Why everyone was wrong about Ghostbusters II

(L-R): Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, Billy Murray and Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters II - Columbia
(L-R): Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, Billy Murray and Harold Ramis in Ghostbusters II - Columbia

It took a kiss-and-make-up lunch to reunite the Ghostbusters. In 1988, a back room at Jimmy’s, a celebrity restaurant in Beverly Hills, was decked out with no-ghost logos and merchandise, and the guys got back together: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, director Ivan Reitman (who died this weekend aged 75), and reps from the mighty Creative Artists Agency. It was less something strange in the neighbourhood, more something potentially big on the table: Ghostbusters II.

Even before sequels were both a contractual and cultural obligation, a follow-up to the $300 million success of Ghostbusters (1984) was surely a no-brainer. But friction had remained since the first film – “There was a little air to clear before we got going,” Ramis told Rolling Stone in 1989 – and some lingering reluctance between them. “We had talked about it from the time the first one was finished,” added Aykroyd, who had weathered a few duds by that point. “But we were afraid to touch it, it was so big.”

Murray – wrestling with the failure of his 1984 drama, The Razor’s Edge, and the daunting pressure of celebrity – had retreated from leading roles for a few years. He wasn’t keen to pull on the overalls and fire up the Proton Pack again: “I really didn’t want to do this movie for the longest time.” None of it was helped by David Puttnam, the head of Columbia Studios, who wasn’t interested in a Ghostbusters sequel. “I felt insulted because he always talked about Ghostbusters in such condescending tones,” recalled Reitman. “It was, ‘I like Ghostbusters, but what I’d really like to do…’”

Puttnam also made snide comments about Bill Murray at a British-American Chamber of Commerce banquet. Murray, said Puttnam, is “an actor who makes millions off movies but gives nothing back to his art. He’s a taker.” Puttnam denied the comment, claiming he was misquoted, though others who were there disagreed.

But reunited in Jimmy’s, the old gang talked – and, more crucially, laughed – themselves into making Ghostbusters II. Why not? The first film, as Murray noted, was the most fun he’d ever had. Whatever friction there’d been was now slime under the bridge.

Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II director Ivan Reitman - Shutterstock
Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II director Ivan Reitman - Shutterstock

Released in June 1989, Ghostbusters II was a commercial hit, but a critical bomb, blasted by critics for being an ectoplasm-drenched re-run of the original. Worse yet, the bad reception seemed to kill Ghostbusters for the best part of 30 years, during which the franchise’s legacy was haunted by talk of yet another sequel and a falling out between Murray and Ramis. As recently as last year, Murray said he was tricked into doing Ghostbusters II “under false pretences” – the story he was pitched that day in Jimmy’s was not the story that ended up being made.

Yet Ghostbusters II is more than an inferior knock-off – it’s the gang’s most under-appreciated moment. And if George Martin was the fifth Beatle, Ivan Reitman was the fifth Ghostbuster. Czechoslovakian-born and Canadian-raised, no filmmaker channelled the loudmouth spirit of Saturday Night Live into hit movies like he did.

The first Ghostbusters began life as a Stay Puft-sized treatment about multiple teams of ghost exterminators – a blue-collar gig like pest control, refuse collection or firefighting – in some far-off interplanetary future. “It would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make,” Reitman told Nick de Semlyen for a 2019 book.

Born out of Aykroyd’s fascination with the paranormal, the film was intended as a vehicle for John Belushi, Aykroyd’s fellow Blues Brother. When Belushi died in 1982 from an accidental overdose, he became the template for the ghost that was later known as Slimer – a gluttonous, screeching slob of a spook. Aykroyd, Ramis and Reitman reimagined the concept together, relocating the action to New York – a crucial part of then formula – adding Murray, and making it a mega hit-cum-cultural event.

But when it came to the sequel, despite guaranteed box office takings, Puttnam wasn’t interested. If there was going to be another Ghostbusters, he wanted to recast it with a new (read cheaper) troupe. One executive who wanted Ghostbusters II to happen, however, was Dawn Steel, who succeeded Puttnam as the head of Columbia in 1987. “When I was being interviewed for this job,” Steel said at the time, “one of the first things we talked about was the Ghostbusters sequel and getting it off the ground.”

Aykroyd’s initial ideas included a haunted tour of Scotland and a trip underground via a “pneumatic tube 2,000 miles long”, where the Ghostbusters would battle evil fairies. Ramis also had an idea about a terrifying baby with the agility and focus of an adult. “I decided it was just too horrifying for a movie,” Ramis conceded.

