Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Revisiting Old Haunts: A Paranormal Investigation of “Ghostbusters II”

Given that this summer marks the thirtieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries, respectively, of Ghostbusters (enjoying a limited theatrical rerelease this week) and Ghostbusters II, I recently took an opportunity—the first since screenwriting on a professional basis—to re-watch them.  This can be something of a perilous exercise—bringing my experienced analytical eye to a movie that carries such personal nostalgic weight for me—but I almost always walk away with an enhanced appreciation for the film in question, be it a newfound recognition of its merits or clearer grasp of its shortcomings.

Much has been written about Ghostbusters; much less about Ghostbusters II.  In the years since its release, the latter has come to be considered the bastard, redheaded stepchild of the franchise, which includes the highly regarded animated series The Real Ghostbusters (1986–1991).  When discussing Ghostbusters, the sequel typically merits an obligatory, passing mention, though often with a discernible tenor of embarrassment; even series director Ivan Reitman offered this vague and somewhat apologetic assessment of the follow-up in a recent retrospective published by Vanity Fair:  “It didn’t all come together.  We just sort of got off on the wrong foot story-wise on that film.”

Other appraisals of Ghostbusters II are equally nonspecific.  Other than a general consensus that “it wasn’t as good as the original,” I’ve been hard-pressed to find a critique that adequately identifies why, as Vanity Fair notes, it “failed to generate the passionate enthusiasm spurred by the first film.”

 

“WE’RE THE BEST, WE’RE THE BEAUTIFUL, WE’RE THE ONLY… GHOSTBUSTERS—WE’RE BACK!”

Fan apathy is especially perplexing since, upon renewed viewing of the picture, the screenwriter in me came away impressed by all the things it got right.  The chemistry amongst the talented cast hadn’t waned in the least five years on.  Screenwriters Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd conceived a believable low point at which to start the Ghostbusters in their second installment (a direct consequence of the climactic events of the first film), effectively recapturing the joy of watching our hero underdogs launch their unlikely business essentially from scratch again.  New obstacles in the romance between Venkman (Bill Murray) and Dana (Sigourney Weaver) are credibly established, fertilizing a more emotionally complex and—for my money—more fulfilling love story this time around; most sequels struggle with incorporating new character arcs for returning protagonists (a pitfall David Freeman calls “sequelitis”), but Ghostbusters II handled the matter expertly.  And whereas the first film had its share of one-liners, it was, overall, more situationally funny; the sequel, on the other hand, is full of hilarious, character-specific dialogue exchanges like this one:

RAY (apprehensively):  You think there’s a connection between this Vigo character and the… slime?

EGON:  Is the atomic weight of cobalt 58.9?

Some have accused II of being “sillier” than the original, but I think marching the Statue of Liberty up Fifth Avenue is an uproarious (and almost inexplicably uplifting) sight—and perfectly tonally consistent with the original movie, which had the boys in a battle royal against a “hundred-foot marshmallow man” on Central Park West.  Ghostbusters II doesn’t betray or shame the spirit of its forerunner in any way.  It didn’t necessarily build upon the mythology of the first film; it’s no Aliens—few sequels are—but it’s certainly no Beverly Hills Cop III, either.  It’s hard for me to imagine why there isn’t more love for the Ghostbusters’ encore outing.

 

“FOR A MOMENT, PRETEND THAT I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT METALLURGY, ENGINEERING, OR PHYSICS, AND JUST TELL ME WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON”

The movie is marred, admittedly, by a structural imperfection that only upon recent viewing became apparent to me.  I can’t say whether this is the silver bullet—the flaw that has unconsciously nagged at viewers for a quarter-century—but here goes:  The plot of Ghostbusters II lacks the causational elegance of its predecessor.  And there’s a specific reason for this:  It violates a principle that Blake Snyder termed Double Mumbo Jumbo.

