Back in 1984, you wouldn’t find many adults watching a family film without their families. But that was before a bunch of late-night comedians crossed the demographic streams and accidentally made the Friday night/Sunday teatime movie by which all others are judged. Thirty years on from its record-bustin’ box-office reign, if Ghostbusters has taught Hollywood anything, it’s that you can’t make a kids’ movie without breaking a few rules.
Not that it started off as a kids’ movie at all. Now celebrating another milestone birthday with another Blu-ray release – this time re-remastered for 4K sets and re-repackaged with even more special features – it’s hard to remember the film’s grungy roots in Saturday Night Live. Crash-written by Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and director Ivan Reitman in just two weeks, mostly as a vehicle for John Belushi, the whole thing was pitched for $25m as a slacker comedy in the vein of Caddyshack and Stripes – a bunch of university-dropouts whose made-up day job turns into real work when ghosts start terrorising New York.
When Belushi overdosed on cocaine in 1982, Aykroyd’s pet project hit the first roadblock in a notoriously tough shoestring shoot. First he needed a new lead – dragging a drunk, uncooperative Bill Murray through an airport (blasting an air horn at everyone he met) a few days before filming. With most of the workshops in Hollywood busy with Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Return Of The Jedi, Reitman had to call in Richard Edlund’s start-up FX studio to hand-make all the set-pieces on a ridiculous deadline. The creatures looked like Morph, half the script had to be cut, nine Stay Puft suits went up in flames and, according to Edlund, “the prints were still warm when they went onto the projectors” in June 1984.
Somehow, it worked. With Aykroyd, Murray, Ramis and Reitman all at the top of their game, the years of sketch-show improv paid off as they flew by the seat of their jumpsuits and cobbled together a smart, sarcastic fantasy that was funnier than anything any of them had done before – and a benchmark for a good deal of what they would do after.
Five years later – still riding high on a wave of cartoons, action figures and crowds still singing Ray Parker Jr.’s anthemic title song – they went back to the well, with mixed results. Interviewed a few weeks before the sequel started filming, a miserable Murray was as enthusiastic as ever about the film’s chances. “We’ll burn in hell if we call it Ghostbusters II,” he spat. “The ideas they sold me on are no longer in the script. What the hell, even if it’s a dog, it’s still going to make money…”
He was right. It did make money ($215m to the first film’s $291m) and it was a dog – critically, at least. Offering more of what the kids wanted (slime, Slimer, proper special effects) and less of the late-night charm that appealed to older SNL fans, Ghostbusters II has always been the younger brother that’s trying too hard to please. If it’d had the smarts of, say, 22 Jump Street, it might have cracked wise about how much it tried to rehash its predecessor’s script – but lacking a sense of self-awareness, it comes over as clinging to formula, a walk on the safe side.
No wonder Murray thought it didn’t feel true to the series’ original spirit, which was nothing if not irreverent. Still, it’s nowhere near as bad as you might remember/have been told. To start off, it has a great premise, picking up with the ’busters five years later as two-bit party clowns while the collective bad temper of late ’80s New York turns into a river of pure evil in the sewers. It has a much better bad guy (Vigo the Carpathian, a 16th-Century despot menacingly played by Wilhem von Homburg, also known as the blonde henchman from Die Hard), a better foil (Peter MacNicol’s museum creep) and much better roles for Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis and Annie Potts, building successfully on their appearances in the original, rather than just wheeling them back out again as bit-players.
What’s more, it arguably hides some of the funniest lines in the franchise, with Murray (despite really not wanting to be there) at his deadpan best (“You’re short, your bellybutton sticks out too far and you’re a terrible burden on your poor mother,” he says to a baby under threat of supernatural possession.) Perhaps better appreciated away from any direct comparison to the original, Ghostbusters II deserves a second look – it’s just a shame that most of its strongest ideas were used five years earlier by one of the best comedies of its time. Unfairly ignored for years, Ghosbusters II finally goes hi-def for its big brother’s 30th, with long-lost deleted scenes plugging a few narrative leaks that sprung up during the original cut.
With Ramis’ sad passing in February putting an end to rumours of another full-blown reunion, Ghostbusters III is still, apparently, in the works (with Bridesmaids’ Paul Feig helming an all-female reboot?). If there’s any lesson for the screenwriters to take from this bumper anniversary party, it’s that lightning only strikes twice when you’re not trying so hard to get hit.
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