Phantasm 2 (1988)
4 reviews from the community
Review of "Phantasm 2 (1988)"
That music that bursts to life every time you move that cursor over the Ghost advert? Will be the death of me
The term ‘Life imitates Art’ is a fairly popular one, but it isn’t one I ever foresaw myself using in reference to the rather enjoyable, if entirely insane, collection of horror movies directed by Don Coscarelli known as the Phantasm series. You see, even if you strip back the fantastical elements of the movies, the evil, seemingly invulnerable Tall Man, the deadly flying spherical deathtraps and the nefarious shrunken robed zombies, the Phantasm movies all retain one defining characteristic which is a rather loose degree of continuity and timekeeping, a side-effect of the many dreams and visions that are a staple of the plot. So how has life managed to mimic this?If you’ve read my review of the original Phantasm I stated with a degree of confidence that Phantasm Oblivion was the first movie in the series I watched, purchased on ex-rental DVD in my final year of high school. However, upon viewing the second film again recently for the first time in years my memory has now thrown up having this on VHS, recorded off TV which would surely have pre-dated this. Yeah ok my house may not have blown up, my friends/relatives didn’t die or switch life status at a whim and I’m not being stalked by an otherworldy nightmare, but I can’t help but find it somewhat fitting that a series that throws so many contradictory continuities at you has left me with a genuine quandry as to what order I actually viewed its entries in. It’s also perhaps noteworthy that the recording of Phantasm II I made is to date the only time I’ve actually seen any of the movies shown on TV.
For those unfamiliar with the origins, Phantasm was a 1979 independent horror movie that stood out in the wake of the slew of genre pictures that came in the wake of John Carpenter’s Halloween by not being a slasher film, instead working the audience with a wonderfully realised atmosphere of dread and a frankly crazy story about an evil undertaker from another dimension stealing corpses, shrinking them down into monstrous dwarves and sending them back to his realm as slaves. A spanner is thrown in the works when he reaches the town of Morningside, when 2 young brothers, Mike & Jody Pearson, and their ice-cream vendor friend Reggie cotton on to him and try to take him down.Phantasm is, for me, the quintessential low budget horror movie, and as utterly insane as its plot is, the nightmarish imagery and dream sequences showcase a genuine talent that doesn’t rely on shocks and set-piece killings. With this said, I still feel its huge success was something of a victory against all odds, as it really doesn’t bear much resemblance in tone or content to the many cheap and nasty attempts to cash in on Halloween. Interestingly, despite its excellent box office return it never really kickstarted a prolific career for director Coscarelli either, his next picture being the low-budget Swords & Sandals adventure The Beastmaster in 1982. As such, it must have come as quite a surprise to him when almost 10 years after Phantasm hit screens he was contacted by Universal Studios about giving audiences a second chapter.
When pressed about this, the man himself is quite frank when he asserts that this wasn’t because Universal saw great artistic potential in the saga of the Tall Man, Reggie and Mike, but more down to the fact that in the intermitting years horror movies had taken over the multiplex, with New Line Cinema’s A Nightmare On Elm Street and Paramount’s Friday the 13th movies being an annual money-spinning event. As the decade wore on Halloween became sequelized and new additions to the pantheon of horror icons like Chucky and the Cenobites from Hellraiser started to stake a claim for audience dollars. Universal first tried to get their oar in by dusting off Psycho for sequels, but they never quite resonated with audiences enough to compete with Jason and Freddy. Seeking a potential franchise with built-in name recognition, they turned to Coscarelli to bring Phantasm back.Backed by Universal, Phantasm II would have a budget numerous times the size of that which was used to bring the original together. This studio backed status would come with its share of caveats though. While getting Angus Scrimm back in as the dastardly Tall Man was a necessity, they weren’t so keen on Coscarelli bringing back original leads Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister, despite the fact that the very characters they played were named for them. Coscarelli fought tooth and nail, and eventually a compromise was met whereby he could keep one of the actors, but both would have to audition for their roles.
Ultimately it would be Bannister that would get the nod, most likely due to it being more believable continuity wise to change the actor who was going from a preteen in the original to a young man in the sequel than it would be to pull a switch on a grown man, but it was a decision that didn’t sit well with Baldwin, who had been quoted as being far from a fan of the movie. In his place was drafted the highly touted James Le Gros, who would rather infamously win the role ahead of Brad Pitt, who also auditioned. At least Baldwin was in good company when it came to those passed over!Picking up 9 years after the original movie, Mike Pearson (Le Gros) has been in a psychiatric hospital, who have done everything in their power to convince him the events of the first movie only took place in his head. Feigning acceptance of this, Mike is released into the custody of family friend Reggie (Bannister) who is determined to keep him on the straight and narrow.
