Silvers Show, Car 54 Where Are You? and Hong Kong Phooey pretty much pulls that off again here too, as a wisecracking Neanderthal Mr Hyde. There’s more double-trouble in another good show, Only Ghosts Have Wings, when the Red Baron returns to recover his plane, and in The Vikings Have Landed Jim (Mr Magoo) Backus guests in what is otherwise probably the weakest episode. The series comes to a close with visits from Merlin The Magician (with actual illusionist Carl “The Amazing Mr Ballantine” in the guest role) and The Abominable Snowman, actually quite a touching send off, but more memorable once again for the guest stars’ turns and the obvious fastening on the back of the Snowman suit!

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Not ever coming within yards of this show before (the closest I got were some of the later spin-off cartoon versions, but that’s for another review), I wasn’t sure what to expect: cheesy, dated, awful video-looking Z-grade television or…well, I wasn’t sure there was an alternative! Happily, I can say I was wrong. The Ghost Busters is no masterpiece, but I’d bet you could run this for kids today and they’d get some decent kitsch value out of it if they weren’t expecting a live-action series based on the 1984 movie and could put up with three slightly too-old leads jogging about with a guy in a gorilla costume. Running for only a year, all 16 episodes can now be unearthed again for the curious.

Is This Thing Loaded?

As usual, BCI’s Ink & Paint people have put together a package that shames the distributors of much more mainstream fare. As a long-lost, almost forgotten show that isn’t even among Filmation’s premium animated programs, I’d have happily settled for the compilation provided and a little background history. There, curio covered. But BCI pushes the boat out again and does the decent thing as part of their good fight to show that the Filmation catalog should be given a better reputation than it gets and that, for a time at least, they were an important contributor to keeping new material of a good quality coming to Saturday morning television.

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All contained on the set’s fourth side (side two of Disc Two), the most relevant of the Special Features are a couple of Interview segments with producer Lou Scheimer and Tracy the Gorilla’s “trainer” Bob Burns. Scheimer could well not believe the attention he’s being given again as a result of the treatment Entertainment Rights and BCI have granted even the most obscure of the Filmation shows – Lou turns up practically on every set! Here he’s in typical jovial mood, though a little more focused than usual, charting the genesis of The Ghost Busters, the casting of the show and its production. Shot against a green-screen for obvious later background manipulation, the creators of the extras here must have decided against any such trickery since Lou is presented as filmed, GB logo superimposed, with both “buried” within an outer frame that’s playing scenes from the show in soft-focus.

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The Bob Burns discussion elaborates chiefly on his turn as Tracy, as you’d expect, explains how monkey make-up man Rick Baker fits into the puzzle, and even a little about his cameo in another ape project, Peter Jackson’s King Kong. There’s a bit of information overlap, but both the guys here have fond memories and share many amusing production stories. Burns is also presented in “the green-screen box”, a unique look – not totally successful – that disguises the lack of budget but keeps things watchable and to a good quality standard. The nice thing about both these interviews is that they’re not cut away from every few seconds for a moment from the show: each participant gets to talk at length without intrusion. Although both pieces cheat their running times by repeating the title intro to the show again, there’s still over 20 minutes of pure, entertaining information here.

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Prominently mentioned on the packaging, but ultimately disappointing, are a couple of Live-Action Bumpers marked Rare Footage. Versions 1 and 2 sounds pretty exciting, and I was expecting something special, perhaps a mini-gag that would bookend the commercial breaks. Nope; all we get is the video paint-box affected GB logo as seen in the opening titles, accompanied by Scheimer’s voice promising a return to the show “after these messages”. Nice to have, and only really disappointing because the packaging makes these sound much, much more important than they are.

Better are the three Photo Galleries, featuring Behind The Scenes, Promotional and Tracy the Gorilla stills. We get a good sense of what it must have been like to shoot on location, the promo images are fun set ups, and some of the Tracy shots clearly show the Rick Baker touch, but the 60 or so pictures in total isn’t the “extensive” gallery expressed on the packaging. Still, these are invaluable in light of there being no on-set footage to draw on, so any griping about the packaging playing up some of these extras can be ignored! No less welcome is the inclusion of all 15 scripts in PDF format, stored as a DVD-ROM bonus. Script counts vary as high as 17 or 18 episodes, so it would have been great to take a peek at any shows left unmade in this form, but the 15 here do make for a intriguing glance, especially revealing how close the cast and crew were in how writer Marc Richards lists the dialogue for “Storch”, “Tucker” and “Gorilla” as opposed to their actual character names!