The essence of DMJ is this:  An audience will accept one “act of magic” only.  “You cannot have aliens land and then be bitten by vampires and become both alien and undead,” Snyder propounds.  Aliens and vampires are two unrelated instances of “magic,” and to ask an audience to believe both coexist independently in the same fictional universe is to strain its so-called willingness to suspend disbelief.  It’s the reason why Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason sound cool conceptually, but never quite cohere in execution (well, that and over-franchising).

Take Groundhog Day.  Imagine, at some point during the story’s second-act time loop, E.T. had landed in Punxsutawney for a close encounter with protagonist Phil Connors (Bill Murray).  That would’ve thrown you completely out of the movie—it would’ve felt wrong, even if you couldn’t put your finger on whyThat’s Double Mumbo Jumbo.

It gets violated all the time by talented filmmakers who should know better.  Looper is set in a futuristic world in which time travel is possible and a percentage of the population has developed telekinetic powers—two totally unrelated bits of magic.  Pacific Rim asks us to believe that gargantuan otherworldly creatures invade Earth by way of a dimensional portal on the seafloor.  Okay—I’ll go with that.  To combat this threat, humanity constructed robots the size of skyscrapers that require—oh, boy, let me see if I have this straighttwo pilots apiece whose brains must been linked via some neural interface so as to not overload the mind of either operat—

Oh, forget it—too complicated.  Interdimensional monsters and giant robots with mind-numbingly convoluted operational technology are two separate “buy-ins.”  I’m willing to grant you one, but not both.

Let’s look again at our speculative Groundhog Day scenario whereby E.T. makes an appearance:  If the time loop is a direct result—intentional or otherwise—of the alien presence, as is the case in Edge of Tomorrow, then the DMJ principle has not been contravened, because the temporal repetition is a consequential permutation of the extraterrestrial intervention.  Translation:  It’s a case of one act of magic with ensuing consequences—not two separate magical occurrences.  The many instances of magic in Harry Potter—and there are a lot—are all attributable to a single source:  the conceit of the “wizarding world”—a secret society in which magic (in all of its many iterations as defined by author J. K. Rowling) is taught and practiced outside the purview of the rest of us ordinary Muggles.  Because the parameters of this wizarding world allow for the coexistence of such varied hocus-pocus as magic wands and invisibility cloaks and lycanthropy, Double Mumbo Jumbo does not apply.  (If aliens invaded Hogwarts, however, the narrative might grow, shall we say, unwieldy.)

 

“WE’RE READY TO BELIEVE YOU”… JUST PLEASE KEEP IT SIMPLE

The plot of Ghostbusters II is missing that grounding component of any good fantasy—logical causality—because it breaches DMJ.  On the one hand, a river of slime has materialized in the abandoned pneumatic subway tunnels beneath Manhattan as a physical manifestation of all the hostility and bad will being generated by the irascible New York masses on the streets above; meanwhile, at the Museum of Art uptown, the spirit of Vigo the Carpathian, a seventeenth-century despot—imprisoned in a portrait that’s recently been pulled from storage for restoration—has his sights set on Dana’s infant son as the vessel through which he might return to corporeal form.  These two distinct supernatural occurrences have nothing to do with one another.  Now, a token attempt is made by the screenwriters to link them (see the dialogue citation above), but the correlation—or lack thereof—is papered over with a joke, not addressed with an explanation.  Because there is no explanation, other than unfocused screenwriting (with all due respect to the genius of Ramis and Aykroyd).

Now consider the causational machinations of the original Ghostbusters:  Dana’s Art Deco apartment building on Central Park West had been expressly designed by a misanthropic architect after the First World War as a gateway through which Gozer the Gozerian, the god of destruction, would enter our world and bring about its untimely end.  The proliferation of paranormal activity in New York—the very thing that incites the Ghostbusters to open up shop in the first place!—is later deemed to have been a harbinger of Gozer’s arrival.  So, all the spectral activity that occurs in the movie, including the demonic possession of Dana in her own haunted penthouse, stems from the same magical source—the dimensional portal on Central Park West—allowing the seemingly random events of the plot to converge and pay off with tremendously satisfying results at the rooftop climax.

