Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

I have a severe case of Oscars Brain this week, a condition that makes me think of every movie I’m watching in an Awards Season context that will cease to matter in just a few days.  It’s an embarrassing affliction.  Pray that it heals soon.

Intellectually, I know that the Oscars are a ridiculous pageant with no genuine implications for what pictures qualify as The Best Movies of the Year (except maybe in its winners having an easier time getting their Best-Movies-of-Next-Year projects funded).  The ceremony is a great excuse to watch challenging dramas I’d usually put on the backburner of my sprawling watchlist.  It’s also a great excuse to gawk at beautiful, sparkly gowns on television while eating junk food.  Those are ultimately very superficial functions in the grand scheme of cinematic discourse, though.  I don’t put much emotional energy into the wins & snubs of the awards race, but I do enjoy the ritual of tuning in with friends, pizza, and champagne on hand.

It’s just nice to have one month out of the year when everyone talks about movies that don’t star superheroes or talking cartoon animals.  If you ask most audiences, there have only been three actual movies released in the past year, the ones that feature Spider-men, Batmen, and Ghostbusters.  The Oscars are a nice respite from that constant IP-worship chatter among The Fans™, which dominates all online discussion of movies for the other eleven months of the calendar.  Hilariously, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying their best to court The Fans as a potential TV audience, pushing for all the Spider-Men and other supertwunks out there to share the spotlight during the ceremony in semi-official “Fan Favorite” awards, as if the literal billions of dollars they earn crowding real movies out of the box office isn’t already enough of a reward.  To be honest, it’s making me extremely petty.  I can’t hear the word “Ghostbuster” without rolling my eyes, desperate for anyone to talk about a genuinely substantive movie for a goddamn change.  For all of pageantry, inanity, and bribery that makes The Oscars a total sham, at least it does clear space for real movies like Drive My Car, Parallel Mothers, and The Power of the Dog to breathe in the daylight until Captain Morbius or whatever the fuck swoops into suck up all the oxygen again.

The new Ghostbusters film gives that petty reflex a lot of ammunition too.  Afterlife is absolutely absurd as a nostalgia-bait IP booster.  It somehow misremembers the original Ghostbusters franchise as an E.T.-era Spielberg heart-warmer instead of a frat-boy special effect comedy.  Instead of using its ghost-infestation premise as an excuse for rapid-fire joke delivery (a tradition that was kept alive in the previous 2016 reboot), this lands closer to the Stranger Things version of 80s nostalgia, complete with a major role for breakout stranger thing Finn Wolfhard.  There are constant Who You Gonna Callbacks to things that used to be jokes in the original Ghostbusters film—marshmallows, Twinkies, firemen poles, retro commercials for the titular ghostbusting service—but they’re treated with a reverent awe that makes absolutely no sense considering the series’ goofball origins.  Afterlife is an earnest drama about a family who moves from the big city to a rural farm to confront the mess left behind by their absentee patriarch (Egon Spengler, for all you Bustheads out there), haunted both by his dusty belongings and by an upswell of actual ghosts.  It’s also a throwback to 80s Amblin kids’ adventure films, to the point where a wisecracking side character named Podcast functions as all of the Goonies characters rolled into a single out-of-time archetype.  What it’s not is a traditional Ghostbusters film, at least not beyond the familiarity of the logo and a few unnecessary cameos.

As intensely odd as Afterlife is as a nostalgia trigger for adults, I do think it’s passably adorable as a standalone children’s film.  With the rare exception of titles like MirrorMask & City of Ember (which, appropriately enough, also features a small role for Bill Murray), I can’t think of many dark, live-action fantasy adventure films made for young audiences in recent decades.  Even Stranger Things feels pitched to an older, nostalgic audience who remembers growing up with kids-on-bikes horror adventures in the 80s instead of their fresh-eyed children.  In that way, I think Ghostbusters: Afterlife is most useful as an intergenerational bonding tool that kids can enjoy for its legitimate spooky-adventure charms while their knucklehead parents point and smile at the callbacks & Easter eggs, drooling onto their Target-brand Ghostbusters t-shirts between nostalgia pops.  It’s frustrating that we can’t make children’s movies like this without tying them to pre-existing IP from 40 years ago, but hey, that’s the pop culture hellscape we’re rotting in, so you gotta celebrate the small victories where you can find them.

