Phantasm II (1988) — The ball is back, baby

“You think that when you die, you go to heaven. You come to us!”

Chad’s rating: 3 out of 4 silver killing spheres

Chad’s review: You may want to light the torches and break out the pitchforks, but I was not the greatest fan of the original Phantasm. I appreciate the cult 1979 sci-fi/horror hybrid’s place in the pantheon of great genre films, particularly its influence on The Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead franchises. And it’s impressive that writer-director Don Coscarelli could create a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere on such a tiny budget. But the wooden acting by much of the main cast short-changed the film, never fully drawing me into this strange world.

Still, Phantasm was a unique break from the 1980s slasher onslaught headed our way, thanks to Halloween and Friday the 13th. And it gave us one of the more frightening horror villains with the Tall Man, that malevolent undertaker of the dead, and his army of Jawa-like minions. Not to mention his unearthly flying spheres that will rip you to shreds with the snap of his finger and slice your ears off in the process.

It took him nine years, but Coscarelli finally delivered a sequel to his magnum opus, the latter which ended on an ambiguous note. The director received backing from Universal Studios, arming him with a bigger budget that allowed him to paint on a bigger canvas. But when a big studio is involved, compromises are made. The sequel is a much more mainstream affair, and Coscarelli was only allowed to bring back one original cast member, Reggie Bannister, to reprise his role.

The sequel picks up immediately after the original, with Reggie saving the teenage Mike from the supernatural Tall Man and a group of his tiny zombie-style slaves. Reggie seemingly destroys the Tall Man after he causes his house to explode, but they only delay the inevitable.

Cut to seven years later, and the fully grown Mike is still haunted by the evil undertaker, dreaming of his return and of a beautiful young blonde named Liz. Also sensing his return is Reggie, and the two decide to be proactive and hunt down the alien undertaker. From there, the pair jump in their souped-up 1971 “Cuda,” Dukes of Hazard-style, following the Tall Man’s trail of destruction to end this evil menace once and for all.

The film culminates in the small town of Perigord, Oregon, where the Tall Man has set up shop and is building out his army of dwarf-like zombies. Reggie and Mike soon arrive, meet up with Liz, and kick the Tall Man’s ass in one of those gloriously over-the-top gore-filled finales that only the 1980s could deliver.

Your enjoyment of this much glossier sequel will depend on your mainstream tastes. Director Coscarelli puts every penny of his expanded budget on screen with slicker cinematography, improved visual effects (those flying spheres never looked better), and more detailed prosthetic makeup on those evil minions. The re-casting of Mike, with James Le Gros taking over the role from A. Michael Baldwin, rankled many of the die-hard Phantasm fans. Not to mention Baldwin himself, who bitterly trashed the sequel after its release.

Yet, for the more casual Phantasm fans like myself, Coscarelli strikes the right balance by keeping the surreal atmosphere of the first entry with a more mainstream sensibility. I was reminded of the long-running Supernatural TV series, as Reggie and Mike’s father/son style dynamic resembles the Winchester brothers. There’s also a dash of James Cameron’s Aliens as our heroic duo raids a sporting goods store and assembles an arsenal of homemade weapons, including a goofy DIY flame thrower that Mike is eager to use at every turn.

Ironically, while the original Phantasm influenced the Evil Dead films, Coscarelli plays director tag team with Sam Raimi’s maniacally gory masterpieces. The spectacular sphere sequences with the camera hurling POV style through the mausoleum hallways are full of Raimi’s stylistic flourishes. This is where the larger budget really helps the film, as those shiny silver orbs get a lot of screen time. Including a gore-filled sequence where a sphere smashes into a henchman’s mouth and proceeds to… well, I don’t want to spoil all the fun.

But one can sense the Universal executives handing notes to Coscarelli, wanting a return on their investment. Many sequences resemble the popular Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, diluting the Phantasm’s unique surrealistic flourishes. And while Liz makes for a decent female lead, our other heroine is straight out of the ’80s slasher girl stereotype. Not only is her name (ahem) Alchemy, she looks like she stepped out of Victoria’s Secret catalog. She shamelessly throws herself at the balding, middle-aged Reggie resulting in a ridiculous sex scene.

Despite some of the film’s tonal compromises, I quite enjoyed Phantasm II. I dare say it’s as good and even better than the beloved first entry. And the performance of Angus Scrimm as the creepy Tall Man is a highlight. His thin, tall frame with that sneering grin makes for a menacing presence. While Freddy Krueger was the showman and Jason the silent killing machine, the Tall Man brought an air of mystery and dread, aided by the almost David Lynch-ian atmosphere. Like the Phantasm films, he’s an underrated villain in the sea of schlocky horror sequels that came our way in the 1980s.

Justin’s rating: Mortician vs. Mortician — the ultimate showdown!

Justin’s review: The greatest part of a nightmare is when you can wake up and realize, yes, it was just a dream. Because how horrible would it be if it wasn’t? What if that Tall Man, his enslaved deformed dwarves, and his lethal flying spheres was far more real and terrible than you thought?

