In many circles, there has been plenty of talk surrounding the Ghostbusters franchise in recent years. Amid all the fuss over the rebooted franchise, as well as the anticipation for the next movie, it’s quite easy to overlook Ghostbusters II.
The fact that Ghostbusters II isn’t being celebrated in anything like as extensive or affectionate a fashion as its predecessor is reflective of the poor reputation it has among fans of the first film, and indeed the wider film-going public at large. Sequels to a genre classic not being as good – and hence as beloved – as the original is of course not exactly uncommon; but whereas the likes of Back To The Future Part II and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom tend to be discussed in terms of “Well, it’s not as good as the first one, but it’s still a damned good film,” Ghostbusters II seems to be widely thought of as just a bad film in its own right.
Is this perception entirely fair, though? While it doesn’t live up to a peerless original – although there are actually plenty of folk who would happily admit to having enjoyed it more – that doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge amount to like about it. It’s still a Ghostbusters movie, still made by the same people who did the first, and it shares many of the first film’s better attributes to a greater extent than it’s usually given credit for. It also, for a variety of reasons, manages to strike out on its own as being something a bit different.
At the time, the fact that it took five years to get the sequel made may have seemed like something that worked against it – losing the momentum created by the original in the first place – but it actually manages to give Ghostbusters II some of its freshest angles. First and foremost, there’s the opportunity to explore what happens several years after the gang have lost relevance. Given that it’s only their second outing, it’s pretty bold to open with the team essentially disbanded – and discredited – skulking back to various jobs, with only Ray and Winston trying to keep the “brand” alive with their thankless visits to kids’ birthday parties.
(Incidentally, if you’ve never spotted it before, look out next time you watch the party scene: the kid who confronts Ray, saying that “[his] dad says you guys are full of crap” is none other than director Ivan Reitman’s son, and future Juno, Up In The Air, and yes, Ghostbusters 3 director, Jason. The same Jason Reitman who Arnie catches up to little good in Kindergarten Cop)
These early scenes also offer an immediate indication that one of the most common criticisms aimed at the film – that it simply isn’t very funny – is way off the mark. There’s almost as much in the way of brilliant Peter Venkman/Bill Murray material in the sequel as in the first film – with much of it feeling like Murray’s playing it off the cuff – and nowhere is this more in evidence than in his low-rent TV show, World Of The Psychic. Indeed, it’s only a shame that the gang get back together so quickly that we don’t get much more of this sort of thing.
When they do regroup, however, it’s the cue for a set piece that’s easily the match of anything in the first film: the courtroom-based haunting and capture that marks the Ghostbusters’ return to action (and to legally-sanctioned business). This scene has the two killer elements that make Ghostbusters what it is: it’s a rip-roaring action sequence, and it’s relentlessly funny. And no member of the cast gets a better individual moment, in either film, than the late, great, Harold Ramis’ smirk after the “Do… Ray… Egon!” gag.
Aside from giving a fresh angle to the plot, there’s another significance to the timing of Ghostbusters II’s release (and not just the fact that it came out a week before, and so despite an actually very good initial box office take was hugely overshadowed by, Batman). The cartoon The Real Ghostbusters had debuted in 1986, but by ’89 was at its peak of popularity, – and so too were the associated toy lines.
The year Ghostbusters II came out, we were all running around with our own proton packs (whether we’d bought the official Kenner one, or just made one ourselves out of cardboard boxes and parts of old vacuum cleaners), and so the film was perfectly placed to capitalise on that. The fact that so many people of my generation are just starting to get a bit louder about rebuilding the film’s reputation is perhaps reflective of the fact that many of us have a nostalgia for it based on watching it on video far, far more often than the first film.
Maybe the attempt to appeal a bit more to kids was deliberate, and maybe that’s why (the odd gag aside – I can’t believe “I’d like to run some gynecological tests on the mother” “Who wouldn’t?” slipped through) most of the edges have been softened. Whenever that incredibly schmaltzy piano cue strikes up on the soundtrack, it’s an indicator that we’re going more towards “family comedy” territory – but it’s not as if the film does that especially badly.
It’s ironic that Murray has complained in retrospective interviews about getting fewer scenes in the film at the expense of special effects – the opposite, in fact, is true. The storyline of Peter and Dana’s relationship, and his move towards becoming a more responsible adult and father figure, is far more integral to the film than anything he got in the first, and it’s actually played pretty deftly. It doesn’t completely dull his comic instincts, it just nudges them in a different direction.
And while some of the comedy is a bit softer, Ghostbusters II actually goes more towards out-and-out horror on occasion. If the first film had that one genuine scare moment in the library, the second outdoes it with several instances of gruesome imagery – most notably the heads on spikes in the subway tunnel (a scene most people forget is there until it jumps out at them again), the transformation of Vigo in the later stages, the slime-powered bathtub, Janosz as an evil ghostly nanny, and so on. And while it could be criticized for relying a bit too heavily on visual effects in general, it’s hard to deny just how much more impressive they are than the first film’s.
It also, arguably, has a better plot than the first. No, seriously. Much of the criticism aimed at Ghostbusters II’s plot centers on the Statue of Liberty set-piece in the final act – which, yes, is basically just a retread of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man sequence, clearly born out of “How can we do this again but with something even more mental?” But overall, there’s just more going on than in the first film.
The original has a lot of fun setting up the concept of the Ghostbusters, but the Gozer plot itself is actually pretty flimsy; here, you’ve got the River of Slime and the Vigo painting set up as two apparently distinct plot elements before being gradually drawn together. And sure, Vigo’s ‘80s-tastic flaxen-hair-and-shoulder-pads look doesn’t have the iconic visual resonance of Slavitza Jovan’s Gozer, but at least we get to find out a bit more about him and what he actually hopes to achieve.
The supporting cast, too, are given more of a chance to shine. Okay, so actually letting Rick Moranis tool up with a proton pack is maybe pushing it a bit, but Louis is still frequently hilarious – especially in the aforementioned courtroom scene – and it’s only a shame that a scene featuring the great Eugene Levy as his dad was ultimately cut. Peter MacNicol, too, has a lot of fun (and several of the best lines in that unfathomable, supposedly “Polish” accent) with what could have been a thankless part. That said, Kurt Fuller’s fussy mayor’s aide is something of a poor man’s Walter Peck (and even a weaker version of a character Fuller would play better in Wayne’s World a couple of years later), and just like the first film, Winston is sidelined pretty appallingly. But in general, there’s good comic material spread around much more fairly this time, rather than it basically all channelling through Murray.
It’s fair to say that Ghostbusters II is never going to be considered a true genre classic in the way the first film is. But if it were the only Ghostbusters film, I think it’d have a much better reputation. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s about good characters played by excellent comic actors, and it’s got a solid story that hangs together well. And “On Our Own” was a pretty great single, too. It’s got just about every ingredient to be a great film of its type – and if it’s true that it perhaps settles for “more of the same” rather than reaching for something a bit more bold, to say that it doesn’t do anything new at all is fairly wide of the mark.
If you’re someone who’s always just thought of it as a shoddy sequel that gives the franchise a bad name… give it another short.
“Kitten, I think what I’m saying is that sometimes, shit happens, somebody’s gotta deal with it… and who ya gonna call?”