Friday, January 9, 2015

New Year New Year, New York New York - New Year's Eve Double Feature: Ghostbusters II (Ivan Reitman, 1989) & Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990)


Instead of going out and running the gauntlet of drunken masses this New Year's Eve, I elected to stay at home this year... again. But it was with good reason I think as I spent the last hour of the night (and the wee ones of the following morning) engrossed in the double feature I'll be talking about today. Both movies are firm favourites but one in particular was one of the formative genre films while I was growing up and is largely responsible (for better or worse) for the film nut I am today. And which movie is that you ask? It's my favourite to watch on New Year's Eve and the last film I saw during 2014... Ghostbusters II...

While I'll be the first to concede it isn't quite on the level of its predecessor, I've always had a huge amount of love for this sequel, it being the first film I ever saw in a theatre, back when I was 5 years old. I remember having an absolute blast with it, even if it did give me a recurring nightmare concerning the Vigo painting. And the bit where he shoots streams of psychic energy (or whatever it is) into Peter MacNicol's eyes made me jump out of my frickin' skin!

All nostalgia aside, I think there's a case to be made for this being underrated, even 25 years after its release. Admittedly it pretty much follows the exact same plot points as the first film but nonetheless I find it to be as entertaining and engaging as the original. In fact, I'm hard pressed to say which one I prefer personally... but as I've implied earlier, I am hugely biased by my own history with these two.

If I try and be "objective" about it (which is ultimately impossible) I'll concede there are a couple of things in Ghostbusters II which seem a tad ill-advised, which isn't something I would say about number one... but even these minor missteps are nothing that derail the proverbial train for me. Having said that though, when one has known a film for some 25 years, you'll probably forgive quite a bit I imagine... these things seeming to work like most long term relationships.

So, is a synopsis necessary here? On the off chance there's anyone out there who hasn't seen this, here's a quick run down: 5 years after the events of Ghostbusters, the guys are out of business, having been sent the bill for the collateral damage incurred during that film's finale. Peter is hosting a psychic themed TV show, Egon has gone back to school and Ray and Winston are earning extra cash (with the former also operating an occult book store) doing Ghostbusters themed parties for "ungrateful little yuppie larva". And Dana Barrett has had a child, left the orchestra (and Peter) and is now working as an art restorer.

The film opens with Dana's son Oscar having a dramatic near miss with New York traffic after his carriage is apparently possessed and takes off on a mission of intended infanticide. It isn't long before she enlists the help of Egon and Ray. She asks them to keep Peter out of it but of course that doesn't last long. After investigating under the city street where the incident took place and accidentally causing a black out, the guys are arrested and tried by a judge (Harris Yulin) who would like to have them "burnt at the stake". I should add that during Ray's mini adventure underground he recovered some "psychomagnotheric" slime... or "mood slime" if you prefer. And said slime is included as an exhibit at the trial where, animated by the religious zeal of the judge, it unleashes the spectral Scoleri Brothers, who were sent to the electric chair by him. Seeing no other way out, he reverses his verdict and asks the guys to don their proton packs and capture the ghosts.

With this successfully achieved, the boys are back in business. Meanwhile, at the Manhattan Museum of Art, where Dana works (while also attempting to avoid the lunchtime invitations of the over eager head of restoration, Dr. Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol)), there's a rather sinister painting that has its eye on her. It's of Vigo the Carpathian (played by Wilhelm von Homburg, and voiced by Max Von Sydow... and I'm kicking myself I never realised about the latter until just this week), a 16th century tyrant, torturer, magician and "genocidal madman", who promises to return from the grave after (as Ray informs us) being "poisoned, stabbed, shot, hung, stretched, disemboweled, drawn and quartered". Continuing, he says "There was a prophecy. Just before his head died, his last words were 'Death is but a door. Time is but a window. I'll be back.'"

To return, Vigo (with the assistance of Janosz, who is now apparently under his control) plans on possessing the body of poor little Oscar. Needless to say though, the Ghostbusters aren't about to let that happen. There's lots more we could get into with the story but I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't seen it so we'll leave it there.

Admittedly there's a few things holding this back from feeling like a classic a la its predecessor (it being a sequel and therefore derivative may play a part I suspect) but I don't think it's the step down some seem to imply it is either. But again, I am biased by my nostalgia. That aside, I do genuinely think the movie gets most of "it" right. There's a good balance of humour and horror (the latter personified by excellent villain Vigo and the also creepy Janosz), it has some serious production value (kudos to ILM who did the effects and cinematographer Michael Chapman, who also worked with Scorcese... oh and by the way, the new 4K Blu-Ray of this is a must buy for anyone who likes the film... it was revelatory I thought and one of the best transfers I've seen in the format), a rousing finale and, like the first film, a decent score and soundtrack. And on that subject, a little more about the music...

The formative effect this film had on me extends to the soundtrack, it being the first CD I can remember actually sitting down and listening to... another reason I have boatloads of nostalgia for this sequel. And I actually still have said CD! Which is amazing as there are ones I've had less than half that time and lost the discs for. Your mileage may vary with this sort of thing but (and this won't surprise you I'm sure) I pretty much love the whole soundtrack... and especially the two Bobby Brown joints, "On Our Own" and "We're Back" (well, technically there's three if you include "Supernatural" by New Edition). Other honourable mentions go to Run–D.M.C for their excellent, funky cover of "Ghostbusters", Oingo Boingo, Glenn Frey and Howard Huntsberry who contributes another cover, his one being of "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" by Jackie Wilson (whose original features in the dancing toaster scene)

Props are also due to Randy Edelman, who steps into the rather sizeable shoes worn by Elmer Bernstein in the first film. While perhaps not being as memorable as his predecessor's score, Edelman contributes one that is as consistently charming and effective. 

