The ‘Ghostbusters’ Preview Cut Is a Must-Watch For Fans of the Series
I have no idea how many times I’ve seen Ghostbusters, but I would estimate it’s at least 50 times. Maybe it’s 70. Maybe it’s 100. It’s a lot. It’s one of the titles, along with Spaceballs and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that’s in the running for the movie I have watched more than any other.
Over the weekend, I watched Ghostbusters for the 51st (or 71st [or 101st]) time. No matter how many times this was, I know the film by heart. I could perform it from memory as a one-man Broadway show. (And trust me, I’ve tried to mount this production. My lawyers keep telling me it’s a non-starter. They’re such killjoys.)
So I know exactly what’s coming when, for example, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man lumbers into Columbus Circle, and it looks like all hope is lost. I know Harold Ramis’ Egon will suggest crossing the streams, noting that there’s “definitely a very slim chance” they will survive what had previously been described as an incredibly dangerous scenario. And I know after a shot of Ernie Hudson looking exasperated, and several cutaways to the other Ghostbusters, Bill Murray will reply “I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it! Let’s do it!”
But on this viewing, Bill Murray doesn’t say it.
That’s because this was not the standard 105-minute cut of Ghostbusters I know like the back of my proton pack. The version screened over the weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse in Lower Manhattan — supposedly being shown in a theater for the first time anywhere since 1984 — ran about 114 minutes. And in this version, dubbed “Ghostbusters: The Preview Cut,” Peter Venkman doesn’t say “I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it!” (When he and the other Ghostbusters get up to go cross the streams, Ray does not leap out of the way of Stay Puft’s fiery hand either.)
In fact, Stay Puft is only in one shot in the entire movie. The rest of the times he should show up, the film cuts to blank screens or images of chaos on the streets of New York City with pedestrians running from absolutely nothing. That’s because most of the special effects involving Stay Puft — along with the rest of the ghosts in Ghostbusters — had not been completed by the time this “Preview Cut” was created and shown a single time to a test audience on the Warner Bros. studio lot in 1984.
The “Preview Cut” also contains no music; not Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful Ghostbusters score, and not Ray Parker Jr.’s iconic theme song. The montage of the Ghostbusters’ rise to fame, typically set to the song “Cleanin’ Up the Town” by The BusBoys, played over several minutes of uninterrupted silence.
Jason Reitman — son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman and director of 2021’s Ghostbusters Afterlife — told attendees at the Preview Cut screenings that such test prints were almost never preserved in the 1980s (or, for that matter, today). But Ghostbusters editor Sheldon Kahn decided to make a Betamax copy of the cut, and then held on to it for years. Decades later, someone handed Jason Reitman that Beta tape while he was working on Ghostbusters: Afterlife; he then proceeded to get it transferred to the DCP that was screened at the Drafthouse. (According to Reitman, it took months to find a transfer house in Los Angeles that could even accomplish the task, because it’s been so long since anyone used Beta tapes.)
In his introduction to the Drafthouse screening, Jason Reitman said the test screening of the Preview Cut went extremely well. But even if everyone in attendance agreed they had a massive hit on their hands, they didn’t just add in the missing special effects and music and call it a day. In between this cut and final version that we all know by heart, there were a ton of changes made to Ghostbusters. Not massive structural upheavals, necessarily, but rather a million tiny changes, at least one or two in almost every single scene. Many sequences were shortened, trimmed by lines here or there. Takes were swapped in or out, so even famous Ghostbusters quotes have a totally different vibe. Several brief scenes were removed entirely.
Some of those deleted scenes that are included in the Preview Cut have been available publicly before, as extras on earlier Ghostbusters home video releases. That includes this moment from around the time of Stay Puft’s emergence, when genital-less EPA bureaucrat Walter Peck (William Atherton) shows up at Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver)’s apartment building on Central Park West and demands the Ghostbusters be arrested. (In the finished film, Peck is seen getting drowned in liquid marshmallow goop after the ’Busters cross the streams, but he doesn’t have any dialogue, and is shown so briefly and in such a dark shot that it’s easy to miss it’s even him.)
