Unlike so many sports drinks and snack foods in the late-90s, Extreme Ghostbusters earned its extremity. The younger, decidedly hipper team never went after the troubled spirit of a BMX biker or unnecessarily wore sunglasses. Extreme Ghostbusters wasn’t completely blameless – the grunge-caked cover of the theme song does it no favors and the advertising just had to call it XGB – but its oh-so-edgy adjective really referred to the show’s hellbent dedication to scaring the bejesus out of its core demographic.
As it stood, Extreme was already a sequel to The Real Ghostbusters, a series that mixed in more than a little nightmare fuel with Saturday Morning fun until the Family-Friendly Police of 1980s cartoons forced the creative team to cut it out. Before Slimer was promoted to above-the-title talent, The Real Ghostbusters visited various forms of hell, dealt with repressed trauma from a closet-traveling boogeyman and battled a trenchcoated allegory for child abduction. However dark it got, the show always ended with the heroes dancing down the street in their bright, color-coded jumpsuits.
When some of the same producers decided to make a follow-up in the mid-90s, with the far-too-cheery working title Super Ghostbusters, they found a cartoon landscape much more accepting of adult themes. From tip-to-tail, Extreme Ghostbusters would be darker, even in the most literal ways. Gone was the toyetic, crayon-friendly palette and angular, anime-inspired style of The Real Ghostbusters. Instead, Extreme Ghostbusters showed a washed-out world where night seemed to last 23 hours a day and the edges weren’t softer so much as worn down.
The ghosts looked like broken carnival mirror reflections of those from the original series, almost more alien than supernatural (a Men in Black animated series in almost the exact same style would debut a month later). And whereas The Real Ghostbusters relied on a lot of misunderstood spirits that took something more compassionate than a proton stream to evict, Extreme Ghostbusters was almost wall-to-wall poltergeists. Cannibal clowns that spread like an infection. A return of the child abductor surrogate, this time two of them, in an episode that had to be toned down significantly from its first draft. Bone-stealing demons that leave victims barely alive and looking like deflated balloons.
And an entire episode based explicitly on Hellraiser.
“Deadliners” was the fifth episode of Extreme Ghostbusters’ one and only season, first airing on September 5th, 1997. The character list on the final draft of the episode’s script, penned by producer and returning Real Ghostbusters writer Duane Capizzi, makes it plain:
THE VATHEK – a trio of otherworldly, Hellraiser type demons.
With names like “Crainiac” and “Gristle,” these monsters were as close to Cenobites as a cartoon would allow. Dead skin peeled and pulled taut over the red meat underneath. The leader wears a buzzsaw down the center of his skull. Another has no skull at all, but a pile of gurgling flesh folds, an empty sleeve from which a smaller, pulpy nightmare occasionally emerges to scream. Stitched mouths. Surgical drills for hands. Hollowed out eye sockets. On a show frequently and fatally misplaced in a timeslot aimed at preschoolers.
And who’s responsible for these grotesque parodies of human biology?
H.P. Kline – a reclusive horror writer – think Stephen King.
While the episode mentions King and softens the Lovecraft reference by renaming him J.N. Kline, it paints the fictional author most like another famous horror writer. Much like the rhyming R.L. Stine, Kline made a name for himself with a series of adolescent-aimed scary stories to tell in the dark that happen to start with the letter “G.” The only differences are that Kline’s series is “Gore,” the monsters are always the Vathek, and they just so happen to be real.
When reports come in that J.N. Kline has gone missing and locals have started disappearing around his remote, New England home, the Ghostbusters answer the call.
The monsters only borrow Hellraiser’s designs, eschewing the sexual sadomasochism for a motive kids could better understand and subsequently repress – the ritual carving and reconfiguration of human flesh. The Vathek consider skin nothing more than modeling clay and wax about “infinite aesthetic possibility” romantically and emotionlessly, somehow at the same time. The resulting plastic surgery successes are just as disturbing as their creators, if not even more so.
By the time the Ghostbusters find out Kline didn’t create the Vathek so much as make an ill-defined book deal with them, the episode hews closer to Lovecraft and another Lovecraft-inspired work, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, where another author is imprisoned by his fictionalized, if not quite fictional works. As expected, the Ghostbusters eventually defeat the Vathek, conveniently restoring all their butchered experiments to normal (a common, if understandable cop-out for the show).
At the time, syndicated cartoons ran for 65 episodes almost by default; five episodes a week for 13 weeks, allowing stations to easily program a quarter. Extreme Ghostbusters only saw 40 before it was cancelled. If the timeslot killed the show, a few years of erratically scheduled timeslots buried it. Home video did no further favors – six episodes reached VHS and 13 hit DVD, but only in Europe. Extreme Ghostbusters never quite got enough credit, especially compared to its beloved predecessor. At a time when neither was the norm, Extreme followed a diverse cast of characters into stories that toed the line between scary and terrifying for its adolescent audience.
Fortunately, the series is now streaming in its entirety on Hulu, so the curious and the Clive Barker fans can enjoy Extreme Ghostbusters a whole lot easier than ever before.