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And then there were three
A region 2 DVD review of PHANTASM II by Slarek
 

Note: This review does assume you have seen Phantasm – if you haven't, then you might like to do so before proceeding.

 

It's easy to knock a director for making a sequel to an original work instead of creating something new. I've certainly done it, but even as I did so I knew I was expressing a desire for what might have been rather than appreciating the practicalities of the film world. I've had direct experience of the difficulties of funding a film project, one that ended up being repeatedly compromised to satisfy the uncreative souls who were putting up the cash. I am thus well aware that getting one film funded doesn't mean that the financial floodgates will suddenly open. If you've made something as off-the-wall as Phantasm, even cult success does not guarantee money for future projects. Hollywood may take note and quietly acknowledge the attention the film is getting, but the conservative nature of the studio system means that even a sympathetic executive is unlikely to offer its director a wad of cash to make something completely new. No sir, they want to hedge their bets, and in the case of a successful cult film that means only one thing – a sequel. To Coscarelli's credit, he resisted the temptation for a good few years, but film-makers also have bills to pay and they'd always prefer do so by making more movies. And if a sequel to your own, treasured work is going to be made, who better to do it than you, especially if you have a half-decent budget to work with. And you know what, you might even do it for the sheer joy of working with people you like and respect, and to revisit characters you have become rather fond of.

Don Coscarelli's low budget 1979 Phantasm was a true original, a generic one-off that draws a fairly solid line under the fate of at least two of its main characters. Simply recycling the strangeness would prove a fruitless exercise, especially given that much of it was explained (well, sort of) in the first film's later stages. Add to this the nine years that have elapsed since the original, resulting in a previously juvenile lead who is now in his mid-20s, and you have a challenge on your hands.

Given the above, the first surprise here is that Coscarelli chooses to start his sequel at the very moment that the first film concludes. To do so requires a small cheat, with the transportation to Hell that was suggested by the first film's memorable ending scaled down to a little more than a sharp pull into a wardrobe. This allows Reggie to tackle a whole gang of murderous dwarfs (given nasty faces by the increased budget), bash one of them senseless, rescue the unconscious Mike and blow up the house. It's a breathless opening sequence that signals a tonal shift from surrealistic horror to more action-driven horror, the upped pace matched by the increased invulnerability of the leads, who throw themselves headfirst through an upstairs window and escape without a bruise, a cut or a twisted ankle.

We then hop forward and the older Michael is ready to be released from the asylum in which he has spent the past few years (nine, I'd guess) shaking off all those delusions about a Tall Man, a gateway to an alien world and a murderous silver sphere. Or at least that's what his doctors have been misled believe. The moment Mike's released he's in the local graveyard unearthing coffins and finding evidence of extensive grave-robbing, then he and the still loyal Reggie break into a hardware store and tool up for the hunt to follow. It seems appropriate that it's Reggie who constructs the most memorable weapon, a four-barrel shotgun that you just know is going to play a key role later in the film (though quite why Reggie throws it away immediately afterwards has always bemused me, and presents an early continuity issue for Phantasm III).

It's here that we get our first indication of what prompted Coscarelli's change of approach, the scene irresistibly recalling modern horror's most famous tooling-up scene in Evil Dead 2.* The comparison extends to the increased emphasis on pace and action and the sometimes kinetic camerawork, although there's some seriously smart work here, with an early floating shot used to represent viewpoint of escaping gas – seriously, how many times have you seen THAT? Coscarelli even directly borrows from a scene in Raimi's film, as the fleeing Mike runs through a series of doorways, hotly pursued by both the camera and a sphere that blasts each of the doors off their hinges. It turns out that Raimi was something of a Phantasm fan and was prepping Darkman as Coscarelli was filming this sequel. He even begged him for a cameo appearance – he gets one, sort of, when his name appears on a baggie that crematorium ashes are poured into.

The bigger budget allows Coscarelli to expand on the first film in many respects, including the suggestion that the Tall Man's activities are not restricted to a single location but are gradually laying waste to whole communities and leaving ghost towns in their wake. Thus Mike and Reggie have to take to the road to hunt their prey, who is aware of their pursuit and appears to be thoroughly enjoying the chase and leaves horrible little surprises for them en route. That their journey ends at another mausoleum is neither a surprise nor a disappointment – familiar sights abound (and one favourite line of dialogue), but are nonetheless transformed by budget and scale. The iconic flying spheres in particular have been moved to centre stage and considerably upgraded, and yes, I did use the plural – there are three of them now, able to launch themselves from a rather smart flip-open box and armed with a variety of drills and whirring cutters, whose aural accompaniment has been made even more unpleasant with the addition of whining dental drill noises. We get the inevitable head-hole blood draining, but in a successful effort to top this Coscarelli manages to deliver a sequence that should go down in history of one of the most genuinely horrible committed to screen, as a sphere violently burrows its way through a screaming funeral worker and….oh, but you should see it.