Contrast that with the third act of II, in which the museum is inexplicably coated in an impregnable ectoplasmic shell (if Vigo the Carpathian can control the subway slime, it’s never definitively established, so what gives?), and Vigo somehow prematurely emerges from the painting to do battle with the Ghostbusters (wasn’t the point that he couldn’t enter our world without a human host body to possess, hence the reason he went to such trouble to acquire Dana’s baby?).  The supernatural rules of the second film are muddled because the two pieces of magic that drive the plot are unrelated.

And since the rules are cloudy, the central conflict can’t possibly be brought to a fully satisfying, surprising-yet-inevitable conclusion.  At the finale of just about any story, the heroes charge into danger with renewed resolve—and a “foolproof” stratagem for success (in a beat Snyder calls “Executing the Plan”)—only to see said scheme unexpectedly foiled (“The High Tower Surprise”), thereby compelling a moment of inspiration or bravery or both (“Dig, Deep Down”), and prompting “The Execution of a New Plan.”  So, in Ghostbusters, this sequence plays out as follows:

  • “Executing the Plan”:  The Ghostbusters face Gozer and use their reliable tools of the trade to attack…
  • “The High Tower Surprise”:  Their “ghost-catching” weapons are ineffective against a god!
  • “Dig, Deep Down”:  The only way to close the dimensional portal is to “cross the streams” from their particle throwers—a last-resort measure that carries world-ending risk (a seemingly insignificant detail that had been skillfully foreshadowed by writers Aykroyd and Ramis during the team’s first ghostbusting gig at the Sedgewick Hotel)…
  • “The Execution of a New Plan”:  With no small degree of apprehension, they cross the streams and succeed in closing the gateway.

At no point is the audience confused about the logic and stakes of the action; the same can’t be said for the finale of Ghostbusters II:  Because the story never sufficiently makes clear what Vigo and the slime have to do with one another, the climax skates by on goodwill over internal logic.  And, to be sure, there is enough goodwill in II to compel the audience to just “go with it” and enjoy.  The film’s screenplay has a great many assets—it succeeds as a sequel where others have failed—but it is saddled with an unfortunate case of Double Mumbo Jumbo that undermines the logical consistency of the story, rendering the experience perfectly enjoyable if not fully satisfying.

Is that what Ghostbusters fans take issue with?  I don’t know.  It could be a host of reasons—first and foremost that a sequel can never deliver on the one thing we want most from it:  a precise emotional encore of the earlier experience.  It’s part of the reason I won’t mind if the long-gestating Ghostbusters III never gets made (though I’m certain the brand will be exploited again sooner than later):  The original films were of their time—not entirely flawless in execution but just perfect in memory.

4 Comments

  1. That was a thoroughly fascinating assessment and I take my hat off to you for it. I am a huge Ghostbusters fan and at the risk of being accused of being a “blind fan” I would say I still love the sequel although I will admit it is flawed. You highlight the biggest one for me which is how Vigo leaves his painting at the end – that has always confused me.

    Now; as to your question over the connection between the slime and Vigo’s painting. As I understand it Vigo’s painting was actually powered by the slime. As the psychomagnetheric slime developed under New York City, Vigo’s spirit began feeding off it allowing him to restore a token of his power to be able to start interacting with the physical world which is the point within the movie. This could actually answer my own question in that by the time of the climax with the museum covered in pink slime he has developed enough energy to project a physical version of himself out of the painting. As you say however this is not adequately explained in dialogue and perhaps is something the more avid fan would piece together.

    The problem I really do have however is the concept of psychomagnetheric slime developing just under New York. If it is a physical manifestation of negative emotions then surely older cities like London and Paris or places like Beirut with extreme violence (compared to traffic tickets) should develop sooner.

    That’s me nitpicking however. I maintain I enjoy the two films equally as this is one of my favorite franchises. Again great work on this.

