Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Thoughts on “Ghostbusters II”: The Sequel

My analysis of Ghostbusters II provoked some healthy debate when it was posted on Proton Charging’s Facebook page yesterday.  It is a testament to Ghostbusters—the movie, the franchise, and the sequel—that it continues to inspire such a passionate following over twenty-five years after the last installment was released.

Speaking of which, I suspect the development of Ghostbusters II went something like this:  Someone on the creative team—probably Dan Aykroyd—became taken with the notion of a river of slime as a key element of the sequel (I believe I’ve even seen drafts of the script in which “River of Slime” was suggested as the movie’s subtitle).  It probably didn’t take long to realize, however, that a river of slime is a noncorporeal entity—flowing ectoplasm has no agenda beyond existing, no antagonistic impulses whatsoever—and this Monster in the House movie was clearly in need of a monster—i.e., someone the Ghostbusters could actually fight.  Hence, Vigo the Carpathian was conceived.

"I, Vigo, the scourge of Carpathia, the sorrow of Moldavia, command you."

“I, Vigo, the scourge of Carpathia, the sorrow of Moldavia, command you.”

The problem with Vigo, as I established in my aforementioned study, is that he has no discernible connection to the slime—he’s an altogether unrelated paranormal entity (and you’re only allowed one supernatural catalyst per story, making his presence an instance of Double Mumbo Jumbo).  So when you take a microscope to Ghostbusters II with that in mind, you see how wobbly its structural integrity is:  The entire plot hinges together on a series of loosely related (or altogether unrelated) coincidences.  The initial moviegoing audience—myself included—was distracted from this narrative flaw by all of the film’s perfectly engaging “ornaments”:  the rich performances; the cast’s unparalleled comedic chemistry; hilarious dialogue and situations; the emotional stakes of Peter and Dana’s romantic subplot.  So, you walked out of the theater entertained—Ghostbusters II is a joyous movie that pushes a lot of the right comedic and emotional buttons—but with this nagging feeling that the sequel just wasn’t as good as the original.  But, you chalked it up to the fact that sequels are seldom as satisfying, and that’s kinda that.

But, this is a site that celebrates and studies screenwriting craft, and, after a quarter century of being a Ghostbusters II apologist, I wanted to put my finger on exactly what about the sequel wasn’t connecting with general audiences like the first one did—why even series director Ivan Reitman always seems so nonspecifically displeased with it (how I wish he’d been more candid in the recent interview featured on the Blu-ray release).  And it became apparent to me, upon last year’s viewing, that the screenplay violates DMJ.  And the fact that it “broke a screenwriting rule” isn’t the basis for my indictment—I don’t believe in those kinds of rules, anyway—but rather I submit that its failure to observe that time-honored principle resulted in a structurally problematic narrative:  If you weren’t fully satisfied with Ghostbusters II, it’s because the storytelling just didn’t have the elegance of the first movie.  When you consider that conventional transgression alongside the fact that the sequel is otherwise so damn entertaining, I propose that is the reason why no one (counting Reitman among them) has been able to identify precisely why the movie fell short of its forerunner’s greatness—why it has always been criticized (and defended) in vague, general terms:  “It wasn’t as good” or “C’mon, Ghostbusters II isn’t that bad!”  The point of my earlier piece was to both criticize and defend it with concrete analysis so as to make storytellers aware of the pitfall of DMJ—because if screenwriters of the eminent caliber of Ramis and Aykroyd can fall victim to it, anyone can.

One of the tricks to taking critical feedback, as a screenwriter colleague of mine has wisely propounded, is to understand the difference between the suggestion and the underlying note.  So, someone may read, say, your horror screenplay or manuscript and suggest that you incorporate more monster attacks—maybe here, here, and here—but the note underneath that suggestion is that the story left them bored or insufficiently scared in places.  So, the suggestion itself may or may not be right—that’s something you’ll have to decide on a case-by-case basis—but the note points to an overall issue you will need to address (in whatever way you deem appropriate).  When my feedback is solicited, I try to offer notes, not suggestions; however, since Ghostbusters II is no longer open for development, let me make a suggestion, using the story’s “river of slime” conceit, as to how it might’ve established a more credible basis in internal logic:

"Oh, my God—the Scoleri brothers!"

