Hey guys, remember that time when a new Ghostbusters title with a new team was panned by established fans for being too different and "too politically correct?" Yeah, the good old late 90's!
Sure, at first glance, Extreme Ghostbusters might come across as aiming a little hard to go darker than its predecessor The Real Ghostbusters, but frankly, this is one of those rare cases in which an attempt at "grittiness" was truly pulled off in a kid's show.
The very fact that this was a kid's show did a lot to reign it in, keeping it from going too over the top into the laughably "edgy," even if network limitations did stifle it on a few points. For now, let's do a quick rundown of the main team:
From left to right, we have Garret, the sarcastic jock of the four who uses a wheelchair to get around, Kylie, a goth (remember those???) with active interest in the paranormal, Eduardo, who just kinda showed up one day and got sucked into wrestling dead people, Roland, a tech geek who works on the team's gear, and of course good old Egon Spengler, the mentor figure who feels too old to keep busting on his own. At the time that this aired, The Real Ghostbusters had a small but hardcore internet fandom torn asunder by the addition of these new characters, both because they were new characters at all and because they differed from one another in ways that some people, for some reason, believe is too unlikely in a television series to be anything other than "liberal progressive pandering." We've sure come a long way from those days!
I'd go so far as to say, however, that I actually like this team a little better than the first. Even having been a child at the time of the original four, the chemistry between the "Extreme" busters was just a little bit more interesting. They had fights, they had flaws, they screwed up a lot and just felt a little more human than the picture-perfect friendship and competence we saw in Egon, Ray, Peter and Winston.
What we're really here for, of course, are the ghosts, and while "Extreme's" ghosts are missing the free-spirited wackiness I loved so much in "The Real," character and creature designer Fil Barlow gave the monsters in this series a gorgeously menacing, biological look and feel he would also bring to such cartoons as Godzilla: The Series and Starship Troopers: Roughnecks. Incidentally, Fil is still at it today, and you can show your appreciation for his 30+ years of animation work by supporting his patreon, which will even grant you access to exclusive production artwork of the very ghosts we're about to review!
Series Intro: Loco Ghost Train
We'll be looking at actual series screenshots for the majority of these, but one of the most incredible designs in the series can only be seen in the first few moments of the introduction sequence, obscured by an entourage of lesser phantasms. This art comes courtesy Fil Barlow's own Deviantart, and you can appreciate the mix of the otherworldly and absurd on display here, Barlow's own homage to those zanier Real Ghostbusters specters by Everett Peck.
It's hard to adequately express how much I love this design. I love the wheel of tongues borrowed from one of my favorite 80's ghosts, the eel-like head with its own wheels, the one-eyed engine with its smokestack mouth and even those goofy, gloomy eyes on the back, giving this being a total of three "faces" and none of them remotely human.
Interestingly, those little ghosts accompanying the "train" in the intro would reappear throughout this series whenever a storyline called for incidental swarms of weaker manifestations. It's still too bad that this series never swamped us with hundreds of completely unique beasties like the good old days, but if it was going to have a set of "stock" specters, I'm glad they were these six. Barlow really whipped up a wonderful mix of the comical and creepy for this bunch, and it isn't easy to pick a clear favorite, but as cool as tentacle and eyeball might be, it's actually spiney that draws me in the most. It really looks like something that may, at one time, have been the soul of a dead human being, but its form has warped and deteriorated even worse than good old Slimer.
This is another new ghost most prominently - but memorably! - featured only in the series intro and a very brief cameo in a later episode, but what a superb design. The ridiculousness of it is exactly what makes it surprisingly frightening, and you really have to check out that intro to appreciate the unpleasantly soft, rubbery way this entity moves. When we finally see it in the show? It is always, ALWAYS giggling. Always.
Darkness at Noon: Achira
So, our first "series proper" ghost is this goddess of destruction, Achira, primary antagonist of the two-part series premiere. Her human form isn't particularly outstanding, but just look at those eel-like arms of hers, actually capable of detaching completely. Those rasping, tooth-covered tongue-gums are an anatomical feature I've honestly never seen before.
Achira reveals her true face only when she's amassed enough power and gotten pissed off enough, a beautifully bug-eyed, emaciated ghoul with skin that's actually froggy green under normal lighting conditions. The really best part of Achira, though? Her "babies."
Achira actually inflicts humans with a hideous, ectoplasmic skin infection wherever she goes, breaking out her victims in green boils that eventually hatch, like a Surinam toad, into Achira's squeaking, flapping ray-like spawn. Look at those absolutely precious glassy eyes and toothless little hose-mouths!
Once her human hosts have nurtured thousands, millions of the little sweeties, Achira summons them to her and absorbs their collective power, essentially using live humans as a growth medium for more of her own ectoplasmic mass. Awesome. Some fans have lamented that this series neither begins nor ends with any major villains from existing series continuity, but Achira feels like a pretty worthy and memorably unsettling first opponent.
True Face of a Monster: The Golem
Immediately following the series opening is a very different, very bold episode about an authentic, Jewish golem...created by a young rabbi to exact vengeance on a gang of antisemitic skinheads. Yeah, "Extreme Ghostbusters" goes there. I realize this episode is probably aiming for one of those crappy "anger is the real evil" or "don't sink to their level" morals when a rampaging golem seems, to me, like pretty fair play against violent racists, but it's pretty much the only way 90's cartoons were even allowed to address prejudice, and it does a better job with the material than most.
The golem is a pretty exceptional specimen as well, its visage far grislier than your typical giant, clay statue-man. Barlow mentions on his Patreon that he wanted the Golem to look pained and resentful of its very existence, and I think the execution is right on target.
Fear Itself: The Biker
This is another minor ghost with a more "Real Ghostbusters" vibe, and just what I love to see in the more humanoid spirits of the Ghostbusters property: you can tell this thing was once a person, but its afterlife has twisted it into an outrageous caricature of who it once was. A throwaway line in another episode even implies that human ghosts are, indeed, "uglier" depending on their emotions and deeds in life...
...So just how sleazy did this guy have to be that he has a fanged, six-eyed, secondary head for a "tongue?"
That's a serious question. What do I gotta do to look this good?
Fear Itself: Fear Itself
So maybe you remember that I actually reviewed this very episode four years ago, but at the time, the series wasn't even available in high quality without the ghost of Mickey Mouse looming over every scene.
To repeat myself from the review, Fear Itself might be my favorite ghost in the series. It's one of those monsters that brings people's ultimate phobias to life, something we've seen in almost every fantasy and science fiction series on the planet, but this one is motivated primarily by its own utter terror of the world around it. All this withered, shivering little rat-bug wants is to be left alone, and in one of the sweetest endings of an otherwise more cynical series, the Ghostbusters actually take pity on the creature. Its home in an abandoned maintenance tunnel had been invaded by pure accident, and all they have to do is seal up the wall again to leave the timid demon in peace.
Deadliners: The Vathek
Deadliners is an episode so intense, I just might be giving it a review all its own some day. In a nutshell, a series of gruesome Young Adult horror novels - a simultaneous parody of Goosebumps and the works of Clive Barker - turn out to be the supernatural gateway through which entities known as the Vathek are manifesting into our own world. It's unclear whether they existed in these forms prior to the books or simply took on the forms of these fictional villains, but they consist of Craniac, with the saw in his head, Gristle, with drills for hands, and Corpuscle, with the sphincter for a head and eyes in his palms.
Corpuscle in particular is noteworthy for two reasons: his sphincter head conceals a shrieking, rabid fetus-man, and he's performed Billy West with almost the same voice he would use three years later for another monstrous medical professional of dubious legitimacy, Doctor Zoidberg. No joke. Track down the episode to hear Zoidberg threatening "YOUR FLESH IS OURS."
The Vathek see themselves as visionary "artists," and use a mix of physical surgery and some sort of otherworldly alchemy to reconstruct living, screaming human victims into creatures as twisted as themselves:
Look at these designs. These aren't even half of them. It's understandable that they're seen so, so briefly in the episode itself; we've reviewed a lot of morbid kid's cartoons on this website, but Deadliners takes the cake, softened only by a corny ending that magically restores everyone to back to the way they were before the Vathek came into being. Softened, unless you were one of the many, many children who probably shut it off in terror halfway through...and a happy ending doesn't undo the fact that we just saw a bunch of hell doctors turning people inside out for kicks.
Casting of the Runes: Messenger of Kahlil
In this episode, a bag of tiny, stone runes - think "scrabble pieces" - are stolen from a museum and pass through a number of human hands. Unfortunately, anyone who holds one of these runes is quickly kidnapped by an enormous demon, reaching right out of a portal and disappearing without a trace.
The design of this demon is interesting enough, but much more interesting for the fact that the script only describes it as a "dog faced demon." Bored by the description, Barlow provided them this armor-plated beast with sunken eyes and little in common with a dog, a running scenario throughout the production. Even Achira up there was only scripted as some sort of "snake woman" by a writing crew who knew jack-all about interesting creature design. With a more literally minded art team, this show could have been a catastrophic bore.
Casting of the Runes: Kahlil
So here's "Kahlil" himself, looking his absolute best as he screams and tantrums on the floor in his final moments. Despite the baby-like proportions, Kahlil is large enough to swallow a human whole, and nearly does exactly that to Eduardo. The humans collected by Kahlil's runes serve as eternal slaves in his personal dimension, performing such tasks as polishing his collected artifacts and transcribing his immense mountain of personal memoirs; essentially little more than a spoiled brat who fancies himself a high-society god.
The Infernal Machine: Luko
In a rare Roland-centric episode (seriously, the writers seldom knew what to do with the poor guy - one of the show's more glaring stumbling blocks) this electrical entity possesses the tinkerer to obsess over visions of a bizarre machine with an unknown purpose, tormented until he simply cannot resist building it.
Naturally, the purpose of the machine is to serve as Luko's ideal physical vessel, with spider-like legs and even a raygun. It's almost funny for a mysterious demon to just want a glorified mecha suit it can smash buildings with - you kind of expect something more epic, like a dimensional gateway generator or a time machine - but it's exactly what I like about Luko. He just wants to be a big robot with a goofy spinning mobile on top.
Home is Where the Horror is: The Furniture
This is another episode I could easily devote a whole article to. The episode features a "haunted house" that people just keep disappearing into, and the PKE readings are completely off the charts. The first ghosts encountered are these wonderful animated furnishings, including this double-mouthed chair and simply flawless thorny lamp monster.
The haunted couch isn't so bad either, looking delightfully like something out of a darker, more menacing Pee-Wee's Playhouse.
...Or a little less dark and menacing, depending on your perspective.
Home is Where the Horror is: Cuckoo Clocks
A room completely lined with dozens and dozens of cuckoo clocks is unsettling enough if you're not in the home of a professional cuckoo clock expert, and even that's only marginally less disquieting, to be honest. These cuckoo clocks, however, are home to these wonderful ectoplasmic bird creatures, with naked chicken bodies and huge, weird heads more like something only partially succeeding at recreating a bird.
Home is Where the Horror is: Kitchen Monster
When the busters invade the haunted kitchen, a collection of pots, pans and utencils hurl themselves into a potbelly stove and melt together almost instantly, emerging as this red-hot, flame-belching metal beast a lot more disturbing than such a thing has any business being. The little "tongue" in that big, empty void of a mouth is my favorite detail.
Home is Where the Horror is: The Feeding Form
Have you guessed that the "haunted house" is a little more than that? The entire house itself is actually the episode's ghost, or rather the ghost's "digestive system," generated to trap and consume people whose souls continue to haunt the supernatural stomach as a part of its defenses, and when the time comes to feast on its captives, the house manifests this hulking green beast with dozens of stalked, leech-like internal mouths...though this is still not, in fact, the entity's "true" form.
Home is Where the Horror is: The "Dragon"
Once again, Barlow spins gold out of an uninspired description. The episode writers wanted the "real" monster to be what they only called a "dragon," manifesting at the last minute from the mansion's grotesque door knocker. Drawing more from intestinal worms and abyssal sea life, Barlow provided this gloriously parasitic looking horror with a face like the half-rotten mutant offspring of a mole rat, a platypus and a sturgeon.
The house-worm is as good a point as any to end on for now, but we've got enough ghosts for at least two more rounds of this, and if you like what you've seen so far, consider supporting Fil Barlow himself, who graciously provides gorgeously remastered versions of his original designs for $1 patrons and entire pdf's of production material for $5 pledges!