There are a lot of small touches to Ghostbusters: Afterlife that genuinely brought me joy – mostly the Creechification of Slimer in the nü-ghost Muncher (Josh Gad’s greatest performance to date) and Carrie Coon’s aggressive disinterest in absolutely everything happening around her as the non-plussed mom.  I can’t claim that those minor, momentary joys justify how much cultural discourse the Ghostbusters brand has generated over the past few years.  This movie is far too shallow & disposable to earn its vast pop culture real estate.  If it weren’t for all the online chatter about how the Oscars and critical institutions ignore movies that people have actually heard of, though, I don’t think that shallowness would bother me.  This is a perfectly cromulent kids’ movie with plenty of soothing nostalgia indulgences to lure in those kids’ parents, which is perfectly fine.  I just really wish there were more space to occasionally discuss something else.  I don’t know if that would require audiences or producers to be more adventurous in what creative voices they pay attention to, but it really is exhausting talking about fluff like this all year round when there’s not much to it.  It’s sad how vital the Oscars are in breaking up that monotony, since that ceremony is itself equally shallow & silly, just in a different way.

-Brandon Ledet

The Turn of the Scrooge

I’m becoming increasingly bitter towards the Christmas holiday season in my adult years, which is making traditional Christmas Movies borderline intolerable.  In an effort to make this mandatory-cheer Hell Month something to look forward to instead of something to dread, my household has shifted into celebrating Yule as a seasonal alternative.  So far, this change has mostly amounted to exchanging gifts & eating festive meals around a small, contained fire, but it has drastically shifted what I think of as seasonally appropriate holiday #content.  December is all about ghost stories for me now, a Yuletide tradition most popularly reflected in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (and made-for-British-TV horrors that rarely get exported to the US).  I have no appetite whatsoever for the hundreds of disposable Christmas-schmaltz romances that auto-populate on Hallmark & Lifetime every year.  I’ll always have room in my belly for more spooky ghost stories, though, which is my way of saying I wish it could be Halloween year-round.

To that end, this Yule season felt like as good of a time as any to catch up with one of my biggest ghost-story blind spots: the most beloved movie adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  It’s no surprise that 1961’s The Innocents is the exact impeccable classic that it’s lovingly remembered as.  I was initially unsure that I’d be able to fully sink into it, since i was initially comparing it to a recent first-time viewing of the similarly styled The Haunting, but the camera trickery & psychosexual discomforts were distinctly their own thing despite the parallels.  The Innocents is cold, eerie, beautiful, brutal.  After a half-century of cultural familiarity & exultation, it still cuts sharp against the throat, weaponizing a kind of narrative ambiguity that’s been slowly bled out of modern mainstream horror.  The only other film I can recall that perverts the traditional atmospheric scares of Gothic horror with such overt sexual menace is Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body, and even that particular erotic nightmare didn’t dare include young children in its main cast.

The easiest way to highlight The Innocents‘s bravely alienating mood is to contrast it against lesser-loved adaptations of its source material, of which there are dozens to choose from.  Take 2020’s The Turning, for instance, which ages up the little-boy protagonist of the story into a teenage Finn Wolfhard and takes a definitive side in the story’s internal debate over whether its ghosts are “real.”  There’s something incredibly creepy about a pre-pubescent child hitting on his governess with the sexual drive of a sadistic adult man (possibly due to being possessed by that man’s ghost), hiding behind fake-polite apologies like “What a wicked boy I’ve been.”  A teenager hitting on an adult authority figure is also gross & uncomfortable, but it feels more matter-of-course than supernatural.  Wolfhard’s casting feels like a deliberate choice to make James’s story more accommodating for today’s simple-morals audience.  It also backs The Turning into a corner where it has to make the ghost-possession half of its story more explicit to compensate, saving the question of whether it’s all in the governess’s head for a cheap, last-second twist.  Meanwhile, Truman Capote was hired for a script re-write of The Innocents to make its ghost vs. insanity balance even more ambiguous & difficult to pin down.