“Oh, my God—the Scoleri brothers!”

Remember when the judge is reaming the poor Ghostbusters in court, growing angrier and more belligerent as his invective persists, until the jarred specimen of psychoreactive slime on the evidence table bubbles over and explosively discharges the malignant spirits of the Scoleri brothers?  Well, what if, instead of that sequence culminating with the Scoleris’ capture and ecto-containment, the wicked spirits instead escaped the courthouse with an evil plan to get revenge on the city (and state) that had consigned them to the electric chair?  Or maybe it wasn’t the Scoleris that were released from the slime at all—perhaps it was Vigo (how he was “trapped” in there to begin with would have to be pseudoscientifically addressed, mind you, but that wouldn’t be particularly challenging from a screenwriting perspective).  Point is, whether we’re talking about the Scoleris, Vigo, or another apparition altogether, now we’ve got a corporeal villain—something with an agenda that our heroes can fight (and that fights back)—that is a direct manifestation of the river of slime.  And because this antagonist was contained in the slime before the judge’s abusive tirade “let the genie out of the bottle,” so to speak, the story is now embedded with the equivalent of the “crossing the streams” precept in the first movie; i.e., a set of internally logical rules whereby the very thing from which the specter originated can also be used—in a last-ditch Hail Mary, of course!—to vanquish it.  In that scenario, Double Mumbo Jumbo has not been violated, because the whole plot is now operating on the principle of cause-and-consequence.

Because good storytelling must be predicated on causality.  Yes, there are “Antiplots,” as Robert McKee calls them (he cites Wayne’s World as a popular example)—an anti-structural inversion, often self-consciously satirical, of classical narrative design (the monomyth)—but those, in their own absurdist way, are themselves a statement about the nature of causality in storytelling:  the necessity of it if story is to have meaning.  In a classically structured narrative (like Ghostbusters and the majority of commercial entertainments), the inciting incident can be a complete coincidence—an off-duty cop finds himself in the same place at the same time as a gang of terrorists who seize control of an L.A. high-rise—but everything thereafter needs to obey the laws of cause-and-effect:  John McClane and Hans Gruber spend the remainder of Die Hard reacting to one another’s moves and countermoves.  Causality.  Defy it at your peril.  It not only grounds your movie in logical consistency—something even more crucial in farce and fantasy in order to make the world contextually believable—but it allows for setup and payoff:  How thrilling it is when a small, insignificant detail pays unexpected dividends at the climax of a story (and no movie, for those seeking illustration, is more loaded with elegant setups and payoffs than Back to the Future).  Ghostbusters II spent a lot of screen time overcompensating for the absence of causality as a ramification of its DMJ infraction, and, as such, couldn’t end on a thrillingly revelatory “crossing the streams” moment; rather, it climaxed with a bit of a nonsensical mishmash.  To be certain, we were rooting for our heroes to prevail—that’s what the movie got gloriously right—but we couldn’t fully share in their celebration, because it was never made particularly clear how they managed to emerge victorious.

Twenty-six years after its release, Ghostbusters II still inspires impassioned deliberation from a devoted fanbase, which only serves to emphasize the lofty responsibility that’s been taken on by Paul Feig and Katie Dippold, the respective director and screenwriter of the announced series reboot.  However their efforts are received when the film is released, they will bring their own idiosyncratic approach to the fictional world initiated by Aykroyd, Ramis, Reitman, et al., which only enhances the innate value of Ghostbusters II:  It is now, with certainty, the final contribution to this cherished piece of cultural folklore from the brilliant minds that originated it.

