Sunday, 16 June 2019

Thirty Years of Ghostbusters II

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the premier of Ghostbusters II. Also just gone is the 35th anniversary of the original Ghostbusters, but I wrote about that film five years ago. Back then, I wrote about the different continuations of the franchise and the rumours of a third film. Five years on, a new film has been and gone, rebooting the franchise but failing to kick off its own sequels. However, 2016's Ghostbusters showed there was enough interest in the franchise to get a sequel to Ghostbusters II greenlit, which is expected to arrive next year. Dan Aykroyd, who has a habit of announcing imminent projects that exist only in his head, has also said he's working on the script for a prequel, set in the sixties when Ray, Egon and Peter meet in college. While there's a good chance this will never happen, I actually feel this is the best way to continue those characters. Recast them, tell the characters' stories without having to worry about increasingly aged (or dead) actors. Aykroyd has even talked about making it a TV series, which I think is honestly the best format.

But enough about the future, let's talk about the past. Everyone loves Ghostbusters, but where's the love for the sequel? While I'll be the first accept that it's not as good as the original (let's be fair, not much is), Ghostbusters II is an absolute cracker of a film. It's clearly influenced by the success of the animated spin-off The Real Ghostbusters, which made the franchise a huge hit with kids, and is a more family-friendly affair than the original. There are still a few grubby jokes in there (Egon's line about his epididymis is one that I didn't understand for years), but the overall tone is much less adult-oriented. This is no bad thing, and the film's whole style is a little smoother, more accessible than the original. It's less interesting than the grad humour of the first film, but it's one that can appeal to a broader audience, and it's a film that you could easily put on for the whole family to watch and enjoy. It doesn't quite go as far as making Slimer a character as he is in the cartoon, but he is inexplicably floating around both the firehouse and New York, although only Louis seems to ever see him.

On the other hand, while Aykroyd and Ramis tweaked their approach to the script to make it a little more kid-friendly, they don't miss the chance to have a little pop at their unintended new target audience. Ray and Winston make their entrance as children's entertainers, dancing to the theme song at a party full of “ungrateful little yuppie larvae.” (Which includes Jason Reitman, son of the film's director Ivan and now working on the upcoming sequel. There's something very funny about him telling the Ghostbusters that his dad says they're full of crap.) There's some clear resentment from the writers there, that they're having to write this sequel and make it more accessible to kids. None of the main players were keen to work on another Ghostbusters, (which is funny in hindsight considering that Aykroyd has spent the intervening years trying to make a third), but even working on half-enthusiasm they produce a great script.

It's true that the script essentially follows the same beats as the original, with the 'busters going from has-beens to world-savers via a couple of major set pieces and a ghostbusting montage. It's hard to disagree when critics complain that they weren't getting anything new, but there's also a sense of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.” While there's some influence from RGB, the intervening five years have been very different and the 'busters have been sued out of business for almost destroying New York City. What's less feasible is that they're generally considered charlatans by the public (although the court scene sees some definite support). They might have trashed the city when they accidentally summoned up a giant marshmallow man, but it's pretty much impossible that anyone could deny that actually happened. There's a sense that the writers are snapping at the fickleness of the public. Ghostbusters II had a record-breaking opening weekend, only to crash completely when Batman was released the following week. (Perhaps, given the New Years setting, releasing the film in June was a mistake.)

While it's not quite up to the standards of the original, there are some elements that simply work better in the sequel. The characters have changed over the five years between, in believable ways. Egon is a researcher, Ray runs an occult bookshop, and Peter is a schlocky TV host, all roles they fit perfectly into. While we still have little indication of what Winston does when he's not in uniform, he gets a much better share of the lines and action than in the original (although he is unforgivably left out of the comeback bust in the courthouse). Most notably improved is the Peter-Dana relationship. Peter in particular is a far more likeable, more relatable character, still a bit of a manchild but far less of a jerk. While Murray's performance made Venkman the standout character of the first film, it's inarguable that the character is a selfish, unpleasant person, and it's hard to see why Dana falls for him. It's much more believable that between films she broke up with him and made a new life for herself, and that she'd grow close to this improved, less asshole-ish version.