In all honesty, The Turning isn’t too bad for a modern PG-13 horrorbuster.  It just has the misfortune of being contrasted against one of the greatest haunted house movies of all time.  It’s also self-sabotaged by one of the sloppiest, most insulting twist endings the genre has seen in a long while (or at least since 2016’s Lights Out).  The hilarious thing is that the DVD I borrowed from the library prominently features a fix-it Alternate Ending option on its main menu, and that ending is somehow just as bad as the original.  The even more hilarious thing is that the best shot in the entire movie is buried under the end credits, after the gotcha twist has already pissed off everyone in the audience, presumably playing to an empty theater.  That shot is of the governess’s hand tracing the illustrative details of the haunted house’s antique wallpaper, set to a heavy industrial drumbeat.  It’s the exact kind of eerie, pure-image artistry that The Innocents indulges in feature length.  It would be much easier to settle for The Turning‘s cheap-shot jump scares & carefully posed creepy mannequins if I hadn’t already seen The Innocents conveying (a more daringly ambiguous version of) the same story in gorgeous art-photography experiments with double-exposure layering & deep black voids.  It’s a shame that the one time The Turning attempts to translate that visual artistry for the 21st Century is in the minutes after it’s already shat the bed.

I’m not covering any new ground here by declaring The Innocents great and The Turning disappointing.  These are widely accepted truths.  All I can really do here is advocate for more people to think of The Innocents and similar haunted-house stories as Christmas Classics.  I’d love to see a cultural shift on this side of the pond where we watch spooky possession stories like this every December instead of stuff like A Christmas Prince VII: Still Princin’.

-Brandon Ledet

IT: Chapter 2 (2019)

So there I am, trying to put together my end of the year list, and I’m trying to find the Swampflix review of IT: Chapter 2 so that I can link back to it, and to my surprise, it’s nowhere to be found. Somehow, this one managed to fly completely under everyone’s radar, even though I went and saw it opening weekend, and was a bit more fond of it than the majority of filmgoers, it seems. And then I figured, well, sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

IT: Chapter 2 continues the story of the Losers Club: Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher in 1989, James McAvoy in the present*) is now a semi-successful horror writer who’s bad at writing endings; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard in 1989, Bill Hader in the present) is a well-known stand-up comedian; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis in 1989, Jessica Chastain in the present) is a fashion designer saddled to an abusive husband; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor in 1989, Jay Ryan in the present) is a chiseled, handsome architect who runs his own firm; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer in 1989, James Ransone in the present) is a risk assessment specialist for an insurance firm and is married to a woman just like his mother; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef in 1989, Andy Bean in the present) is an accountant who loves puzzles; and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs in 1989, Isaiah Mustafa in the present) is the librarian of Derry. It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club first did battle with the ancient evil being known alternatively as Pennywise the clown or the titular IT (a returning Bill Skarsgård), and IT has returned from its cycle of hibernation to spread terror anew. Mike, as the only person to have remained in Derry and thus the only one who still remembers the particulars of what happened in the summer of 1989, recognizes the rising tide of general inhumanity and indecency in Derry that portends Pennywise’s return and calls on his old friends to do battle with IT once more.

Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the “adult” half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the “monsters” go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes. Unlike everyone else, I thought that the Juice Newton needle drop was a delight! Whether or not the humor of that lands for you as a viewer is subjective, of course, but to make the defanging of horror through comedy part of the film’s actual text is fairly clever.

There are legitimate issues here. My first thought after exiting the theater was “Wow, that was a really good Nightmare on Elm Street movie.” Given that Freddy Krueger first appeared on screens in 1984 and Stephen King first started work on IT in 1981 and finished it four years later, it’s unlikely that the film was an influence on the book, but the potential for NOES to affect IT 2 is left up to the interpretation. Both boogeyman primarily prey on adolescents and children, and both can be defeated by their respective victims by refusing to give in to their fear (although a longer series of films means that successive filmmakers have had to create new methods of disposing of Freddy). This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that the climax and ending of this film is pretty similar to the ending of the first one, especially given that the adaptations of IT (wisely) choose to exise any references to Maturin the extradimensional turtle and reinterprets the Ritual Of Chüd as the tradition of a (fictional) First Nations group called the Shokopiwah. So, at the end of 2017’s IT, the kids overcome their fears and defeat Pennywise. And then at the end of IT: Chapter 2, they, uh, do the same thing again. But, like, more this time.