I could go on and on about this movie but I know y'all have lives to live and all so I'll wrap it up. I don't think anyone needs me to reiterate the fact that I love Ghostbusters II as I'm sure I've made that fairly obvious by now. And as I also said earlier, this is a great film to finish off the year with, especially with the finale taking place in the final hours of New Year's Eve.

Oh, and as I don't think I said so earlier... Happy New Year folks!

But wait a minute, don't go yet. We've still got the first film of 2015 I watched to look at... Gremlins 2: The New Batch...

Before we begin, it's worth pointing out there's a nice bit of visual continuity between the end of Ghostbusters II and the beginning of this film... both involving helicopter shots that veer close to the Twin Towers. I hadn't anticipated this, it being a few years since I'd last seen Gremlins 2 but it was an encouraging sign that putting these two together was a good idea and it also made one flow seamlessly into the next...

As I've said several times before, I'd always preferred Gremlins 2 to the original in the past but if asked right now I'd call it a tie. As to which would come out on top during a given moment, it would probably depend what mood I'm in, them seeming somewhat different tonally. And this is very much by design apparently, with this follow up being intended as something of a satire/send-up of the first film (and sequels generally).... e.g. the merchandising it inspired is alluded to and "the rules" are somewhat picked apart and criticised by characters in the film.

Moving away from the small town at Christmas setting of the original, Gremlins 2 takes place mostly in the monolithic, ultra modern Clamp Enterprises skyscraper... a place which seems like one giant Randall Peltzer (that's Billy's dad, from the first film for anyone wondering) invention.... meaning everything is prone to malfunctioning. Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan), the hero of the original (well, technically that was Gizmo but Billy played his part too) has moved to New York with fiancee Kate (Phoebe Cates) to work here. Sadly, Mr. Wing (Keye Luke, who had a very interesting and varied career) has died leading to his shop being demolished by Clamp Enterprises and Gizmo being shanghaied by scientists (Don and Dan Stanton, who were also in Terminator 2, funnily enough) and taken to the sinister research laboratory of Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee!), which happens to reside within the Clamp building itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it isn't too long before Billy learns of his old pal's presence in his place of work and being the good friend he is, he rescues Gizmo from Catheter's clutches. 

Of course it could never just be that simple though eh? Gizmo is stashed in Billy's filing cabinet while he runs off on a lunch date with his opportunistic boss (the wonderfully named Marla Bloodstone, played by Haviland Morris), who is very interested in him now that building owner Daniel Clamp (John Glover) has his eye on Billy after being impressed by his concept art. He asks Kate to pick Gizmo up before going on said luncheon (she sees him walking off with Marla too. Smooth Billy...) but that's where it all goes wrong. Not content to remain cooped up aside Billy's office supplies, Gizmo goes for a wander and then ends up getting soaked by some errant water from a tap being fixed by one of Clamp's employees. Needless to say, Gremlins spawn aplenty... and hilarity ensues...

There's lots more going on but we'll halt the synopsis there. This pretty much follows the same trajectory as the first film but, as I suggested earlier, it feels radically different, due to its tonal differences and change of setting. Also as we alluded to earlier, it's much more self aware.... at one point going so far as to completely rip through the fourth wall and disrupt the movie itself (due to those pesky Gremlins of course). Thankfully though, Hulk Hogan of all people comes to our rescue and gets the film restarted.

Following the success of the original Gremlins, Joe Dante was asked by Warner Brothers to make a sequel pretty much immediately. Seeing it as nothing but a cash in the director declined. Work continued nonetheless, with various ideas and other directors tried out. And needless to say, they eventually came back to Dante, managing to get him on board with the rare offer of complete creative control... and a much bigger budget. Dante described the results as "one of the more unconventional studio pictures, ever." While I'm not sure how much I agree with that statement I will say it is one of the more inspired sequels I've seen, thanks to its knowing self-referentially and numerous pop culture references. And as Dante signposts to us from the off, by way of the Chuck Jones directed Looney Tunes bookend segments, this is meant to be more of a live action cartoon than its predecessor was.

I'm nearly done rambling y'all but just a couple more caveats to mention. Rick Baker, does characteristically fine work with the creature effects, taking over from Chris Walas, who had gone on to pursue a career directing. The former was hesitant at first, feeling there wouldn't be enough latitude creatively to make it interesting but was persuaded eventually by the suggestion he could make the mogwai/Gremlins more diverse looking. And Jerry Goldsmith returns to provide the music (and for a cheeky cameo), with support from the likes of Faith No More(!) and Slayer(!). Their contributions are all too brief but very welcome.

There are also a couple more overlaps with Ghostbusters II I nearly forgot to mention, in the form of a dancing scene (this time Gizmo as opposed to a mood slime powered toaster) and both films have bespectacled red-headed ladies in them. And finally, Gremlins 2 has not one but two connections to Sixteen Candles, featuring both Haviland Morris (who plays one of said redheads) and Gedde Watanabe.

So overall, this was a highly enjoyable way to see in the new year (been and done all the being out at midnight for it folks and it's lost its novelty now). If you've never seen one of these sequels, or, God forbid, neither of them, but liked or loved the first films, I'd say what the heck are you waiting for? Seriously, you better sort it out before Rambo Gizmo comes to your house and blasts a blazing arrow into your butt... or Vigo comes to possess your body. 

The mean looking fucker above (and the one below) haunted my dreams for a while after seeing Ghostbusters II back in '89, so trust me when I say you don't want him on your back! Or Gizmo either! There are few things more formidable than a pissed off mogwai with mad MacGyver-esque weapon making skills. So beware!

And again, Happy New Year y'all!

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