To complicate matters, Mike has developed some strange psychic abilities, tying him to a young girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) whom he warns about the Tall Man’s evil schemes. Reggie is finally brought on to the cause when the Tall Man murders his family, and the pair swear to not only stop his evil schemes once and for all, but find Liz in the process. Setting out across the small towns of the North West of the USA, they find many of them decimated, their residents killed and shipped back to his dimension. Picking up a beautiful hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips), our heroes finally catch up with the Tall Man in the small town of Perigord, which happens to be Liz’s home. With all the players now in place, it’s time for Mike and Reggie to gain their revenge on the Tall Man.The most noticeable thing about Phantasm II is that while it retains a lot of the hallmarks of the original, the small town setting, the principal characters and the showdown in the Mausoleum, is that in terms of plot and tone it’s a complete departure from the claustrophic dread and psychedelic horror of the original. As well as the recasting of the lead, a more linear approach with a ban on dream sequences was one of Universal’s remits (which is kind of strange for a franchise so deeply rooted in dream imagery – and given the fact Mike and Liz can communicate with one another in dreams is a fairly major plot point) which leaves you with a more conventional road movie that injects a more prevalent dose of action and comedy into proceedings. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but as with Evil Dead 2, a series Phantasm can’t seem to escape connections with (this is even embraced with a neat Easter Egg) it turns out that instead of proving detrimental, it actually adds up to a pretty fun movie.
It’s quite often that a director, when following up a low-budget original with a much bigger backing, gives in to the temptation of rehashing the original with bigger production values, and as such I find it rather admirable that Coscarelli has in fact went off in an entirely different direction altogether. We still revisit a lot of the original movie’s set-pieces to showcase the better effects, such as going through the gate to the Tall Man’s home world and his infamous flying killer spheres, which are now given a more prominent place, but while the film is still very much Phantasm-flavoured, it manages to avoid coming across as a tired retread.It’s also unmistakably 1980s in execution, the scene in which Reggie and Mike break into a hardware store to customise weapons, including what would become a series trademark of the Quad-Barrelled Shotgun, could almost be edited into a marvellous montage alongside similar scenes from Evil Dead 2 and Fred Dekker’s Monster Squad. I’ll openly admit I’ve always been a sucker for the sort of grass-roots monster-hunting these films present, and Phantasm II handles itself well in this regard.
It also plays up the horror side of things a lot more boldly too. The thing I’ve always found somewhat fascinating about the series is the way it finely toes the line between horror and science fiction, as the Tall Man’s origins are never really dabbled into conclusively, only that he comes from a World that isn’t our own. Is it another planet? Another dimension? Hell? It’s something the series on a whole plays rather loose with, and the closest this film comes to addressing it is in the opening monologue from Liz where she states she isn’t sure where he comes from, another dimension maybe. This presents him as a much more supernatural force, choking a priest with his rosary beads while the camera dwells on the cross on the end becoming inverted, the more gruesome nature of his minions and even his denouncement of heaven all give him a much more occult feel, just to keep the horror kids interested.It isn’t perfect, the whole Mike & Liz psychic link thing doesn’t really go anywhere and could almost be seen as a cheap excuse to try and get out of attempting to build chemistry between them, and the aforementioned lack of any real substantial revelations about the Tall Man make it feel somewhat shallow with regards to its place in series’ canon. I’ve also never been a huge fan of the ending, which feels a bit rushed together for me.
The film’s small cast is perfectly workable. I’m glad Bannister returned, because it’s hard to picture anyone else throw themselves so headlong and straight-faced into the role of a balding ice-cream vendor turned action hero, but while Bannister constantly plays it straight, there is a knowing quality to his performance that you can tell ensures he’s having fun. Likewise Scrimm is really finding his feet in his role as the Tall Man, putting a fantastic scowl and snarl into every line. He may have the least dialog of all the principle characters, but needless to say all of his lines are the best ones. The controversial appointment of Le Gros isn’t one I find particularly bothersome. Yes it is sad to see ‘The Phamily’ divided, but he’s a perfectly amiable lead, albeit the indie-darling he grew into isn’t entirely evident. Both female leads are passable, but also dealing with fairly under-written roles so never really get much chance to shine.The big leap from the first film is in the form of the production values, and while the soundtrack leans heavily on the fantastic score from the original, it sounds a bit cleaner to fit proceedings. The special effects are the obvious improvement, with the film now having the budget to have a man devoted entirely to the creation of the scenes involving the silver spheres that would become the series’ trademark. Steve Patino’s work in this respect is creative and effective, and yes the larger, gold, sphere’s lasers have aged somewhat…they aren’t any worse than what you see in Star Wars. By large the effects sequences, particularly towards the end, are perfectly good.
Overall, while Phantasm II seems to divide the opinions of some ‘Phans’ I for one thoroughly enjoy it. While it’s undeniably a change of pace from the original, I find it a fast-paced, slick and fun adventure filled with some great spooky imagery and action set-pieces. It isn’t art, and isn’t even as artistic as the first movie in terms of creativity, but it is an enjoyable way to spend 97 minutes and I can almost guarantee you won’t find yourself looking at your watch much throughout. As time has went by even Michael Baldwin’s stance on the film seems to have thawed, with a recent book taking a retrospective look at the series finding him in a much more civil view towards it. Sadly the same book was unable to get James Le Gros to share his memories of working on it, which is a shame as I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys his sole outing in one of the most oddball horror franchises of all time.Phantasm II would prove relatively successful for Universal, and while it never quite grew into a juggernaut to compete with Freddy or Jason it did spawn a further 3 sequels.
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Listed on Ciao since: 15/01/2005