I guess I’m hitting a semi-productive spurt this week. I found that I had an afternoon free so I decided to take a look at another TV on DVD set that I’ve been meaning to get to for weeks now, the BCI Eclipse release of the 1975 live action Filmation series, The Ghost Busters.
Now I’m more familiar with the cartoon that was spun off of this show, but even then I only saw handful of the episodes in syndication. Over the years and thanks to sites like wiki I’ve leaned a lot more about both the original show and the cartoon, in particular the whole debacle with the 1984 Ghostbusters film and how Filmation successfully sued the studio over the likeness to the 1975 show’s logo. In fact, I believe that the Filmation cartoon spin-off is directly related to that lawsuit because Lou Scheimer wanted to go ahead and call it off in exchange for getting the license to create a cartoon based on the movie, but the studio chose not to do that, instead creating their own cartoon. Scheimer and company shot back by making a cartoon based on their previous show.
So anyway, I am a more or less coming to this show with no preconceived notions or nostalgia. So what’s in the box? This set features the entire live action series, 15 episodes in total over two, double-sided discs, which are packaged into two DVD slim cases. There are five episodes per each side of the discs, with the flip side on the second disc containing all of the special features. The slipcase itself is pretty nice, though the cover has a very odd "colorized" look to it, which is weird because the show was shot in color. I believe the still that’s used for the cover may have originally been B&W, but I’m not sure. Though the "colorized" look gives it that icky Photoshop feel, the image is pretty darn accurate to the feel of the opening credits, so I easily cut it some slack.
Also included is a foldout insert that is loaded with episode summaries as well as cast and crew information and trivia for each episode. Pretty much this insert is a nicely printed version of anything you’d hope to find on the show trivia wise and is a welcome addition to the set.
The reverse side of the insert features some basic info, mostly the same stuff that’s included on the back of the box set, though as a nice little bonus they’ve added the theme song lyrics.
The menus on the DVD are pretty simple and easy to navigate. There’s a "play all" function as well as a sub menu where you can choose a specific episode or where you can jump to a specific chapter. Pretty standard stuff. Since all of the special features are on the fourth side, most of this stuff is strictly episode oriented. Watch out for easter eggs though. I stumbled upon one while navigating through the menus on side one of the first disc. To access it, enter the chapter section menu for the episode "The Canterville Ghost" and then select the back option to return to the main episode menu. Next, press the up button once and you should be automatically taken to a snippet of Lou Scheimer talking about his feelings on nepotism that’s pretty funny.
As far as the picture quality goes on these episodes, it’s not so hot, maybe a 3 out of five or so. The show looks like it was shot on video and there are plenty of scenes that are hazy with some ghosting and light trails. Nothing that isn’t common for TV shows of the 60s and 70s. Like the WKRP set, there’s not much restoration work that can be done with video so the quality is about the best it’s going to get and probably isn’t that far gone from how it looked when it originally aired.
As far as the show itself I was pleasantly surprised. Having missed out on most of the live action children’s shows of the late 60s and 70s I’ve always been curious to see what these shows were like, mostly because it’s the sort of programming that my sister grew up with. The show is very campy and crazily over acted, but it’s totally on par with stuff like Sesame Street or the Electric Company, though with a lot less education and a lot more laughs. In fact it’s a little bit more like Land of the Lost, though obviously not on such an epic scale but it’s more about entertaining kids than teachin them anything. Actually the show reminds me a lot of a live action Scooby Doo, only on limited sets with less characters. Tracy is very much cast from the same mold as Scooby Doo, except he grunts and snorts instead of "ralking rike riss."
There are basically three main stars in the show, Forrest Tucker as "Jake" Kong, the leader of the group of ghost busters…
Larry Storch plays Spencer, Kong’s sidekick and comic foil. Both Storch and Tucker are playing off of the same dynamic that they used in the show F-Troop, so it’s certainly refined and comfortable.
Rounding out the group and bringing a little bit of absurdity into the mix is Bob Burns as Tracy the gorilla, playing Harpo Marx to Tucker & Storch’s Groucho & Zeppo. In a silly twist, Burns is credited as the trainer for Tracy, which lead many people to believe that Tracy was a real gorilla and not Burns in his Gorilla costume.
Each show opens on the same graveyard set where the ghost or creature would introduce themselves and layout the basic plot, typically in search of something in the nearby house or castle. This would then fade into the credits sequence which introduces the Ghost Busters.
Coming from a studio that specialized in animation it was interesting to see Filmation using some animated sequences to bridge the gap between sets, in particular a nicely painted and pretty spooky scene of the nearby old house.
All of the episodes used more or less the same format. A ghost is introduced before the credits roll, then there would be a silly scene with Storch, Tucker and Burns in the Ghost Busters HQ that inevitably ended with Kong ordering Spencer and Tracy out to get their weekly mission from the mysterious Zero. These mission gathering sequences kind of stand out from the rest of the show because they were the only ones shot on location instead of on set. These sequences for all 15 episodes were shot back to back and then edited into the various episodes later to save on production costs.