Janine and Louis are stepped up to main characters, instead of recurring jokes. Annie Potts (who got spectacularly hot between films) gives a less abrasive but still brassy performance, and gets to play Janine without her fawning over Egon. Not everyone liked this development, but she and Louis work weirdly well, and it gives Louis the kick in the confidence pants that he needs. Plus, Rick Moranis absolutely rules the courtroom scenes. There's an amazing array of antagonists as well: Kurt Fuller as the oily mayor's aide, Hardemeyer; the great Harris Yulin as the ferocious judge Wexler; and of course, Peter MacNicol giving a career-great performance as Janosz Poha. Indeed, Janosz is perhaps the best addition to the set-up, something the original film lacked – a secondary villain with a link to the main threat. Janosz is at once pitiful and unsettling, and works as both comic relief and a growing threat. Perhaps the inclusion of the snubbed, nebbish white male using supernatural powers to try to get one over on the world influenced the script for 2016's Ghostbusters, with its own loser villain Rowan.

While there's no topping Slimer or Stay Puft, Ghostbusters II has some truly spectacular supernatural action. The battle with the Scolari brothers in the courthouse is the best single ghostbusting scene in the franchise, utilising some remarkable puppetry and video effects to create two horrible phantoms with real character. While, like the first film, much of the ghost action is put across in a pair of montages, the creatures and encounters are more elaborate and imaginative. Particularly memorable are the fur coat coming to life and attacking its wearer, and the Titanic finally coming into dock (“Well, better late than never.”) Vigo the Carpathian makes for an impressive villain, one with genuine personality, something that Gozer lacked, being more a force of nature than a character. Wilhelm von Homburg was reportedly very unhappy with being dubbed over, but the combination of his snarling face and Max von Sydow's booming voice are effective.

The use of rivers of slime must surely have been intended to appeal to the kids (and no doubt further merchandising of “Ectoplazm”), but the idea that the misery, cynicism and general shittiness of attitudes in New York would manifest physically is a stroke of genius. It's never completely clear what the link is between the slime and Vigo, but the intention seems to be that the ghost is simply taking advantage of a pre-existing phenomenon now that he is in New York, boosting his power and using it to his own ends. Indeed, the use of positively-charged slime against him would suggest that the ghost and the gloop aren't directly connected. However, while the slime is undoubtedly a kids' treat, Ghostbusters II manages to include some genuinely unsettling, even scary moments, perhaps able to get away with a little more due to its overall more family-friendly content. Janosz in his spectral nanny guise has to be the most upsetting visual of the franchise, although the garden of impaled heads comes a close second. Most memorable of all, though, is this film's giant monster: the Statue of Liberty herself, animated by ectoplasm and the voice of Jackie Wilson. While it may not be as out there as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, it's a brilliant and unforgettable visual.

Of course, there are some elements that make you wonder what they were thinking. The soundtrack is, charitably, not quite as good as the original's (Jackie Wilson not withstanding). I've a soft spot for Rum DMC's new Ghostbusters theme, but accept that this is nostalgia talking, and it can't be considered a good track. There's a nice bit of Oingo Boingo on there too, but mostly, this is not a decent soundtrack, and the best performance by a musician on the film might be Bobby Brown's cameo as a doorman. While I love the idea of Peter as a psychic talkshow host, that scene is tonally out of step with the rest of the film. Chloe Webb gives an impressively disturbed performance as the date rape victim who's twisted her head up into thinking she was mind-wiped by an alien, but that's a seriously tasteless and, above all, unfunny joke. It's made all the more annoying by the fact that so many fans misunderstand the whole point of the scene, thinking that she was the one with the right date for the end of the world, when it is obvious that the other guest (played by Brian Doyle-Murray, one of Bill's many actor brothers) was indeed psychic and got the date right. The world was going to end on New Year's Eve that year, but the Ghostbusters stopped it. Talk about missing the joke.

In spite of a couple of missteps, Ghostbusters II gets so much right that I fail to understand so many fans' bad feeling towards it. It's a fun, arresting adventure with a refreshingly uncynical message: that, you know, being nice to each other actually is a good idea, and that treating people like crap has poor consequences. It has some great performances from a cast who, even if some of them didn't want to be there, were firing on all cylinders, combined with some wonderfully weird ideas brought to life with great effects. And how many films can pull off a dancing toaster?

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