If you were expecting me to talk about a certain controversy over a certain upcoming remake, where both sides are either First Amendment-hating radical feminists or raving misogynists nauseated by just the thought of women starring in a franchise film (at least that’s the impression I’m getting from Twitter), then you don’t know this blog! Rather than talking about the pointless Internet pop culture controversy of this five minutes, I’m much more interested in writing about the time another new “progressive” Ghostbusters team fought the Cenobites from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser—sort of.
This is probably the closest you’ll ever come to the Cenobites officially sharing the screen with a Disney logo, by the way.
The episode in question, “Deadliners”, was in Extreme Ghostbusters, a sequel series to the hit Real Ghostbusters animated series, where a semi-retired Egon mentors a group of college students who have been recruited into becoming a new Ghostbusters team. The group itself was a sort of time capsule into the PC concerns of the late ’90s. There’s Eduardo, a snarky Latino; Kylie, a genius goth girl; Roland, who’s black and “does machines”; and Garrett, an athletic paraplegic. Of course, as is so often the case when a team of creatives try too hard to be sensitive, there are visible cracks in the PC edifice. In this case, the one Latino on the team just happens to also be the team slacker, and the black guy is still the one who does not have much of a role except the guy who drives the car, despite being established as the team techie. It’s perhaps not all that surprising that only Kylie, the one out of the team who feels like a fully fleshed-out character not conceived of by some committee, has made the most appearances out of this team in spin-off comic book media.
Honestly, although I’ve watched at least half the show’s run over the years, I’ve never warmed up to it like I have Real Ghostbusters. Don’t get me wrong; it’s objectively true that this show is a huge step up from what Real Ghostbusters became after it got its notorious makeover from a studio-mandated team of children’s entertainment “experts.” Also it holds up better than you’d assume a show called Extreme Ghostbusters would today. It has a personality apart from its predecessor, doesn’t really try to just copy-and-paste the original characters (even Kylie, who serves much the same function on the team as Egon, never comes across as just Young Fem Egon, at least in the sense that she doesn’t seem to have some quirky personality disorder), and even the show’s art style is one of the better examples of the manga influenced-style that was so popular in the era.
The show also had a darker edge than what the Real Ghostbusters had even in its classic phase. As we’ll see, it didn’t hesitate to have nasty, downright morbid things happen to innocents. Of course, the show also often blunted its own edge. For instance (again, as we’ll see), whatever mayhem and horrors the ghosts inflict on civilians would always get reversed by he end of the episode. I suppose there was no way around it, and in the ’90s it was something of a miracle that a Saturday morning cartoon could be this out and proud with its horror elements. It does make for some pretty inconsistent tones, though, which, well…you guessed it, we’ll see.
Okay, I’ll finally get to it. The episode “Deadliners” kicks off with some poor kid who works in a diner being restrained—through intestinal-looking ropes, no less—while the trio of hideously disfigured beings, later referred to as the Vathek, prepare for surgery. Not only does the audience get a bit of a view of a pan of torture devices, but we get a shot of hooks and chains that totally makes the Hellraiser influence plain.
They even kind of get the motives of the Cenobites right. I mean, obviously they can’t mention the idea from the original movie and the novella it’s based on, The Hellbound Heart, that the Cenobites experiment with the extremes of pleasure and pain and as a result are sought out by hedonists. But we do get this:
“Flesh. To our specimen a suit of skin.”
“To us, sculpting clay.”
“A blank canvas promising infinite aesthetic possibility.”
It’s not the same, but there’s still the same sense of the Vathek acting as extreme artists and explorers in human experience (just in physical appearance instead of sensation) and, depending on how you look at it, also preserving the idea that they think they’re doing their victims some kind of favor. And this is all capped off by the audience losing sight of the Vathek and their victim, hearing only a scream.
You can almost hear the censors snoring.
Much to my own disappointment, though, the opening was the most Clive Barker-y thing in this episode. We get to the Extreme Ghostbusters, who are engaged in the kind of lighthearted bickering which was more interesting if you were a kid in the ’90s and remembered the bland friendliness most protagonists had with each other in ’70s and ’80s cartoons, but which now as an adult makes you wonder if these people just secretly loathe each other.
They’re watching a news report about J.M. Kline, who had mysteriously disappeared for months. Obviously it’s meant to invoke R.L. Stein, especially because the TV reporter refers to him more than once as a “children’s author.” I think the screenwriter was still trying to slip more Clive Barker references past the goalie, especially because we see that the covers of J.M. Kline’s books look like this.
Can you imagine a book like that making it to kids’ hands past the moral guardians who freaked out over Goosebumps and even just Harry Potter?
While the Ghostbusters talk about Klein, it comes out that Eduardo is a fan and Garrett is an aspiring horror writer, enamored not of the craft but the potential Stephen King-esque fame. Because Garrett is so arrogant, though, his latest story is just Mary Sue fic of Twilight proportions. I do understand why they wanted the one handicapped character to be confident and even a jock, but at least in the episodes I’ve seen it’s less confidence and more being a narcissistic ass.
Naturally it quickly turns out that the news report ties in with their latest assignment, the disappearance of the waiter and ghost sightings around a rural diner and bed-and-breakfast, both of which happen to be near Klein’s mansion. At the bed-and-breakfast Ghostbusters encounter not just the Vathek, but their deformed victims. The Ghostbusters’ proton beams do seemingly destroy the Vathek, but they can quickly and effortlessly rematerialize, so the Ghostbusters barely manage to hold their own, much less save the bed-and-breakfast staff and guests and Roland from being captured by the Vathek.
Kylie is able to connect the dots, thanks to Eduardo recognizing the Vathek from one of Klein’s books, and finds out that the Vathek are entities who have to use a writer and thier work as a conduit to appear in the material world (just imagine the Vathek channeling themselves through Fifty Shades of Grey). With Kylie’s requisite diagnosis out of the way, the remaining Ghostbusters take the fight to Klein’s mansion. There they manage to rescue Roland and find that Klein himself is also a prisoner, literally chained to a desk to write a new book whose completion will end with the Vathek permanently manifested in reality.
Although he is busy being a jackass, to the point that he almost turns his proton pack on one of the Vathek’s converted human victims even though it doesn’t pose any direct threat, Garrett does figure out that the Vathek can be defeated by taking over Klein’s writing. In a genuinely funny twist (un-twist?), Garrett is too crappy a writer to come up with a way for the Vathek to be logically neutralized, so Eduardo simply destroys Klein’s typewriter and manuscript with a proton beam, banishing the Vathek from Earth. All the Vathek’s victims revert to normal (boo!) and Klein writes a new bestseller about his encounter with the Ghostbusters, describing Garrett as the “loudmouth guy in the wheelchair.”
It’s hard to judge the episode without getting stuck on the Hellraiser-esque intro, which managed to feel more faithful to its inspiration than some of the later sequels in the Hellraiser series! But once you’re past the intro, the novelty isn’t quite as stark. The designs of the Vathek—and some of their victims—are still grotesque, and the unseen horror of what the Vathek exactly do to their victims is effective, but you do wind up on more familiar, if slightly darker than normal, late ’90s Saturday morning cartoon territory.
As I mentioned above, though, this was an issue with the show in general. Real Ghostbusters—pre-executive meddling, anyway—did a better job of balancing its darker elements with the overall lighthearted core of the show. This was true even when the show tapped into the bleak universe of H.P. Lovecraft, at least until Cthulhu was shown to have one hell of a grudge against Coney Island. It’s still an entertaining episode from a slightly-above-average animated series of the time, but things like the Vathek’s victims acting completely normal after the Vathek are banished despite basically being mutilated and brainwashed is a bit too jarring, at least to an adult viewer.
If you’re still not satisfied, you know someone out there is hammering out a War & Peace-length Pinhead versus the original Ghostbusters fan fic epic, if they haven’t already!