    • Tony, you’re a Ghostbusters superfan! I love it! I’m a huge fan of both movies myself: I have nothing but love for the sequel, and the impetus behind this article was to try to determine why it doesn’t get more love in general.

      So, first off: Thanks for the kind words and really thoughtful contribution to the conversation.

      Second: You make a persuasive case for a contextual connection between Vigo and the slime. I also agree that any such correlation is only implied at best, and not adequately explained through some clever exchange of dialogue (there’s no “Tell him about the Twinkie” analog in Ghostbusters II).

      Even allowing for your thought-provoking explanation, though, the plot of II still relies on an overabundance of coincidence. For example: the fact that Vigo’s portrait was pulled out of storage for restoration just as the subterranean slime flow was reaching “immense proportions” (as Ray so direly put it). Also: that Dana and Oscar were the first public “victims” of the slime (in the opening sequence), and, as fate would have it, Dana also happens to work at the museum where Vigo’s painting is under restoration. It’s just a lot of heavy coincidence, which is the antidote to elegance. In today’s post, I outline a speculative scenario whereby the slime and the villain might have had a more direct correlation.

      I also agree with your assessment re: the slime’s exclusive manifestation in New York. Contrast that with the source of spectral energy in the first film, Ivo Shandor’s skyscraper-cum-dimensional portal, which was built on Central Park West, making New York the inevitable setting of the events of the movie. That the river of slime runs under the streets of New York in II feels like yet another convenient development without sufficient narrative motivation.

      But, let me make something clear: The only reason I bother to nitpick this stuff is because I love the movie so much! The Peter/Dana romance, in particular, has much more gravitas in the second installment, because it’s so wistful: Venkman is wrestling with profound regret for having driven away the love of his life — and that anguish is exacerbated by the knowledge that Oscar could’ve been his son — and the movie really has you rooting for him to redeem his stupid mistake. It’s a richer, more mature love story this time around with deeper emotional stakes; it is one of my favorite aspects of Ghostbusters II. So many sequels — especially from that era — are all plot at the expense of genuine emotional engagement (because the character arcs got used up in the first film, as was the case with The Karate Kid), but the second Ghostbusters is so successful at pulling you in emotionally that you’re actually able to overlook some slipshod plotting. So, in that sense, it is a very useful case study in sequels for anyone attempting to craft one (and that goes for the filmmakers currently in the process of rebooting Ghostbusters).

      But, all of this goes to say that I’ll take an overambitious sequel — one whose reach exceeds its grasp — any day over some cynical, by-the-numbers corporate cash grab. Ghostbusters II, for its flaws, feels very much like it was a labor of love (I’m sure, if the execs at Columbia had had their way, there would have been sequels earlier and more often), and the fans — myself included — definitely sense that in the final product. I’d rather have a pop-cultural landscape with Ghostbusters II, warts and all, than without.

  2. I noticed something interesting about Double Mumbo Jumbo, which I hope you don’t mind me discussing here.

    The television series Babylon 5 featured FTL travel, aliens, time travel, psionics, etc,. all of which were fine. They’re background in many space sf stories, and were background in B5.

    The tie-in novel Dark Genesis: The Birth of the Psi Corps by J. Gregory Keyes is the history of psionics in the B5 ‘verse. It starts about 140 years before the TV series w/ scientists discovering verifiable proof of psychic powers, and charts the effects of psionics on society over a span of a hundred years. About halfway through humans meet the Centauri, the first aliens they’d encountered.

    Here’s my point: I felt as though the introduction of aliens was unwieldy and out of place, too much to accept, double mumbo jumbo, even though it was a part of B5’s established history and I had no problem w/ it in the original series.

    Because both psionics and aliens were new, the two did not work well together.

    Btw, I disagree about Pacific Rim. Giant monsters and giant robots have a good long history together. If there is one, I have no problem w/ there being the other, just like I have no problems w/ werewolves in a vampire story.