Where the new film treads on slightly shakier ground is its introduction of young Liz and her long-standing telepathic contact with Michael, not to mention the Tall Man's newly acquired telekinetic powers, all part of the expansion process but whose successful integration into the narrative will depend very much on how much leeway you are prepared to cut the film. They didn't really work for me, but I'm sure plenty of fans are happy enough with them – certainly the latter allows for the nicely executed (no pun) hanging of the priest by his own upside-down crucifix-on-a-chain (itself suggesting a satanic rather than alien connection) and the delivery of a favourite line that was cut from the original.

More successful is the introduction of a sex interest for Reggie, in no small part thanks to Samantha Phillips' performance as Alchemy, oozing confident but amused sensuality and turned on most of all by Reggie's shiny dome – "God, Reggie, I love your head!" she says lustily before riding him like a bucking bronco and loudly yee-hawing. And yes, I know she still has her panties on as she does so – just use your imagination.

Although the leap forward in years allows for Mike's change from 12-year-old to young adult, it doesn't matter too much anyway as here there has been a switch of actors, James LeGros (who had already dipped his toes in the genre as a near victim of the bar massacre in Katherine Bigelow's Near Dark) standing in for the unavailable Michael Baldwin and doing rather well. Actually the whole cast are on good form here, with even Scrimm walking a nice line between barnstorming theatricality and genuine menace and Reggie Banister really getting comfortable with his role, proving that he is more than just a cool horror dude.

Phantasm II was never going to match the first film's originality and other-worldly strangeness and recycles a couple too many of that film's scenes and ideas for its own good, but is otherwise a far better sequel than any of us had the right to expect, expanding on some aspects and upping the pace in a way that gives it a distinct identity of its own. It delivers on action, it delivers on horror, and it's a coffin full of generic fun.

sound and vision

Some film grain is evident, but otherwise this anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is very nice indeed, with a good level of detail, strong colour reproduction and contrast and bang-on black levels, showcasing well Daryn Okada's lighting and Philip Duffin's production design.

Of the three soundtracks on offer, the stereo 2.0 is closest to the original release but the DTS gives you the biggest LFE bangs for your bucks, with explosions, music and even the throaty engine noise on Reggie's Cuda rattling the windows.

extra features

The Commentary from director Coscarelli and actors Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrim is, unlike the one found on the Phantasm disk, newly recorded and is an engaging chat about the making of the film and the critical response to it. Samantha Phillips, who plays Alchemy, gets a fair amount of attention and there are some fascinating revelations about the number of people they have met at conventions who were inspired to become embalmers or attend mortuary school by seeing the Phantasm movies.

Fangoria TV Spot starring Angus Scrimm (9:56) is an amateur video taken at a Fangoria convention that wobbles in an out of focus under the low convention lighting. Scrimm plays to the gallery in what is almost a ventriloquist act with his Tall Man impersonation, but the gallery love him, and he's often rather entertaining. If you want to know which of the Tall Man's lines are fan favourites then look no further. He is clearly a big fan of the classic Universal horror films and talks quite a bit about them.

US TV Spots (1:22) features three TV spots from the original release, each different enough from the other to warrant inclusion.

Theatrical trailer (1:19) is presented 4:3 and is rather seductively assembled.

Photo gallery consists of 19 stills, some looking like frame grabs, some press photos and a couple featuring publicity material.

Finally there are Biographies for Don Coscarelli, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrim, Fred Myrow, James LeGros and Kenneth Agar.

summary

If you're going to follow up a cult favourite then this is a pretty good way to go, the shift in approach working well (a similar up-the-action approach also worked for Aliens) and the increased confidence and experience of both actors and crew paying stylistic dividends. The DVD delivers on picture and sound and has a couple of enjoyable extras. On it's own it'll do the job, but as part of the Sphere Box Set it represents fine value.


* Roger Avery, who co-wrote Pulp Fiction and a never filmed version of Phantasm 4, apparently told Coscarelli that Phantasm II's tooling up scene was the inspiration for Bruce Willis's weapon selection sequence in Pulp Fiction.

Phantasm II

USA 1988
93 mins
director
Don Coscarelli
starring
James LeGros
Reggie Banister
Angus Scrimm
Paula Irvine
Samantha Phillips
Kenneth Tigar

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Director and cast commentary
behind-the-scenes footage
Introduction by Angus Scrimm
Trailer
Deleted scenes
Biographies
distributor
Anchor Bay UK
review posted
5 November 2005

The Phantasm Sphere Limited Edition Box Set
Phantasm
Phantasm II
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead
Phantasm IV: Oblivion

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