7 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your evaluation, especially “DMJ”. But I believe the missing element of “Ghostbusters 2” is suspense. It’s not dissimilar to the second and third seasons of the 1966 Batman TV series. In Season One, there was genuine suspense mixed in with the laughs. But the second and third seasons were all comedy. Likewise, Ghostbusters 2 only had one “scary” scene; the ghost train that threatens to run over Winston.(Ernie Hudson) That was the only scene that felt “right” and the combination of suspense with comedy is why.

    • Thanks so much for the comment, Zacal!

      I certainly think the plot’s lack of causational elegance contributed to the sequel’s dearth of suspense: MITH stories only work if we grasp the specific set of supernatural “rules” that apply to the monster (the extent and limitations of its powers) or the threat to the “house” (the electrical fences are down in Jurassic Park and here’s what we need to do to restore the power…). That’s what made the first Ghostbusters so thrilling: Ghosts existed on a frequency somewhere between the physical world and spiritual realm, but if you could find a way to “tune in” to that frequency, as Egon’s proton packs were designed to do, you could effectively capture and contain an ectoplasmic entity — just don’t cross those streams! So, in that scenario, we understand the threat, the counterresponse, and the potential hazards of human-specter confrontation, right? There’s suspense at work.

      Ghostbusters II, however — as I illustrated — plays so fast and loose with its rules: What’s the relationship between Vigo and the slime? How is Vigo able to leave the painting at the climax when it had been previously established that he needed a host body to return to corporeal form? How is it, exactly, Janosz is able to appear at the window of Peter’s loft as a flying spirit?! Janosz is merely possessed, so far as we understand it — not a supernatural creature unto himself with his own set of magical abilities.

      In a story about the paranormal, there have to be parameters that are established and honored throughout. Consider, for example, the three explicit instructions for handling Mogwai in Gremlins, or the three stages of possession in The Conjuring, or even the three inviolable rules of surviving a (non-supernatural) slasher movie that get broken, one by one, in Scream? I’m not suggesting horror movies need always observe the rule of three — though it is a time-honored principle for a reason — but rather that providing a defined set of commandments for your premise is what allows for suspense. Then, when those rules are transgressed by the characters, as they eventually were in Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and Scream, we the audience know there will be consequences for that. So, we sit in suspense in the hope that the “rules” will be obeyed… and then the suspense heightens as we await the repercussions for their invariable violation!

      I think that scene in the subway tunnel you referenced — with the phantom train — is so eerie and effective because it harks back to the rules from the first film: that spiritual entities are capable of “passing through” physical forms (including humans), an unnerving but ultimately benign encounter. It’s one of the few scenes, as an audience member, in which I feel “oriented” in that supernatural world. But, as it stands, Ghostbusters II is a hodgepodge of precepts cherry-picked from the original movie along with new ones that seemed to be made up on the fly as the story progressed. Watching II, we’re invested in the wellbeing of the characters because of all the goodwill they’d banked in the ’84 outing, but we’re never fully sure what the nature of the threat they face is. And the atmosphere of suspense was accordingly, and unfortunately, diminished for that.

      This applies to all movies, by the way, with a “magical” conceit. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, for all that it is an intentionally silly comedy, established a credible framework within which its fantastical premise — adversaries from the ’60s cryogenically unfrozen in the ’90s — operated. Those sequels, however — and I haven’t seen either since they were first released — abandoned all notion of internal logic in favor of a gonzo, anything-goes approach to the storytelling. Nothing about those movies made sense; structure was substituted for self-indulgence. Scares aren’t particularly scary (in horror) and gags aren’t funny (in comedy) if we don’t care or understand what’s ultimately at stake.

