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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
In June of 1984 Columbia Pictures released Ghostbusters into theaters, where it became one of the highest grossing films of all time and a beloved 1980s classic. The incredibly talented main cast, including Bill Murray (one of the most beloved actors of all time), Dan Akroyd, Sigourney Weaver (who served as a sort-of Sci Fi queen in the 80s), and Harold Ramis, combined with highly successful director Ivan Reitman to form a zeitgeist seen only a few times per decade at most. The film spawned a hit soundtrack, a glut of merchandising, several tie-in videogames, a long-running cartoon adaptation, and a film sequel, released a half-decade later in 1989.
Though Ghostbusters appeared to be several geniuses coming together to form a super film (and indeed kind of was), the truth is that there were rivalries, arguing, and creative control issues behind the film. Bill Murray was arguably the biggest comedic actor in 1984 (perhaps tied with Eddie Murphy), and famously feuded with Harold Ramis, who co-wrote Ghostbusters with Akroyd (himself another legendary control freak). With Reitman, a rising Hollywood studio director, at the helm, a world-famous actor in Murray on the set, and the creative input of Ramis and Akroyd (who co-starred in addition to writing the thing), three separate creative forces came together in service of the film.
In the years since Ghostbusters made the approximate gross domestic product of a small country, the fortunes of its primary creative team waned somewhat. Bill Murray took a self-imposed exile from big-budget films. After Ghostbusters, Murray wouldn’t star in a commercial studio release again until 1988’s Scrooged. Even today Murray tends to shun highly visible commercial roles, opting to appear in smaller fare by filmmakers like Wes Anderson. Reitman would go on to direct Legal Eagles, one of the most expensive films ever made at that point in time. The film was not a box office success and generated poor reviews from critics. Akroyd found some measure of success as he wrote and starred in middling box office hits like Dragnet and Spies Like Us, but none of these had the lasting culture cache of Ghostbusters. Lastly, Ramis’ lone notable credit was as a part of Baby Boom, a Diane Keaton vehicle released in 1987.
So when Columbia came calling about a sequel, the creative team behind Ghostbusters likely should have been ecstatic. The opportunity to go back to the well and milk it for another huge Hollywood success sounds like it would have been awfully appealing. But when Ghostbusters II was released in June of 1989 (just one week before Tim Burton’s Batman, which became a cultural zeitgeist of its own), reviews were negative and audiences responded with a resounding shrug. Roger Ebert, on his nationally broadcast television show with Gene Siskel, noted that he saw it in a packed theater, and only one person laughed during the entire running time of the film. Though it opened with what was at the time a record-breaking weekend, the film ultimately wound up with only 112 million in the United States, or way less than half of what the original grossed five summers earlier.
Perhaps the most angering aspect of Ghostbusters II is just how bad its screenplay is. Presented with an opportunity to knock fans out of their box theater seats, Ramis and Akroyd instead give us pink slime, Peter MacNicol, and an animatronic Statue of Liberty. The film lampoons the nasty, sarcastic nature that is the stereotype of the average New Yorker, playing it lamely into the plot of the film. MacNichol plays Janosz, an effeminate museum worker and art restorer (and also Weaver’s coworker) possessed by the painting of Vigo the Carpathian, an awesomely terrifying portrait that has stood as one of the few positive things about the movie. Vigo, an evil 17th century magician, plans to use the negative energy of New Yorkers to fuel his evil pink slime so that he can possess Peter MacNichol and transfer his own conscience into Sigourney Weaver’s baby and thus be resurrected into the 20th century where I guess he can continue his sorcery and evil.
The main problem with Ghostbusters II was that it largely re-tread the areas the first film explored, which lead to incredibly diminishing returns. The film also seemed to lose a lot of the bite and edge so apparent in the first product, as it had a much more family-friendly feeling behind it (the film also spawned an absolute ton of tie-in merchandise and toys and the marketing behind it was understandably inescapable). Opening at a children’s birthday party with the embarrassed-looking main cast a flop as entertainers probably wasn’t a wise decision. The addition of a baby to the cast (adding a kid is almost always a deal-breaker) was another bad idea. It was almost like the five years between the films had softened the creative team considerably, as the crass, blue-collar feeling of the first film led to the family-friendly aspirations of the second.
Still hungry for fame, critical attention, and mainstream acceptance upon making the first one, Akroyd, Ramis, and Reitman just looked like paunchy old men by the time the sequel arrived. Even side characters like Rick Moranis’ nerdy Louis Tully and Annie Potts’ funny secretary Janine Melnitz feel shoe-horned in, as if the filmmakers included them only because the audience expected them to return. Only Murray and Weaver escape embarrassment, as the two seem literally too cool for this shit at several moments in the movie. Murray’s long-standing feud with Ramis probably compelled him to just do whatever he wanted in the movie, lending a sort of cavalier, laissez faire feeling to his role (at one point in the film he actually distances himself from the actions of his supposed friends). Weaver is just too awesome to look bad in any movie she’s ever been in.
The film just isn’t very good, top to bottom. There are noticeable groan-worthy one liners, accented bad guys, a kid-friendly atmosphere, and a ton of bullshit about New Yorkers coming together in peace and harmony to the tune of (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher (ugh!). In many ways Ghostbusters II was a victim of its original incarnation’s massive success. There was absolutely no way that a sequel film would have ever lived up to the mammoth hype the first experienced. A cultural zeitgeist only happens so often. Still, I can’t help but feel that the creative forces behind the film are also heavily to blame. Was this the best that Ramis, Akroyd, and Reitman could do? The best moments in the film are the ones that feel closer in spirit to the original film (the courtroom scene remains a highlight to me), but so much of Ghostbusters II is an unexplainable mess. I can’t imagine why anyone out there is still clamoring for a third film in the franchise. The horse died almost 25 years ago. Let it rest in peace.