In each episode, Spencer and Tracy would pull up to a junk shop where Tracy would get an object that would have a hidden secret mission in it from Zero. Playing off of shows like Mission Impossible and Get Smart the object would always self-destruct 3 to 5 seconds after the tape ended blowing up in Tracy’s face, a gag that was later utilized in the Inspector Gadget cartoon. Sometimes the message is hidden in a rubber chicken, sometimes in a bike or cake, and it always explodes with a silly effect. The rest of the show would play out with the Ghost Busters bumbling their way in perfect slapstick style to a confrontation with the ghost or creature which would then be dispatched with their ghost dematerializer.
All 15 episodes were written my Marc Richards, and in many cases overnight as the production schedule was rushed for monetary reasons on the show. Because of this the shows all feel very much like they were written in a template style, but honestly it works perfectly for the audience they were shooting for. Yet even with these threadbare plots, insanely over the top visual gags, and bad puns there was also a certain amount of creativity and subtlety. In the first episode, The Maltese Monkey, the resident ghost is a character named Big Al, a gangster who is more or less the mirror twin of Spencer (right down to the cool colored zoot suit and is obviously also played by Storch.) Storch hams up the Big Al character by doing his best Marlon Brando Godfather impression, yet later in the episode when the Spencer character goes under cover as Big Al, Storch switches to his James Cagney, a gag to be sure, but something that would completely go over the head of the target audience. It sure as heck isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s a welcome bit of good acting and humor that surprised me nonetheless.
The production values on the show were pretty good considering how fast and cheaply it was shot. I believe there were only about five or six sets (a graveyard, a castle, a few rooms, and the GB HQ) and only one actual location (for the "accepting the mission" scenes), and the costume work was decent. They managed to do up a pretty good Frankenstein’s monster, thought he runner mask on the wolfman left a little bit to be desired. Then best part of the show though was the gorilla suit that Bob Burns brought with him to the show. In particulat it has an awesome mask that was custom made to fit to Burns’ head and face and therefore he can really bring it to life. To this day it’s still one of the better gorilla suits I’ve ever seen.
There were also a nice cadre of guest stars including Billy Barty and Ted Knight who both turn in relatively fun if not crazily over the top performances.
Being a BCI Eclipse box set, the Ghost Busters DVDs have their fair share of special features produced by Andy Mangels.
Included in the special features are interviews with the show’s producer and Filmation head honcho Lou Scheimer…
…as well as Bob Burns who both provided the Tracy costume and preformed in it. Burns recalls the story of how he got the gig on the DVDs as well as on his website. Basically he was friends with a lady who was associated on the Ghost Busters project who knew he had a gorilla suit and suggested he try out for the role. Burns is also well known in horror, sci-fi and fantasy circles for his stunning collection of movie props and memorabilia including such sought after treasures as the original armature that served as the skeleton for the original King Kong movie. Peter Jackson sought Burns’ help when working on his remake and even gave both Bob and his wife cameos in the film.
The set also features some more basic features including production and behind the scenes photo galleries, trailers, DVD Rom scripts, and an nice collection of trailers from other Filmation DVD sets (already available or upcoming.) The interviews were a little weird as you can see above that the screen was shrunk down to a little box with Ghost Buster imagery behind it. Typically these interviews, shot against green screen like this, are then composited into a show style background like the graveyard or something, and it almost seems as if these were rushed and just dumped on the DVDs.
By far though one of the best special features, and one of my favorite special features that I’ve seen in recent years, is a bonus episode of the animated spin-off show from 1986. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the style of the 70s Filmation style with that of the 80s.
The episode included on this set is titled, "I’ll be a son of a Ghost Buster" which serves as the origin episode and ties the new series to the old. The episode revolves around the original characters passing their ghost busting business onto their sons, as well as introducing a new main villain, Prime Evil.
Surprisingly (at least to me) Filmation took a lot of care to keep the tone and feel of the original show as well as making sure the characters looked like the original actors. This animated still of Spencer is pretty dead on for Larry Storch, a feat that the Real Ghostbusters cartoon notoriously failed at (a blond Egon, multi-colored GB jumpsuits, and a punked out Janine for starters.)
The design crew even managed to get the costuming correct, right down to Kong’s porkpie hat and basic number shirt (though they changed his #5 to an 8, I assume incase any of the cells were flipped during the animation or editing processes.)
The Tracy character remained the same though (I guess he doesn’t bump into too many gorilla chicks in the city.)
The son characters, Jake Kong Jr. and Spencer Jr. are more less the same as their fathers in terms of personality and style, but it works pretty darn well with the action bumbed up as well as the physical comedy.
All in all, this set, which retails for between $20-$30, is more or less produced with a specific audience in mind, those that grew up with it and want to recapture some childhood nostalgia, so it probably won’t appeal to most people, in fact I think most people would probably hate it. But it does have a lot of appeal for those of us that enjoy monster related entertainment, in particular fans of the sillier stuff like Scooby Doo, the Groovie Goolies, the Milton the Monster Show, the Munsters, or the Addams Family. It’ll also be of interest to anyone who really digs the 1986 cartoon and wants to know a little bit more about that show’s roots.