Written and directed by: Don Coscarelli
Starring: Reggie Bannister, James LeGros, and Angus Scrimm
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Come on, you mutha!"
Of all the major horror franchises, the Phantasm series seems to be overlooked in favor of its more famous contemporaries, such as the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street series. I've never quite understood why this is the case, but I suppose it derives from the fact that the series never attained the mainstream success like those films. Most fans in horror circles rightfully cite the original as a classic of the genre, but I feel that the series as a whole is one of the most consistently well-done franchises in the genre. This perhaps owes to the fact that the series' creator, Don Coscarelli has remained on board as writer and director for each installment in the series, which is something that most franchises can't claim. The first sequel in the series, Phantasm II, arrived nearly ten years after the original, and still stands as the only studio-backed entry in the series.
Despite the ten year gap separating the production of the first two films, Phantasm II picks up right where the first film left off. After a short sequence that informs us that a young psychotherapy patient, Liz, has developed a psychic bond with Mike Pearson, we are returned to the Tall Man's appearance at the end of the original film. As he and his minions descend on Mike, Reggie attempts to fight back before he is eventually forced to turn on the gas taps on his fireplace. He then grabs Mike and crashes through the window just as the house explodes. The Tall Man, however, escapes, and Liz continues to tell us that he spent the last few years plundering graveyards, leaving ghost towns in his wake.
The film then presents our antagonist, Mike, who is released from the Morningside psychiatric clinic after telling the doctor that his encounter with the Tall Man was simply an illusion. Once freed, Mike starts digging up graves at a local cemetery until he's interrupted by Reggie, who offers to take Mike home. Before they get there, however, Reggie's house mysteriously explodes, killing his entire family. As a result, Reggie and Mike vow to set out and destroy the Tall Man once and for all. The pair's travels take them to various ghost towns in the Pacific northwest before they finally meet up with Liz, a hitchhiker named Alchemy, and, finally, the Tall Man himself in a climactic showdown.
Phantasm II displays a distinct shift in tone from the original film, which was a very understated and almost gothic horror film. The sequel trades in this aesthetic for a more fun, action-filled approach without the psychological undertones of the first film. Coscarelli himself admits that such a choice was the result of studio pressure, which usually signals trouble for a film. However, Coscarelli did his best with the hand dealt him, as the tonal shift works very well for the sequel, which is ultimately a lighter film than its predecessor. A lot of horror fans tend to dislike when a series takes a turn towards a lighter tone, but Phantasm II manages to blend horror and action into an entertaining film.
The film's story really makes such a shift necessary, as the mystery aspect of the first film falls a bit by the wayside. While we do learn a little bit more about the Tall Man, this film operates on the assumption that we already know all the necessary information. Thus, Reggie and Mike spend the majority of the film very much prepared for the Tall Man and his minions, and there are several action set pieces involving them. There are some well done horror moments, too, however, and most of them recall sequences from the first film that involved the infamous spheres (identified as Sentinels in the third film of the series). Furthermore, while the overall tone of the film has changed from the original, there is still a sense of gothic desolation during several of the film's sequences.
Another studio mandated change for the sequel is the replacement of A. Michael Baldwin with James LeGros in the role of Mike Amazingly enough, Universal actually made both Baldwin and Bannister audition for their roles in the original film. Luckily, Bannister got to keep his role, a fortunate turn because he's truly the heart and soul of the film (if not the series). Baldwin's absence is noticeable, but the presence of Bannister helps. This is not to say that LeGros turns in a bad performance--it's adequate enough--but, for continuity's sake, I would have preferred Baldwin. Also, the love story (another Universal mandate) involving Michael and Liz feels forced and out of place, and the film wouldn't have suffered had it been excised. There's a bit of a lengthy sequence involving Liz in the middle of the film that bogs down the proceedings as well; however, for the most part, the film moves at a nice pace. The final major principle from the first film is the Tall Man, who is again portrayed by the delightfully menacing Angus Scrimm. We do get to see a bit more of the series villain in this film, but he ultimately remains a fairly mysterious figure, which is one aspect of the original film that rightfully retained here.
Though Phantasm II is very different from the original, it stands as a great sequel that is a lot of fun. Suffice to say, I would ride with Bannister until the 'Cuda's wheels fell off, so anything that involves Reggie taking on the Tall Man and his Jawa impersonators is right up my alley. Also, I still find the Tall Man to be one of the most unique horror villains to this day, which makes all of the Phantasm films fascinating. In many ways, the first sequel defines the tone of the middle entries of the series, as both are essentially fun films that involve Mike and Reggie attempting to unravel the mystery of the Tall Man. Both middle sequels are more cinematic and linear than the series's two bookends, which have a more dreamlike tone; however, they all fit together nicely to form one of my favorite horror franchises.
Despite the fact that it is the first sequel in a fairly well known horror series, Phantasm II is conspicuously absent on DVD in Region 1. It's no secret that Universal hasn't been exactly enamored with the series since this film didn't perform up to financial expectations. However, there are far more obscure titles that have received a DVD release out there, and I'm surprised by Universal's downright refusal to do anything with the film. Coscarelli has spent the last few years obtaining the rights to all of the Phantasm films in the hopes of being able to release a comprehensive box set similar to the Region 2 release.
However, Phantasm II has served as the biggest road block because Universal has no intentions of selling the film to Coscarelli, nor do they seem particularly interested in releasing it themselves. My guess is that they're waiting to cash in on the long-rumored fifth installment in the franchise or a potential remake (whichever comes first). Either way, the fans are losing out here, so Universal needs to do the right thing sooner rather than later. If you're even a casual Phantasm fan, I urge you to write Universal and let them see that there's a demand for the title. While it's not quite the essential classic that the original film is, Phantasm II is a great horror film that deserves a better treatment on home video. Once the film is finally released on DVD, no horror fan should be without it. Buy it!
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