The evil baby business, however, remained the starting point. The eventual story would see Dana Barrett – the returning Sigourney Weaver – and her baby terrorised by a haunted painting. Hiding in the painting is the 16th-century tyrant and magician, Vigo (“The Scourge of Carpathia! The Sorrow of Moldavia!”) who wants to possess Dana’s baby and live again.

Meanwhile, all the bad vibes in New York City – all the hate, violence and rudeness – have manifested in the form of an underground river of mood-powered slime. The story, said Ramis, was about urban decay, a subtext that goes deeper than any film that features a dancing toaster needs to, perhaps. “Slime is our metaphor for the human condition,” he told The New York Times in 1988. Indeed, Ghostbusters II hinged on an idea more fantastical than most: “What if everyone in New York City had to be nice for 48 hours?”

The first Ghostbusters film had involved a demanding shoot on a tight schedule. The production of the sequel was tighter again, beginning in November 1988 for a summer 1989 release. Murray seemed to have been hosed down with the mood slime before things started – he was even grumpy about the title.

“We’ll burn in hell if we call it Ghostbusters II,” he told Starlog magazine late in 1988. “I’ve suggested Last of the Ghostbusters, to make sure there won’t be anything like a Ghostbusters III. But the script is nowhere near ready, and we start shooting soon. Jeez, more pressure. We’ll figure it out... or we won’t.”

Bill Murray with co-star Sigourney Weaver - Rex Features
Bill Murray with co-star Sigourney Weaver - Rex Features

Weaver, Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, and, erm, Slimer all reprised their roles. Murray poked fun at Weaver on set by calling her “double Academy Award nominee Sigourney Weaver” (she was up for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in 1989). They were joined by a scene-stealing Peter MacNicol as Janosz, an Eastern European sex pest-turned-possessed Vigo minion (“You’re not gonna get a green card with that attitude, pal,” says Venkman) and Wilhelm von Homburg as Vigo himself. To get his comically thick accent right, MacNicol hung around a Romanian tourist agency.

Von Homburg was suitably sinister already. He was a German boxer and wrestler, and spent time in prison. His father, a reluctant Nazi soldier, claimed that young Wilhelm had raped his own stepmother. Von Homburg (also one of Alan Rickman’s Euro-terrorists in Die Hard) was less than pleased to learn that his Vigo performance had been overdubbed by Max von Sydow. He stormed out of the cinema after seeing the film.

The first Ghostbusters was a mix of monster elements, all trapped at once in the containment unit of blockbuster brilliance: the shabby union of Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis; the still-goosebumpy special effects; ideas that absolutely shouldn’t work but instantly entered the pop culture consciousness (a 100ft marshmallow demigod, anyone?); and – of course – the song.

Ghostbusters II, by contrast, is often accused of rehashing the formula, set-piece for set-piece. That’s hard to dispute. Most obviously, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man becomes the Statue of Liberty, which the Ghostbusters bring to life for a similar jaunt through the streets of New York City. Reitman later agreed that emulating the original film’s structure was a mistake.

But Ghostbusters II captures the spirit of its predecessor in the smaller details: offbeat character moments (Spengler having sexual relations with a tub of slime in the name of science); bone-dry sardonicism from Venkman; and lines that are so finely sharpened that they barely register on the PKE Meter. (“I’d like to run some gynaecological tests,” says Spengler about Dana. “Who wouldn’t?” replies Venkman.)

The Ghostbusters are now washed-up has-beens, bankrupted by the cost of blowing up a high-rise in the first movie. Ray is reduced to doing children’s parties, where even the kids are unimpressed and chant for He-Man instead. The most inspired idea is Venkman’s new career as a charlatan TV host on World of the Psychic – think Jeremy Kyle for bewildered believers in the supernatural. (“Next week, hairless pets… weird.”) One of the great understated gags is Venkman’s obvious disdain for his guests, but also his irritation upon learning that one viewer rates him below the fishing show, Bass Masters.

The Ghostbusters’ famous converted ambulance - Columbia
The Ghostbusters’ famous converted ambulance - Columbia

The scene in which the Ghostbusters first charge up the Proton Packs again is also thunderously good fun – a courtroom battle against the back-from-the-electric-chair Scoleri Brothers – even if it’s clearly pilfered from the ballroom battle against Slimer in the original movie. Forget Vigo, the Scoleri Brothers – electrified grotesques – are the sequel’s best monsters. And if your spine isn’t tingling with the buzz of an unlicensed nuclear accelerator when they start bustin’ ghosts again – “We’re back, we’re beautiful, we’re the only Ghostbusters,” says Venkman – your soul’s as dead as that skeleton taxi-driver.