But here’s something that a lot of people may not like to hear: that’s okay. This movie has a distinct Dream Warriors feel to it, and given that both Dream Warriors and Dream Child feature the return of Amanda Krueger to assist in the defeat of her evil son (spoilers, I guess), there’s precedent for this kind of thing. I understand that when people go back to a franchise, what they want is more of the samethat’s the reason that over half of the Marvel movies feature villains that are just dark reflections of the hero, no matter how varied the individual films might be. Your audience is going to experience a series of diminishing returns if you’re not able to put forth something new over a long period of time, but when we’re looking at two films that exist purely as a diptych, it’s not a crime for them to metaphorically “rhyme” with one another. I’ve seen a lot of complaints that this film turns too episodic in its middle point, when each surviving member of the Losers Club goes off on their own individual talismans for their fight against IT, but I like that each thing that the characters seek out is a kind of anti-MacGuffin, in that they are ultimately irrelevant to the plot but are significant to the characters. The individual moments that we return to the kids we got to know in the first film and see them through the eyes of the adult selves do a lot more character work than the film is given credit for. These are people who have worked so hard to put their childhood traumas in the rearview, to distance themselves from their miserable and deadly youth both physically and mentally, that they let those traumas control them still. Beverly marries a man who is abusive, like her father; Eddie marries a woman who seems identically overbearing and over-attentive to his mother (down to the fact that they’re played by the same actress); Mike has literally never moved on. One could even interpret Bill’s inability to satisfactorily conclude a novel as a metaphor for the lack of closure he has surrounding the death of his younger brother Georgie. Even if the ritual that requires these talismans is ultimately useless, the act of finding them and remembering what happened to the Losers Club in 1989 is integral to their ability to fight back as adults and finally destroy IT. I found the plot sufficiently engaging that I was never bored; others may have felt the film’s length, but I was along for the ride from start to finish. There wasn’t a single other movie this year where I saw myself as much as in the scene with young Richie asks another boy, on whom he clearly has a crush, to play another arcade game with him, only for the other boy’s interest turn immediately to false disgust and name-calling when bully Henry Bowers shows up.

There are some complaints with which I can agree, however. The monster living in Bev’s old house isn’t very convincing when it moves from shadowed elderly woman to CGI beast; in fact, much of the CGI here is slightly substandard, although Spider-Pennywise looks pretty great in the finale. The way that the film dealt with Stanley’s fateful decision leaves a bit to be desired as well, given that the film not only forgives him for the choice that he makes but ultimately exalts it, which is capital-b Bad. Finally, although I’m never opposed to a Peter Bogdanovich cameo, I’m not sure what the point of including a scene at the beginning with Bill’s wife Audra was if (unlike the novel) she was never going to appear again. But other than those few quibbles, this is a pretty solid sequel, with some truly standout scenes. In particular, both the scenes in which we see Pennywise murder children are spectacularly well done, and don’t shy away from how horrible a thing it is when a child dies (it’s worth noting that Doctor Sleep also did this). The gay hate crime that starts the film is also a perfect reintroduction to the idea that when IT rises, it does so at least in part through the complicity of others and the bystander effect; compare it to the moment in the first film in which an elderly neighbor looks down to the street where poor Georgie was just standing, sees a huge amount of blood, and then goes about her business without questioning it. The same thing happens here to the couple who are bashed, and reminds us that in the years since 1989, hatred for and violence against LGBTQIA individuals may have decreased and support for queer causes and individuals may have ostensibly increased, that kind of freedom isn’t experienced by a large portion of queer people living in huge swaths of America outside of the coasts and other urban areas.

So yeah. Don’t believe the hype backlash.

*The “present” of the film is apparently late summer/early autumn 2016, just to be clear. I assume this is because there’s only room for one monstrous clown to be in power at a time.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond