Monday, October 19, 2009

Phantasm II

While many fans of the Phantasm franchise usually cite the first film as the best one, I’ve always been partial to it sequel. Much like Evil Dead II (1987), Phantasm II (1988) works as a sequel and an upgrade in terms of budget and scope. Phantasm II is also funnier, has more gore and violence than its predecessor. The intellectual part of me acknowledges that Phantasm (1979) is the better film but I enjoy watching Phantasm II more. This franchise is the brainchild of filmmaker Don Coscarelli and works best as it blurs reality and a fevered dream state. The films are best remembered for the menacing presence of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who terrorizes the protagonists of each film, and the deadly flying silver spheres that have a nasty habit of impaling their victims and then draining them of their precious bodily fluids.

Elizabeth Reynolds (Paula Irvine) is a young woman who has visions of Mike and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) from the first film, which is a convenient way for Coscarelli to bring those who haven’t seen the first one quickly up to speed. The Tall Man is an evil mortician responsible for the death of Mike’s older brother. Mike teams up with his friend Reggie and they manage to escape the Tall Man and his minions. This fiercesome figure destroys entire towns and plunders their graveyards to build up his army of vicious creatures which resemble a cross between the Jawas from Star Wars (1977) and the child-sized monstrosities in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979).

Eight years have passed and Mike (James Le Gros) checks out of a psychiatric clinic. He has been having dreams of Liz and hooks up with Reggie in order to find the Tall Man and destroy him. Reggie is reluctant at first, but after the Tall Man blows up his house with his family in it, he enlists “for the duration.” So, they set out in Reggie’s kick-ass Hemicuda muscle car and hit the road. First up, a visit to a hardware store where Mike and Reggie buy all the fixings to make their own personal arsenal: a homemade flamethrower and fusing together two, sawed-off double-barreled shotguns for a truly formidable weapon.

They pick up and follow the Tall Man’s path of destruction: the small towns he destroys as Reggie puts it, “small towns are like people. Some get old and die a natural death. Some are murdered.” Coscarelli not only shows a town that has been abandoned and deserted but even more chilling is a shot of a cemetery that has been completely gutted, every grave dug up and the bodies taken. Meanwhile, Liz is helping her grandmother bury her husband at a cemetery run by, you guessed it, the Tall Man. She’s captured and it’s up to Mike and Reggie to rescue her.

Coscarelli is still able to get a lot of mileage out of the unsettling interiors of a mortuary with its pristine hallways where the deadly spheres roam, looking for new victims. The spheres don’t make their appearance until well into the film but when they do, Coscarelli orchestrates some rather creative mayhem with them, including one embedding itself into the forehead of a hapless priest and another burrowing its way through a man’s body before getting stuck in his mouth.

Surprisingly, the weakest aspect of Phantasm II is James Le Gros, a usually dependable character actor known for strong performances in independent films like Living in Oblivion (1995) and small, but memorable supporting roles in high profile stuff like Point Break (1991). However, in Phantasm II he gives a rather bland characterization of Mike, making one long for Mike Baldwin’s earnest and engaging turn in the first Phantasm. As a result, Le Gros’ character isn’t all that interesting to watch and it’s up to the affable Reggie Bannister to pick up the slack, which he does with ease.

Bannister is the heart and soul of the series and provides the same kind of roguish charm and bluster as Bruce Campbell does in the Evil Dead series. Along with Angus Scrimm, Bannister gets to utter the film’s best lines and delivers them with gusto. His character’s sex scene with the mysterious Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) is hilarious. He also gets to do all the cool action stuff, like a chainsaw duel with one of the Tall Man’s flunkies. Scrimm, with his imposing frame, brings his trademark intensity to the malevolent Tall Man.

Even though the original Phantasm was quite successful, Coscarelli did not want to rush out a sequel right away because he wanted to avoid being stereotyped as a horror filmmaker and set his sights on making a big-budget film. Unfortunately, he went on to make The Beastmaster (1982), a mess of a film that he lost control of; almost directed Silver Bullet (1985), and made Survival Quest (1990), which had trouble getting released. Coscarelli decided to make Phantasm II because he wanted to “get back to having control and making films on my own terms.”

He had an idea for a sequel and retreated to an isolated mountain cabin where he proceeded to hammer out a screenplay in a month’s time. His intention was to make a mainstream film “along the lines of Terminator.” So, he hooked up with Universal Pictures and they gave him $3 million and a 45-day shooting schedule. However, they also imposed some restrictions. Phantasm II had to have a more linear plot line than the first one, no dream sequences and Mike Baldwin would be replaced by James Le Gros. In addition to getting Bannister and Scrimm to reprise their memorable characters, many of the crew members from the first Phantasm also returned.

The film’s interiors were shot in a warehouse in Chatsworth, California with the exteriors filmed at various locations in Southern California. At Sam Raimi’s suggestion, Coscarelli hired Mark Shostrom (Evil Dead II) to create Phantasm II’s make-up effects. Shostrom enlisted Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman as his key assistants. The house that blows up at the beginning of the film was bought from the state for $200. It was going to be demolished anyway to make way for the construction of the 105 freeway. The effects for the silver spheres were split between Dream Quest Images and Steve Patino.

Phantasm II was summarily trashed by mainstream critics when it was released. Roger Ebert gave the film out of four stars and wrote, “The target audience for Phantasm II obviously is teenagers, especially those with abbreviated attention spans, who require a thrill a minute. No character development, logic or subtlety is necessary, just a sensation every now and again to provide the impression that something is happening on the screen.” In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “Mr. Coscarelli tries to keep things moving, deflating the horror with intentionally ludicrous scenes such as this, but the result is all too slow and labored.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “Coscarelli has said he resisted doing a Phantasm sequel because, ‘I didn't want to be stereotyped as a horror film director.’ He need not have worried: he's not apt to be stereotyped as a director of any type.” The Washington Post wrote, “Of course, the 1979 original also had just enough of a script to sustain interest between shock effects. Alas, that is not the case on this go-round, which has a bigger budget but no attendant improvements.”

Once Coscarelli gets the first film recap out of the way, he doesn’t waste any time getting into it, stripping things down to their essential genre elements. It’s all about forward momentum with Phantasm II. With a bigger budget than he had on the first film, he ups the ante in terms of action and gore. The action set pieces are more impressive and the gore bits more creative (even more so in the work print version). Where in the first film Mike and Reggie were always on the defensive, they are much more proactive in this one as they take the fight to the Tall Man. However, much like Evil Dead II, Phantasm II ends on a down note as our heroes are basically screwed and the Tall Man prevails again, thereby leaving things open for Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994).


Check out kindertrauma's take on Phantasm II and also The Lightning Bug's Lair's excellent appreciation of the film.

7 comments:

  1. I always like this one the best myself. It was the first one I actually saw. Not sure how I ended up seeing it before the first one.

    Oh yeah. Make sure you check out my post for Tuesday on The Dino Lounge. I'm giving you an award in it.

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  2. Great review, J.D. And so glad Phantasm II finally made it's way to Region 1 DVD (since all the others had been out for so long). When I saw this at the theater, originally, everyone there seemed to enjoy the heck out of it. That's also a great tidbit regarding the house blown up for the film. I remember biking through that area (of condemned houses) as a boy in the late 60's. The building of the 105 freeway was held up for years and that section of closed up properties stood around till the 80's when construction got the go-ahead. This sequel might be my favorite among all of them in the series. Another wonderful post, J.D. Thanks for this.

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  3. Keith:

    Heh, it's funny you should say that. PHANTASM II was the first one of the series that I saw as well for reasons I can no longer remember. But I really do enjoy the first one and still have yet to see III.

    Thanks for the award, my friend. I will definitely check out your blog for that.


    le0pard13:

    Yeah, it is nice to see this film finally get an official Region 1 release, it's just a shame that it's bare bones. I would've loved to have it had an audio commentary or the excised gore and other deleted footage. Oh well...

    Thanks for that fascinating bit on the house that was blown up. I had no idea the backstory on that.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

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  4. In case you didn't know, you've made it on to QT's New Bev Cinema's marquee: (posted from Twitter)

    Tonight! http://twitpic.com/maf6q

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  5. Heh! I knew I'd get my revenge one day! *insert diabolical laughter*

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  6. That is probably the longest/most well-written group of words ever constructed about Phantasam II. My hat's off to you. I just watched the first one a few weeks ago. I'm not going to say I loved it. The Tall Man is a creepy villain and that one scene is very cool but overall, meh. But to find out that the series has an Evil Dead II brand of sequel is very intriguing.

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  7. elgringo:

    Thanks for the compliments.

    Yeah, the EVIL DEAD II comparison is apt as both adhere to a go-for-broke approach with an emphasis on action and gore. I really do like the first one. It kinda creeps up on ya and gradually works its magic. At least, it did for me. That being said, you should give the second film a shot.

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