Phantasm II (1988)
Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Starring: James LeGros, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Paula Irvine, Samantha Phillips, Kenneth Tigar, Ruth C. Engel, Mark Anthony Major
(out of 4)
This is what happens to people who sell me R2 units with bad motivators!
The sequel to Don Coscarelli’s cult flick Phantasm arrived almost ten years later, which is pretty rare in a world of sequels that producers try to crank out as soon as possible lest the audience quickly lose interest in them. (The only other film I can think of that is in this boat is Psycho II, another Universal product, which was made 22 years after the original). A quick check of IMDB confirms that Don only did one other film in between, and that was the Marc Singer sword and sorcery flick The Beastmaster. Frankly, we are lucky to see a sequel at all; most likely we have an unnamed Universal executive to thank, who liked the first film so much that he used his influence to get the the followup green-lit. While Coscarelli, Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister were thankfully set to return (and with a much higher budget), A. Michael Baldwin would be replaced by James LeGros for the role of Mike. (Trivia! LeGros was also chosen over Brad Pitt!) Executives also wanted a female lead (Paula Irvine) and a linear plot-line was demanded (no dream sequences). Yes, the dirty fingerprints of a board of executives are all over Phantasm II – it’s a wonder that the film is as good as it is, for which I must give main credit to Reggie Bannister, a decent budget, and Coscarelli’s ability to gleefully and without shame throw his horror cinema influences up on the screen.
Is it my snoring?
Phantasm II picks up right at the end of the first movie, where Reggie saves Mike from the Tall Man and various killer dwarfs (who we can now see in big-budget closeup) by blowing up the house. Years later, Mike is being released from a mental hospital only to find Reggie denying that anything ever happened that night. Reg changes his tune when the Tall Man returns and blows up his family. From that point on, Phantasm II turns into a road picture, where our reluctant heroes travel around the Pacific Northwest in their Hemi ‘Cuda looking for a little revenge. In the meantime, Mike has developed a psychic link with Liz (Paula Irvine), who, like himself, can see the Tall Man in her dreams. While ruminating that small towns are like people – some die naturally and some are murdered – the duo follow our favorite undertaker’s path of destruction until catching up with him in a little place called Perigord, Oregon. After Mike finds Liz, who has just escaped an attack from one of the Tall Man’s balls (LOL!), Reggie hooks up with cute hitchhiker Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) before everybody meets for the final showdown at the morgue, which involves more dwarfs, a chainsaw duel, a quick trip through the infamous space gate, and.. more balls (one of which is gold).
This guy's got some set of balls!
There’s no way that this film has higher aspirations or is scarier than the original, but it is certainly more fun. Therefore, I judge it based on what I believe its intentions are, which is to be a campy, funny B-picture, more than suitable as a Friday-night date movie. Like the original, it’s trash; unlike the original, it has no real subtext, but Coscarelli knows how to deliver the goods in a manner not unlike walking through a theme park attraction – the “frights”, if I can call them that, come in waves and set pieces. Scrimm is still threatening as the baddie, but Bannister really shines here, delivering a performance only a few degrees separated from Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. He’s a bad-ass, he’s horny, and he has no idea what he is up against, but he seems to hold his own when the chips are down. I think a lot of what works about him is his appearance (as “a middle aged, balding, ex-ice cream vendor”) and his various facial expressions which convey how he can’t believe this stuff is happening to him. As for directing duties – I think Coscarelli operates from a background with a broad knowledge of B-cinema, particularly, but not limited to, the 1970s. Reggie’s chainsaw fight reminded me of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, the Tall Man’s crushed-down minions are Jawas right out of Star Wars, as is a scene with a big, bad killer gold sphere which shoots out red lasers in a light-saber “whoosh” fashion. There’s an early sequence where our heroes break into a hardware store and grab all types of guns, shovels, torches, and chainsaws, which conjure up images of Commando(!) and, again, Sam Raimi pictures (Raimi and Coscarelli are said to be good friends – a quick shot of a person’s ashes in a bag labeled “Sam Raimi” is the icing on the cake). Not enough? I also saw nods to Tenebre, From Beyond, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3.
General Sherman is goin down!
What doesn’t work about Phantasm II is its love story, which is so ridiculous that I can’t even bring myself to comment. Some of Irvine and LeGros’ scenes are wince-inducing; Samantha Philips fares better – she’s sexy in a way atypical of Hollywood scream queens. I also found the anti-Catholic element interesting – it’s so overt I wonder how that passed the studio’s PC filters. A scene where the Tall Man chokes a priest (Kenneth Tigar) with his own rosary (with a clear shot of the upside-down cross) got me to raise my eyebrows, but perhaps that’s my latent Catholic upbringing coming out. There’s also the geeky thrill in watching the Tall Man get his yellow blood sucked out of his head only to crush the killer sphere like a tin can and toss it away. What a show-off! The ending of Phantasm II makes not a lick of sense, but then again the ending of the first Phantasm didn’t either – at least this movie isn’t pretending to be anything but an amusing drive-in diversion; it plays everything tongue-in-cheek so why should we take its finale seriously? Phantasm III would follow six years later, and Phantasm IV another four years after that, but if I were you I’d stick with this one for your party movie.
Please don't look... he cannot go while you are watching.
Universal Studios finally releases Phantasm II on Region 1 DVD, over 20 years since its release. Well, better late than never. The bad news is that this is indeed a Universal release, and that means you won’t get jack shit in extras except for the movie itself (with a simple stereo track) and a trailer. The good news is that this is the best I have seen the film look in ages. It’s a nice anamorphic widescreen, so it’s probably still worth picking up so you can donate your VHS to charity.
- Bill Gordon