More Familiar Things
Some movies acquire their own folklore as supposedly 'cursed films', beset by more than their fair share of accidents and problems. The most famous example is probably The Exorcist, doubtless because of its subject matter – one cast member died and various others suffered on-set accidents. Other films which infamously suffered production difficulties, up to and including injuries and deaths, include The Matrix Reloaded and (most recently) No Time to Die. (Though there's a facetious case to be made that pretty much every big film over the last almost two years has cause to consider itself cursed.)
Slightly more abstractly, there's an argument to be made that, for many years at least, the entire notion of doing a sequel to Ivan Reitman's 1984 film Ghostbusters seemed to labour under some kind of baleful influence. The original film is terrific, let us be in no doubt on this point, but the direct sequel was notably poor, and the 2016 all-female reboot, whatever its merits or otherwise as a film, is likely to be best remembered for the incredibly toxic reception it received from some sections of the fanbase. Hostile early reviews for the latest attempt at a continuation, Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman's Ghostbusters: Afterlife, suggested that a good Ghostbusters follow-up might simply not be possible.
Reitman the Younger's movie opens with a bit of scene-setting spookiness out in America's heartlands which is not, to be honest, a model of clarity when it comes to establishing exactly what's going on, although anyone familiar with the 1984 film will be able to figure out some of the key details (how well versed you are in the original will probably have a direct bearing on how good a time you have with Afterlife). The obfuscation is mostly intentional, as a lot of the film is structured as a mystery anyway.
From here we are plunged into the lives of a struggling family whose only hope of getting out of their dire financial straits is the fact that mother Callie (Carrie Coon) has recently inherited a farm from her estranged father. Living there will entail relocating to Oklahoma, which does not fill the hearts of her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) with joy. (Phoebe is brilliant but socially awkward, while Trevor is in training to start work as a Timothee Chalamet impersonator.)
Nevertheless, off they all go to the sticks, to the small town of Summerville (one of the iron laws of cinema and TV is that whenever somewhere has a name incorporating the words Summer, Sunny, or Pleasant, it's practically a guarantee that this is ironic and someone is in for a pretty grim time: see The Wicker Man, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pleasantville, Point Pleasant, etc). It duly turns out that the house and other buildings on the farm are filled with spooky old junk, up to and including backpack cyclotron proton generators and an ancient hearse with a rather odd colour-scheme.
Summerville is also afflicted with regular earth tremors, despite being nowhere near a seismically active zone, a fact which puzzles local seismologist and useless summer school teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) – his idea of occupying his students is to let them watch cheesy 1980s horror films (one of these is Cujo, which seemed to me to be an oblique acknowledgement of how much all the small-town Americana of the film is derived from Stephen King).
It transpires that the events of the 1984 film have become a cross between an urban legend and folklore, and Grooberson is savvy enough to recognise that some of the junk Phoebe and Trevor have discovered is equipment from the original Ghostbusters team. It transpires that their grandfather was indeed a Ghostbuster, and he relocated here, alienating his friends and family, because he believed the world still faced an even greater threat…
Some of the initial reviews of Ghostbusters: Afterlife were not afraid to put the boot in with what some might call excessive force: 'a stinking corpse of a movie' is one phrase which stuck in my memory. Well, fair enough: I can see why there are elements in this film which might alienate some viewers – the way its respect for the 1984 film sometimes seems to border on actual fetishization of it being perhaps the most obvious one. Props, costumes and throwaway gags are swooningly dwelt upon, and while it's not unusual for the plot of a sequel to largely be a retread of the original, it is rare for this to happen quite as openly as happens here: there are most of the same monsters and villains, and some of the original sets and dialogue is revisited. If you're the kind of person who feels that digitally resurrecting performers who have passed on breaches some kind of boundary of taste and decency, this is also a film which will give you pause.
I suppose you could also argue the film is chasing an audience in the way it apparently attempts to co-opt some of the style and atmosphere of the popular entertainment series Stranger Things (Finn Wolfhard apparently appears in this programme). My ability to comment on this is quite limited, as I am that person you may have heard of who has never seen Stranger Things (though from looking at its pop-cultural footprint I feel I have a pretty good idea of what it's all about). Certainly the movie is less of a comedy than the original, and the emphasis is very much on the younger characters until the very end.
While it's true the film gets off to a slow start and takes a while to find its groove (I was almost moved to hug Paul Rudd, figuratively speaking, when he eventually appeared – for he's just a reliably entertaining screen presence), in the end I found it to be rather charming, occasionally very funny, and in a couple of places actually quite scary. The change of scene and introduction of the new group of younger leads, not to mention the way the film is structured, means it has a wholly different energy, atmosphere and tone to the 1984 film – although perhaps this is what makes the brazen recycling of plot elements more palatable. It certainly feels it's working hard to establish itself as its own thing before it wheels on the 'special appearances' by most of the original cast.
In the end it's the warmth and occasional poignancy of the film which really makes it work, and much of this is channelled through an extremely winning and impressive performance by Mckenna Grace. I was certainly filled by a rush of fondness for the original movie; Afterlife may fundamentally be fuelled by a mixture of sentimentality and nostalgia, but that can be a potent combination when it's employed as effectively as it is here. It's not in the same league as the original film, but a worthwhile addendum to it.