VHS Revival raises a Statue of Liberty sized torch for a cruelly maligned sequel
Ah, the good old cinematic staple that is the sequel. We the viewer demand them, Hollywood the industry are more than happy to supply them. Yet more often than not, they rarely improve on or even equal the original. The usual candidates for follow-ups that are as good/better than the first are The Godfather Part II, Aliens, Lethal Weapon 2, Spider-Man 2, Batman Returns, etc. Then there are the ones that are notoriously inferior – Exorcist II, Howling II, Speed 2…the ones that often frequent Worst Films Ever lists. Then there’s the examples that occupy the middle ground like Ghostbusters II, which, despite making plenty of money back in 1989, is rarely regarded in the same light as its predecessor. It’s not that it’s hated, but it does seem that many were somewhat disappointed with it at the time. It was a long time coming, I suppose – five years in fact, during which time the original had become a commercial behemoth, spawned a rather splendid animated spin-off, a load of toys, and so on. More than enough time for it to have firmly set its stall in the hearts of cinema and home video audiences forever.
Peter Venkman: You know, I have met some dumb blondes in my life, but you take the taco, pal! Only a *Carpathian* would come back to life now and choose New York! Tasty pick, bonehead! If you had brain one in that huge melon on top of your neck, you would be living the sweet life out in Southern California’s beautiful San Fernando Valley!
By the time its sequel had arrived in the UK around Christmas 1989 (a whopping four months after its US summer release) I was incredibly psyched to see it and willingly embraced the hype. I particularly remember the tie-in meals that were released by Wimpy at the time, including the infamous and bizarre ‘Ghost in a Can’, which emitted a ‘spooky’ vapour when opened (I could never spot it). Unfortunately for some, the wait wasn’t worth it. The problems? Not as funny. Not as scary. Sloppy seconds. Underwhelming. “Too much slime and not enough us.” That last criticism came from Bill Murray.
How did I feel? Well, I loved Ghostbusters II then and I still love it now. No, it’s not the original. To be fair, nothing is. And yet there are few films like Ghostbusters II either. In the big bad world of follow-ups, few sequels bring the old team back together with such easy-going, effortlessly hilarious and cute charm as this one. Like the first film, this is not greatly concerned with character development or narrative arcs (though there is a plot – I mean, this isn’t Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment) – it’s a ride, a spooky, lovable, funny ride, full of wonderful gags, still-terrific effects and killer cast chemistry. Seeing Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis back together under the direction of Ivan Reitman is such a joy, and yes, while it would have been nice if Ernie Hudson had been allowed to get more involved, for the most part this is a great big hug of a movie – warm, friendly and always guaranteed to cheer me up.
So, where are we five years later?
Well, to put it politely, the Ghostbusters are about as popular as rug burn: Ray and Winston have sunk to the level of guest appearances at children’s parties, Egon’s committed to behavioural science studies and Peter is the host of a paranormal chat show called World of the Psychic. It turns out the City sued the Ghostbusters for mass damages following the climactic events of the first film, and the general gist is that the guys were ‘full of crap’. To be fair, this is a bit hard to swallow. To paraphrase Sigourney Weaver in another 80s sequel, did IQs just drop sharply while we were away? Anyway, the fickle public will soon enough declare their love for our favourite foursome once again when an all-new ghost epidemic raises its slimy head. It turns out the people’s general miserableness and bad vibes are literally coming alive in the form a pinkish ooze that’s emerging from underground. It’s already caused havoc by taking over the controls of a baby’s carriage, almost causing it to get knocked down by oncoming traffic. The baby is Oscar, and his mother is Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) who’s understandably freaked out by what she’s seen. So who’s she gonna call?
Investigations into the paranormal goings-on lead the Ghostbusters (sans Winston, for reasons unexplained) to pose as construction workers and dig a hole right in the middle of the city, underneath which there’s a whole river of the pink stuff travelling down an old abandoned subway route. A mishap results in the the city’s electricity being cut and the guys end up in court. The slime’s there as evidence, but no one’s buying the truth, not until the borderline unstable judge and his increasingly vicious temper results in the slime erupting in front of everyone and unleashing a pair of ghosts into the courtroom. Now who’s he gonna call? From there on in, the Ghostbusters are back in business. However, it’s not just slime everybody needs to worry about. Unlike the first film, where a specific head nemesis wasn’t really personified until the end, Ghostbusters II has a clear villain right near the start. I’m talking about ancient warlord Vigo the Carpathian, the Scourge of Carpathia, the Sorrow of Moldovia, etc… currently trapped in his own portrait on display in the local museum but who wants to live again in the real world. To assist him he possesses museum curator Janosz in order to kidnap little Oscar so that he can take over his body…
Now there are obvious similarities to the first film. Once again we get a montage of the guys in action, another montage later on of hell breaking loose, a gigantic figure walking the streets of New York, the guys once again being incarcerated (this time, unbelievably, in a mental institution), a possession, a Barratt in danger, etc., but that’s all fine because we also get what makes a great sequel great: new stuff. Okay, Kurt Fuller’s slimy mayoral aide Hardemeyer may not be as iconic as WIlliam Atherton’s Walter Peck, but he’s still a (dis)agreeably oily pest. Harris Yulin is hilarious as the unhinged judge who would love nothing more than to see the Ghostbusters ‘burned at the stake’ – his gruff outbursts are a highlight.
However, of all of Ghostbusters II‘s new elements, it’s Peter MacNicol’s Janosz that’s the film’s freshest success. Okay, the decision to make the character a weirdo from an undisclosed foreign country as a villain is a cheap gag, especially since MacNicol is American – it was years before I sussed out he was the same guy from Dragonslayer!), but as a comic creation, Janosz is brilliant and MacNicol manages to be hopeless, clueless, hilarious and eventually pretty damn sinister. Yes, some of the amusement comes from his comedy accent and broken English, and for that I plead guilty for finding all of that funny. We also get some long overdue romance for Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully (now the Ghostbusters’ lawyer – eeek) and Annie Potts’ Janine Melnitz, who seem to have overcome their respective crushes for Dana and Egon and end up spending much of the film’s second half all over each other. The green ghost from the original is back too, and this time he has a name, having been blessed with the Slimer moniker in the interim animated series. He’s still not much of a presence in the sequel, and the antagonism between it and Peter, whilst providing some regular amusement in the series, is wisely ignored here.
Egon: I’d like to run some gynecological tests on the mother.
Peter Venkman: Who wouldn’t?
Still, despite the film avoiding the anodyne pre-school demographic that the once-excellent cartoon would dive headfirst into around this time, it’s still a significantly cuter, ever-so-slightly blander affair than the original. Randy Edelman’s score, whilst hitting all the right notes and delivering more than a few cracking cues, is not on the same level as Elmer Bernstein’s terrific original music. Even the general look of the film feels cosier and brighter than the original. A good indicator of just how soft this sequel can be is when Egon, Ray and Winston emerge from the river of slime, intoxicated with its negative energy, and descending into the least heated, wimpiest argument in cinema history. Of course, the major new factor that contributes to this sequel’s ‘awwwwwww’ factor is little Oscar. Once you get a baby involved, things will get significantly nicer, unless you happen to be watching It’s Alive. Even Peter (not the father, by the way) overcomes his relentless sarcasm and turns out to be a bit of a softy. He also has a moment of self-analysis in front of Dana where he bemoans his inability to cope for himself. Blimey, where’s the old Peter?
Don’t worry, he’s still here, it’s just that he’s called Egon this time. It’s true, just look at the evidence. Be it his dirty jokes about women only being interested in his ‘epididymis’ (look it up), his mean social experiments (luckily, we never see how the child under surveillance reacts once that puppy’s been taken away) and even going so far to recommend a gynaecological examination of Dana! Blimey, all of that makes him sound awful, but he’s not really. This is Ghostbusters II, where even the cruder gags are delivered with a sly wink and end up feeling strangely innocuous – yes, even the clearly troubled guest on World of the Psychic who claims to have met an alien at a hotel but was more likely drugged. PG films back then, eh?
Just like the first film, there are some good scares to traumatise the wee ones. Probably the most famous is when a possessed Janosz snatches Oscar from the ledge of Dana’s apartment block, dressed up as a nanny and sporting glowing red eyes for good measure. There’s also the bit when Dana’s bath fills up with slime and then tries to ‘eat Oscar’. Poor kid, he does have a rough time in this film. The painting of Vigo himself is a pretty spooky, striking creation. There are some neat trick effects here, such as its bulging forehead as Janosz has his back to it, or the wink he gives Dana. There’s also an encounter with some severed heads on pikes in the subway and a spooky scene when Janosz tries to talk his way into Dana’s apartment to see Oscar. The bizarrely lit hallway in this scene always struck me as being unusual. It’s bathed in primary red just like an Argento film, and the thing is, the corridor to the toilets in our local cinema (where I watched this film) was also lit this way. so this scene particularly unnerved me because I would always worry about bumping into a torch-eyed Janosz on the way to the loo! Interestingly, there was also a scene that was cut from the final print where Ray becomes possessed by Vigo and drives like a hellcat through the city streets. The scene did make it into to the comic book adaptation, but it would have been nice to have had this scene in the film, and it would have made the later moment when Ray is possessed (again) during the final confrontation an effective callback.
As for the inevitable big ending, well the climax to the first film was and is a truly fantastic, apocalyptic showdown. How could the second one match it? I’ll give the writers this: sliming the Statue of Liberty into life is an absolutely crazy, crazy idea, and the craziest thing about it is that it actually works! For starters the effects on it are amazing – the shots of it trundling down the streets on the way to the museum are spectacular, I never doubt its presence. The actual showdown between the guys and Vigo is a teensy bit anti-climactic. Once everybody’s least favourite Carpathian steps out of the painting, he doesn’t get to do an awful lot. Never mind, it’s still an entertaining ending, and remarkable in that Good manages to triumph over Evil thanks to a big ol’ hunk of positivity and a good old fashioned sing-a-long. Beat that, Rambo.
Ray: You think there’s a connection between this Vigo character and the… slime?
Egon: Is the atomic weight of cobalt 58.9?
Adding to the good-time vibe is the splendidly fun soundtrack, with its biggest hit being Bobby Brown’s ‘On Our Own’, which is just one of those songs that always brings a smile to my face. It’s just so bouncy and delightful, as is Brown’s ‘We’re Back’, one of a few songs played out over the end credits. Brown himself appears in the film as a bellboy who tries blag a proton pack from the Ghostbusters, only to be informed that it is ‘not a toy’. Fair point. Run D-M-C give the original Ghostbusters theme a hip-hop overhaul, and of course there’s Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher and Higher’, the unofficial anthem to dancing toasters and walking statues everywhere.
Ultimately, fun is what Ghostbusters II is all about. Despite later reservations from some cast and crew about the final product, it has a natural, effervescent charm that sparkles effortlessly, and is just about the polar opposite of the rather forced ‘good time’ vibe of the not-bad-at-all but ultimately magic-free 2016 Ghostbusters movie, wherein the regular insistence on ‘awesome’-ness felt like it was trying too hard to convince us to have a good time, a bit like Louis hosting his ‘clients, not friends’ party in the first film. Ghostbusters II didn’t need to try so hard. It had already earned the right to chill out and play around thanks to the hard work of the first film and the results speak for themselves.
Okay, that’s me done, so I’ll leave you with this message….. [puts fingers to temple and transmits message to dear readers, just like Peter in World of the Psychic].