There’s also a very short scene added prior to the moment where Venkman, Stanz, and Spengler are kicked out of Columbia University that’s as close as Ghostbusters ever came to giving an origin story to this very oddball trio’s relationship. Still staggered by their first encounter with a legitimate ghost at the New York Public Library, the men discuss their chances of receiving a Nobel Prize for their research, to which Venkman says “I introduced you [meaning Ray and Egon]! If it weren’t for me, you never would have met! And that’s got to be worth something!”
Far more interesting than any of these larger additions were the minor changes to so many familiar scenes which feel totally different in this Preview Cut. For example, in the scene where Egon examines Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully after he’s been possessed by Vinz Clortho (AKA “The Keymaster”), when Annie Potts’ Janine tells Egon she’s scared and embraces him, Egon responds “You have nice clavicles.” Similarly, the Ghostbusters’ post-Stay Puft celebration with fans on Central Park West includes a big final line from Bill Murray that I’m guessing have gotten a huge laugh if they’d kept it for the theatrical cut:
“We’re the Ghostbusters! We’re in the Yellow Pages!”
Right before that trim, there’s another extension to the Ghostbusters’ rescue of Dana and Louis after they are turned back into humans after a brief stint as terror dogs. In the Preview Cut, the two share an intensely awkward dialogue exchange.
“Did, did you and I? Did we...?” Louis asks, alluding to their hookup when they were possessed by the spirits of the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper.
“No, Louis. No,” Dana replies. She walks off with Venkman, but then Louis says “I don’t know. I’m sure that...” before he trails off again, to which Ray says “Hey, don’t worry about it. A million fishes in the sea.”
The lusty nature of this moment actually pervades the entire Preview Cut of Ghostbusters; a lot of the stuff that wound up getting cut were line readings, jokes, and even moments of body language that, if they had been left in, would made the movie a whole lot more pervy. The character that is most affected by the changes is Peter Venkman, whose flirting with Dana Barrett in the final film reads as impish and playful but, thanks to the alternate takes and additional dialogue in the Preview Cut comes off a lot more horny — and even slightly unpleasant.
This exchange between Peter and Dana in her apartment, which was completely removed from the final cut, is a good example of the sort of material that Ivan Reitman changed.
Removing these snippets had a huge impact on the way the film plays. Left in, Peter Venkman is not likable. He’s not just a jerk, he’s a bit of a creep! Removed, his pursuit of Dana seems a lot more endearing and charming.
The cuts had an additional, practical effect: They helped Ghostbusters secure a PG rating. While the Preview Cut might not necessarily earn an R, it would have been a lot closer to one thanks to all of the additional profanity and sexual innuendos. And that could have meant a lot of parents (including mine, I’d bet) would have kept their kids away from this movie. And if kids couldn’t see Ghostbusters, who knows if it still becomes an era-defining hit without them.
The cumulative impression of the Preview Cut is fascinating; it’s like watching Ghostbusters from some other dimension where the movie was not a blockbuster. It would be extremely useful as an instructional tool in film schools; viewed back-to-back with Ghostbusters, it shows the sort of impact a couple of minutes of cuts plus an orchestral music and a great soundtrack can have on a movie. It’s about a clear a window into the editing process of a Hollywood blockbuster as you are likely going to get.
Unfortunately, at this point that window is not easy to look through — or at least not for an affordable price. The screenings I attended were the first ever and as far as I know, there are no plans for more right now. The Preview Cut was included as a special feature on the recent Ghostbusters: Ultimate Collection 4K box set, but those currently go for hundreds of dollars online. (Even Amazon is charging $350.)
Maybe the positive reception for these screenings — the Drafthouse sold out two screenings within hours, added two more, and sold those out as well — will encourage a wider distribution of the Ghostbusters Preview Cut. And it would be great to see more early cuts of other classics. You can learn a lot from watching a great movie at its worst.