For almost a decade, Mike (James LeGros, taking over for A. Michael Baldwin for this installment only) wallowed under psychiatric care thinking that the events of the first film were only a delusion possibly caused by his grief over his brother Jody’s death. But when a psychic girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) calls to him in a vision that the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) is coming for her, Mike and his action hero friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) go on a road trip to face their ultimate fears.

Armed with knowledge of how dangerous the Tall Man is — and armed with a variety of guns, shotguns, flamethrowers, and chainsaws — the duo aren’t quite as unprepared as they were the first time around. Reggie and Mike may be some of the very few horror heroes who actively run toward the danger than away from it in the grand tradition of Ripley, Ash, and a few others.

Phantasm II had me wriggling with excitement to see the good guys start out the film on the offensive as they try to track down the Tall Man and Liz before the worst can occur. It’s less of a surreal dream that the first film was and more of a suspenseful hunt as they hop from town to town that the Tall Man absolutely decimated — and left a few nasty traps for them to discover.

Moving from the ’70s to the ’80s, Phantasm II ejects a lot of the surrealist atmosphere of its predecessor for gung-ho heroes, bloody fights, and a bigger scope. I kind of got the feeling that they were trying to make a slasher franchise out of a movie that was decidedly not that in the least. I mean, doesn’t every ’80s horror franchise have a psychic teen at some point? Anyway, it all sort of works and sort of doesn’t depending on the scene.

A lot can be compared between this and its predecessor and how Evil Dead 2 came out of the first Evil Dead. Both had a start in the low-budget realms of auteur filmmaking only to graduate to a higher budget, more action, and a well-armed hero giving the bad guys what to. That’s not entirely a coincidence, as the director was friends with Sam Raimi and threw a couple of homages to the Evil Dead franchise into this.

What’s most surprising to me about this series is how much continuity there is. I really wasn’t expecting to see the same characters and continuing story, trained as I was for the often scattershot and discombobulated approach that slashers tend to take. This looks to be largely thanks to Don Coscarelli writing five of the films and directing four of them. That’s pretty unusual in this genre.

There are still many of the hallmarks of the series — the muscle car, the death spheres, the grotesque dwarves — and some very striking sets. Seeing people walk through a graveyard where EVERY plot is dug up or the sun shafts coming into a beautiful (and deadly) mausoleum gave this a touch of the artistic.

And while we don’t get many more answers or even much of an expanded mythology in Phantasm II, it has a lot of fun with the general weirdness of the Tall Man and his trappings. The ghost towns that the villain leaves behind may not make sense, but they sure are creepy to roll into at night. And Tall Man’s got new minions with evil morticians and Gravers — zombies who wear gas masks because being undead isn’t terrifying enough.

Phantasm II is full of great action beats, spooky images, and that abject weirdness that I liked so much in the first film. Yet I must acknowledge that it’s also more than a smidge aimless with its plot. Other than tracking down and trying to stop the Tall Man, there’s really no pressing threat or new evil plan that must be thwarted. In that, the stakes feel a little lower than they should, even if the firepower is so much greater. I had a great time, mess and all, and am pumped to see where the series goes from here.

Didja notice?

  • Legend goes that Brad Pitt auditioned for the role of Mike!
  • Minute five, and Reggie is not taking any prisoners
  • That’s a lot of kitchen Jawas
  • Blowing up your house is surprisingly easy!
  • “He destroys towns and plunders the graveyards of their dead.”
  • He dug up THREE coffins in a row? That’s a lot of diggin!
  • Reggie’s house blows up again… this time with this family in it. That’s savage.
  • “Let’s go shopping!”
  • All of the dug up graves in the one town
  • I could really do without Mike’s inner monologue
  • The welding mask and flamethrower combo make you look totally tough
  • Beware reanimating corpses
  • The face coming out of the girl’s spine was straight-up Freddy
  • Killing corpses, are we?
  • Waking up next to your dead (reanimated) husband probably wouldn’t be a good start to the day
  • Her name is Alchemy?
  • Guys don’t pee this close to each other
  • The Gravers are such a cool design
  • “They have no need of your services.”
  • The death spheres got an upgrade
  • Grandma, on the other hand, got a downgrade
  • Smoochin’ in a grave is the ultimate meet-cute
  • Flamethrowers are great to light fireplaces
  • She loves him? She just met him!
  • Cremation incineration is not the best way to go, but I guess you reap what you sow
  • Reggie having fun with chemicals
  • Yeah, let’s split up in the evil morgue where we’re outnumbered 10 to 1!
  • Sam Raimi’s ashes
  • Evil sphere cam
  • He uses the shotgun once and then just throws it aside?
  • Back in the white room. Nothing good ever happens in here.
  • There’s an awful lot of backing up into bad guys in this movie
  • Tall Man gets a ball to the head… and then crumples it up like a coke can
  • And now he’s got an appendage in his skull? What is this guy?

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