Elsewhere, Bobby Brown’s song, On Our Own, can’t match the decade-defining theme from Ray Parker Jr, but you have to admire Bobby’s knack for rapping the plot quite literally: “Had ’em throwin’ a party for a bunch of children / All the while the slime was under the building!”

By the time the sequel came around, Ghostbusters spin-offs were a major franchise in their own right: the cartoon, action figures and little tubs of ectoplasm. (The scene at the children’s party is a nod to that; one belligerent child is Jason Reitman, son of Ivan and future director of 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife.) The sequel brought the real-life Ghostbusters more closely in line with the toys: Annie Potts’s Janine got a makeover, more closely resembling her cartoon counterpart, and Slimer – by then the star of his own cartoon – got a supporting role. Most of Slimer’s scenes, however – in a sub-plot with Rick Moranis’s Louis Tully – were dropped after negative test screening scores.

They stopped short at dying Harold Ramis’s hair yellowy-white, as Spengler’s hair was in the cartoon. “The strange thing is that the cartoon characters have been immortalised in plastic,” said Ramis during production. “So a lot of the kids only know us as the cartoon characters. They look at me and they go, ‘Your hair isn’t blond.’” The kids on set were more interested in playing with slime than they were in making friends with the actual Ghostbusters.

Aykroyd and Hudson had a tougher time with the ectoplasm. For one scene, they had to climb out of a sewer in their long-johns, and stand in freezing January temperatures while soaked with slime. Reitman told them the next day that it needed to be re-shot – they’d have to go back and do it all again. Murray was unimpressed. “Those special-effects guys took over,” he complained in 1989. “It was too much of the slime and not enough of us.”

In fact, “those special-effects guys” – led by Dennis Muren at Industrial Light and Magic – were at the mercy of the increasingly chaotic production. Scenes and special effects were added, subplots chopped, and monsters thrown out – often demanding last-minute SFX work – and the release date was brought forward a month. Re-shoots were happening as late as April 1989, just two months before the film’s release. Eventually, ILM refused to take on any additional shots.

Speaking in a recent interview for the Blu-ray release, Reitman said the weight of the original’s success bore down on them and they’d waited “probably too long” to make the sequel. But Columbia needed a hit. Ghostbusters II, wrote Rolling Stone before its release, “could give Columbia Pictures a much-needed dose of box-office credibility”, whereas “[its] failure could deliver a knockout blow to the ice-cold studio.” Dawn Steel called it “probably the most important, eagerly awaited sequel in the history of Columbia Pictures”.

But the Ghostbusters weren’t alone. The summer of 1989 was packed with sequels – Back to the Future II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Karate Kid III, and Licence to Kill – and they were all crushed by the fresh gothic campery of Tim Burton’s Batman. Ghostbusters II made $215 million – a lot of box office but almost $100 million short of the original – and received poor reviews. “I think it holds up to the first movie about 75 per cent,” said Aykroyd afterwards. “Maybe the ending broke down a little, but it’s hard to follow up Mr Stay Puft.”

Rick Moranis with the ghost, Slimer, voiced by Reitman - Rex Features
Rick Moranis with the ghost, Slimer, voiced by Reitman - Rex Features

Talking to the Los Angeles Times in 1989, Reitman gave a resounding “I don’t think so” to the prospect of a third outing. “Ghostbusters II wasn’t as much fun to make as the first one,” he said. “In comedy, the element of surprise is everything. And I think once that element of surprise is gone, once people know there’s going to be ghosts, there’s going to be big ghosts, and they’re expecting something big at the end, a lot of the tools that are at your disposal are gone.”

Just a few years later, Murray and Ramis fell out during the production of Groundhog Day (which Ramis directed) – a falling out which lasted almost 20 years, until shortly before Ramis’s death in 2014. Reitman repeated the formula in 2001 with Evolution, which saw a ragtag gang take on (this time) aliens.

Meanwhile, Ghostbusters III became something of a pariah. Aykroyd talked about making a third film, with New York taken over by hell itself, but Murray openly dismissed the idea. (“I’ll do it if you kill me off in the first reel,” he said.) The toxic reaction to the all-female reboot in 2016 was frankly embarrassing for all concerned, and 2021’s belated sequel to the originals, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, split viewers. For some, it was another soulless rehash; for others, the teary-eyed pay-off to a nostalgia that had never been fully satisfied.

Whether Ghostbusters will continue without the input of Reitman is a question that’s still to be answered. But as Venkman says in one of Ghostbusters II’s best moments: “Sometimes s**t happens, someone has to deal with it, and who you gonna call?”

Which is your favourite Ghostbusters film? Let us know in the comments section below