Somewhat related is the final video-based extra, a bonus animated episode from Filmation’s later Ghostbusters series. According to who you believe, Columbia licensed the GB name from the company for their much more successful 1984 movie, with Filmation clearly in the running to produce an eventual animated spin-off. When the movie became such a hit, Columbia informed Filmation that an animated show would not be forthcoming because they wanted to concentrate on a feature sequel. Filmation, quite justly, went ahead and developed a show based on this very 1975 series, going the animated route and promoting the children of the original stars to lead roles. When Columbia’s sequel plans were put on hold, they were none too pleased that another project – and the original one, remember – might steal their thunder, so they pacted with DIC Animation and rushed out the moronically named The Real Ghostbusters. To prevent court action, Lou Scheimer had to change the title of his show to Filmation’s Ghostbusters, though the now famous single-word spelling remained.

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Completely different to the admittedly popular Columbia spin-off show, Filmation’s Ghostbusters saw Jake Kong Jr, Eddie Spenser and Tracy the Gorilla battle weekly villain Prime Evil and his hoards of various ghouls, ghosts, goblins and other monsters. In this series opener, I’ll Be A Son Of A Ghostbuster, the 1975 Kong and Spenser – authentically voiced by Tucker and Storch – pass the baton on to their kids (this episode is repeated, along with the continuation of the rest of the series in another BCI box set). Thanks to the 1980s TV animation boom, the drawing quality is well on par with the best that was coming out at that time, the show feels a little more “Filmation” styled due to the emphasis on action and gadgets, and the backgrounds are as good as the studio was always known for. Unfortunately, the spat with Columbia was one of the reasons some broadcast affiliates began to cease ordering Filmation product, and a mis-guided attempt to switch to producing big-screen features on the usual slim budgets eventually led to the demise of this unique studio.

Lastly, and strangely addictive, are “previews” for other Filmation shows available from BCI. Split into three pages of “Play All” goodness, these aren’t really more than the opening titles for a huge amount of childhood memories, including He-Man, She-Ra, Groovie Goolies, the aforementioned Filmation’s Ghostbusters, Hero High, Ark II and Flash Gordon among many others. Individually selectable, or running 11:40, 9:20 and 5:15 in their respective blocks, the troubled Filmation feature Journey Back To Oz is the only release that sticks out for being the one true theatrical trailer included in the bunch; a novelty in itself. I should mention quickly that each of The Ghost Busters shows get around four chapter indexes each – another boon to aid zipping through to some choice moments.

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Case Study:

Spread over two double-sided discs, each one gets their own thinpak case, with both slotted in a durable slipcover which has some cool but hard to see custom art buried within the box’s inner sleeve. The clear plastic cases allow for some specific character stills on the outside and behind-the-scenes photographs on the inside. Bundled in the box is a terrific tri-folded/six-paged Synopsis & Trivia booklet that indicates guest stars, background history and even The Ghost Busters theme song lyrics! Even if the packaging plays up the nature of the extras (some Easter Eggs are alluded to, but I couldn’t find any), this has been put together nicely.

Ink And Paint:

Sight unseen, I was expecting the worse based on my experience of what the American NTSC television format was capable of (or not) in the mid-1970s. Considering the age, mastering medium and storage of the material, I was distinctly surprised by the lack of smearing on any bright objects and a sharpness in the image that you just don’t get with vintage Saturday Night Live, for instance. The transfers do show their sources (video and film taped to video) but these hold up adequately and don’t detract from the enjoyment. Once again, BCI haven’t piled more than two hours on per side, which lets the video breathe and retain its original look without introducing further quality degradation. Whoever owns the masters of these shows looked after them well, and the slight wash of cleanup I think I spied just helps things look good on the technology of today.

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Scratch Tracks:

Compared to what we might have gotten if the show’s original English tracks were in the same state as the Spanish dubs also provided here, I’m delighted with the sound too. Had the Spanish-level of overly compressed analogue mono been the only option, we’d have grinned and bared it, I guess, but what we have is so much more. Though still mono, the difference between the two is like suddenly jumping to 5.1, with a dynamic sound that really sounds much better than it should or has any right to. The only thing that marks against it is the sound recording itself, often boom microphone captured and sounding very roomy depending on the surroundings. However, dialogue is still clear (usually the result of the stars “over-acting” and shouting their lines out with enthusiasm!) and fits the dated look of the visuals suitably. Again, kudos to those storing the masters on these and keeping them up to scratch.

Final Cut:

The Ghost Busters is a curio for sure, but an interesting one that ends up being no waste of time, particularly for those fans of slightly tacky television. It’s actually quite slick, with its eye on trying to be as fast and funny as a cartoon only upstaged by the not-quite lightning reactions of its vaguely aged human leads. I guess Scooby-Doo went for younger kids, and doing the same, even in live-action, would have perhaps been too close an “homage”. Still, there are laughs to be had, I can see how it might have entertained kids of yesteryear and could capture the imaginations of youngsters today. Although very different, I’d say these guys would be a fun alternative to the ones you’d usually think of when you might wonder “who ya gonna call?” for spook-hunting comedy.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

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OVERALL DVD

 

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