    • Hey, Dell! I don’t mind discussion or disagreement of any kind! The entire purpose of this blog is to debate storytelling technique, hear each other out, and learn from one another; accordingly, all viewpoints are always welcome here!

      I’m forced to confess that though I’ve heard wonderful things about it, and I recognize the impact it’s had on genre television, I’ve never actually seen Babylon 5! I was in college during the show’s heyday, and I actually didn’t watch very much TV in the mid-nineties on account of the combined commitments of my course load, my part-time jobs, and my social life. I didn’t really get back into TV until I graduated, in 1998, which was right around the time Babylon was coming to an end. And in those days, the opportunities to catch up — to “binge-watch” a series on DVD or Netflix — just didn’t exist. So B5 remains a bit of a hole in my pop-cultural erudition. That said, you’ve provided a concise case study that I at least feel I can comment on with some authority.

      Let’s just look at Star Trek for a moment, shall we? When the original series launched (pardon the pun), certain fictional parameters were established: space travel was commonplace, facilitating interaction with untold alien species. Technologies like warp drive, artificial gravity, phasers, teleportation, and cloaking devices — all still speculative as of today — had been accomplished in the intervening centuries. The reason all this “magic” works — the reason it doesn’t violate DMJ — is because it all falls under the same “umbrella,” the same source: Trek takes place in a scientifically advanced future in which all these breakthroughs have been achieved. So the “buy-in,” then, is this: Trek asks us to accept that in the next three hundred years, we will have achieved interstellar space travel and traded technological knowhow with extraterrestrial species. If you’re willing to allow for that fantastical conceit, Trek has a story to tell you…

      It sounds to me — and correct me if I’m wrong — like B5 operates on a similar premise, no? It’s set far enough in the future that we can accept light-speed space travel, aliens, time travel, and psionics. (Star Wars did the same by setting its tale in an altogether different galaxy, populated by a technologically superior civilization to our own.) So, yes: All of the speculative science and technology that B5 relies on for its storytelling stem from the same catalyzing wellspring — which is, in this case, the future. These are the parameters the storytellers have set — the rules they’ve established — and so long as they are honored consistently, there’s no chance of DMJ.

      What you’re talking about with Dark Genesis — which, to be clear, I have not read — does indeed sound, as you describe it, like a violation of DMJ: In the course of one story, Keyes introduces two unrelated acts of “magic” — telepathy and extraterrestrial life. It’s a cheat that he probably got away with because the book is a prequel, so even though it is set chronologically prior to the events of the TV series, it draws on the mythology established in the show, and therefore tries to invoke the same “grandfather clause.” But, you’re right: If a reader were coming to this book cold, without any foreknowledge of the history of the series, it would come off as a very sloppy, very confusing piece of storytelling with a nonsensical left-turn twist at the midpoint. Because a story is only allowed one “buy-in.” Clever storytellers can sometimes bundle several buy-ins under a single canopy, as Roddenberry and Lucas and J. K. Rowling and Joss Whedon did — that’s not cheating — but all the “magic” must be traceable to the same point of origin, which can either be “the future” (as was the case with Trek), a different galaxy with different rules (Star Wars), a secret “Wizarding World” with an expansive-yet-defined set of magical possibilities (Harry Potter), or a Hellmouth — an established supernatural hot spot (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

      The other option for a series that wishes to introduce new fantastical elements as it goes along is to keep them compartmentalized. This is something I discussed in my post on The Hunger Games, but I’ll reiterate it here: A subsequent installment in an ongoing series acts as a sort of “reset” button. For example: Over four films, Indiana Jones recovered unrelated magical artifacts from Jewish mythology, Hindu tradition, Christian lore, and even extraterrestrial legend, yet the series never fell victim to DMJ because the filmmakers didn’t commingle any of that varied myth, but rather kept each sequestered in its own self-contained episode. The “rules” that governed Raiders did not apply to Temple of Doom, which set its own magical parameters, and the same goes for Last Crusade and Crystal Skull.