      Look at the way The Witches of Eastwick, another horror-comedy hybrid like Ghostbusters, collapsed in its third act because it hadn’t bothered to set rules for the world it inhabited. It wasn’t a question of tone, à la Pacific Rim, in which the high-octane action clashed with the goofy comedic aspects, but an issue of logic; without rules (which Pacific Rim had plenty of — too many — an altogether different problem), narratives like Ghostbusters II, The Spy Who Shagged Me, and Eastwick are built on structurally rotten foundations. It is an issue to which I’m now inspired to give further consideration — maybe even a blog post! — so thank you for initiating the discussion, my friend.

      Sean

      • Very cool. I found your detailed description of the “rules” in Ghostbusters to be particularly insightful, thank you.

  2. All I could think about was when Superman pulled that ‘S’ off in the second movie and threw it at one of the villains. He couldn’t just do that because he was “super”.

    • That’s exactly right, M. R.: Superpowers fall under the category of “magic”; a writer can’t simply invoke new, heretofore unseen abilities every time it’s convenient. Richard Lester’s Superman II was infamous for doing so (as I pointed out in the comments section of this article on Better Novel Project), with the Man of Steel exhibiting new powers in scene after scene: from the projectile cellophane S-emblem you mentioned to inexplicable teleportation game he plays with the supervillains to the amnesia-inducing kiss at the dénouement (an instance of deus ex machina as well as Double Mumbo Jumbo!). When it comes to superpowers, you establish a defined set of capabilities, and the trick is finding new permutations — inventive new uses — within those parameters.

      Fortunately, in the case of Superman, Lester’s transgressions were rectified in The Richard Donner Cut from 2006, which makes for a perfect double bill with Superman: The Movie: The two films presented as intended (under Donner’s creative supervision) form a much more cohesive narrative arc rooted in a stronger sense of causality and internal logic; they remain, in this renaissance period of comic-book adaptations, the high-water mark of superhero cinema.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • I have yet to see the Donner cut, although it’s been on my list. Saw the original when I was like four-years-old, and even then I was like wha….? when it came to that ‘S’. Forgot about the teleporting. LOL

        “When it comes to superpowers, you establish a defined set of capabilities, and the trick is finding new permutations — inventive new uses — within those parameters.” —This, so much. Inventing new uses is what makes it fun for the audience, and it’s so often missed by writers who create one special power or ability. Waterworld did this. They have that one cool speed-swimming scene and that was it.

        • What I would suggest is this: Watch Superman: The Movie (preferably the 2000 expanded edition) followed immediately by Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. You will see that they are one cohesive story told across two movies, and Kal-El’s disobedience of his father — you’ll recall he disregarded Jor-El’s admonitions in order to save Lois at the climax of I — carries major consequences in II with respect to Superman’s emotional arc. It’s wonderful, emotionally rich storytelling. (I’ve been meaning to write an in-depth blog post about it for over a year!)

          One thing to keep in mind: The Richard Donner Cut is not a finished film per se, merely a representation of the movie Donner might have made had he been allowed to complete it at the time of production. He put something together out of the quarter-century-old elements he had to work with — he couldn’t do reshoots, after all — and that needs to be taken into consideration when watching it, because the Donner Cut isn’t without its imperfections. Still, when watched in conjunction with the first one, it forms the finest superhero story ever put on celluloid (in my estimation). Whereas so many comic-book movies are just Saturday-morning cartoons writ large (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that), Donner’s Superman (and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) reach the lofty heights of Greek mythology (to reference film critic Richard Corliss).

          Regarding superpowers: That’s right — you can’t introduce a one-time ability. If Superman was capable of astral projection (as he seems to be in the Lester version of II), then that needed to be used early and often. Consider his superhuman breath: On the surface, it seems rather limited, and yet it’s one of his most versatile faculties! He can use it to cool down an overheating nuclear device, extinguish a fire, create an “air cushion” to save someone that’s plummeting to their death, or literally blow away a bad guy! The fun of watching someone with superpowers is seeing all the innovative ways in which they use them to solve problems. Donner understood that.

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