      That’s how The X-Files was able to exploit all manner of supernatural and extraterrestrial folklore without abusing the trust of its audience: Chris Carter and his writers understood that if they had Mulder and Scully on the hunt for a werewolf, the alien mytharc had to be completely sidelined that particular week. We never got multiple species of monsters in a single episode; they investigated one — and only one — paranormal anomaly at a time. They kept it compartmentalized.

      That’s part of the reason I had such an issue with Penny Dreadful. Though it is the most gorgeously photographed and production-designed show I’ve ever seen — it was equal parts Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Coppola’s Dracula — I could never get a handle on the supernatural rules of its world. It took a kitchen-sink approach to its own mythology, commixing Dorian Gray and vampires (straight out of Stoker) and Frankenstein and clairvoyance and lycanthropy… it just went on and on. No one ever established any rules for any of this — it was all just Hey, anything goes! — so as much as I admired the show’s delicious atmospherics, I was both emotionally and intellectually disengaged from its narrative. Hence, I stopped watching in the second season. Yet I know many fans of the show who didn’t give a shit — who didn’t take umbrage with its sloppy mythopoeia — but just accepted that this was a world that allowed for all those supernatural phenomena to coexist without explanation, and so what if it was?

      Which I suppose leads me to my final point: When it comes to “buy-ins,” everyone has to decide for themselves how much they’re willing to accept. I think authors should strive to create a set of logical internal rules for their magic — set those rules and then play by them. But as a reader/viewer, we may be willing to overlook storytelling flaws of all kinds (DMJ included) if the work speaks to us in other ways that we value. Case in point: I quite like Ghostbusters II, for reasons I made clear in both this article and the follow-up piece I wrote, even though I acknowledge the shortcomings in its plotting.

      Pacific Rim is a movie I just didn’t care for at all: I thought it was a conceptually sound premise marred by major tonal issues and some really goofy performances; in short, I thought it played like a 1980s Saturday-morning cartoon writ large (and that isn’t a compliment). So, given my disenchantment with it, I wasn’t willing to disregard what I viewed as some unforgivable storytelling transgressions, including what I identify as a case of DMJ. If the technology in Pacific Rim that allowed humankind to develop the Jaegers had been a direct result of “the Breach” (the interdimensional portal through which the Kaijus emerged), then I would have been fine with that — because the same source that brought the threat into our world also allowed us to develop a countermeasure for it. But, as it stands, the Kaijus are one buy-in, and the Jaegers, with their overcomplicated operational requirements (i.e., all that bullshit about “drifting” and neural compatibility), are an altogether different fantastical conceit. If the filmmakers had found a way to make them part and parcel, that would have been one thing, but instead they’re like elements from two entirely different movies just mashed together. In my follow-up analysis of Ghostbusters II, I said the same thing: If they’d just found a way to establish a direct correlation between Vigo the Carpathian and the river of slime — which wouldn’t have been that hard, quite frankly — they could’ve had both paranormal antagonists without having committed the DMJ infraction.

      I guess the lesson to take from all of the above is this: As fans, we can afford to make allowances for flawed storytelling, but as writers, we should hold our own work to higher standards, and strive to make sure the “magic” in our stories is defined, logical, and consistent. Every act of magic that occurs should be a permutation — an outgrowth — of the same catalyst. We should try to avoid what Penny Dreadful did — and what the theatrical cut of Superman II did — which is to just throw in a new, unestablished supernatural entity or superheroic power on the fly — ’cause why the hell not? Even in a pop-cultural landscape that accepts — in no small part owed to the “good long history” you cited — the coexistence of vampires and werewolves, or robots and monsters, or aliens and Predators, or Freddy and Jason, or the various superheroes that comprise the Avengers, we should still endeavor for causality whenever possible — a connective tissue that provides a foundation of credibility for the fantastic!

      Thanks, as always, Dell, for contributing to a lively conversation! Your input is most welcome here. The comments section of all my articles never closes for business!

      Sean

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