Phantasm II
Medium: film
Year: 1988
Writer/director: Don Coscarelli
Keywords: horror, SF
Country: USA
Actor: James LeGros, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Paula Irvine, Samantha Phillips, Kenneth Tigar, Ruth C. Engel, Mark Anthony Major, Rubin Kushner, Stacey Travis, J. Patrick McNamara, A. Michael Baldwin
Format: 97 minutes
Series: << Phantasm >>
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 10 June 2002
This is a pretty accomplished sequel. Some people prefer it to the original - me, I think it's far less distinctive and in places noticeably clunkier, but it does a few things better.
First up, it's not frightening. The first Phantasm was, but the best this can muster is some spooky atmosphere as we drive through the murdered small towns and a few good shocks at those still-gross flying spheres. It also has none of the original's dreamlike feel, having a much firmer narrative. Unfortunately the script keeps our heroes (Mike and Reggie) from the villains (the Tall Man and his lackeys) until the final act. Until then, the story's mostly treading water with atmosphere and mood.
It also feels like a bunch of other films. The original could never be mistaken for anything but itself, but at times this feels like an unholy grab-bag of Ghostbusters, Star Wars, the Aliens franchise and a bit they nicked from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. I also miss the original's score. The old Phantasm theme crops up from time to time, like the Bond theme in Bond movies, but otherwise this is a largely music-free film. Mind you, in itself that's not necessarily a bad thing.
All that said, this film does a few things very well indeed.
Don Coscarelli has said that the original Phantasm was a film about death and its modern American rituals: burial, cremation, embalming and the like. To be honest, I never saw that. So many horror flicks are set around cemeteries, graves, etc. that it just felt like business as usual. However Phantasm II takes that theme a whole lot further. Surprisingly, it's not common for horror films to be interested in death. They love to show messy endings, but what happens afterwards is pretty much glossed over. However here we've got the whole caboodle - grieving, chapels and the rest, shown sometimes in clinical detail. Even the Tall Man is just an evil funeral director. After hunting for him throughout the entire first act, his first words on reappearing are, "The graveside service is about to begin." Thematically Phantasm II is stronger than its predecessor.
Part of this is how old the characters look. James le Gros does surprisingly well as Mike, helped considerably by his resemblance to Brian Thompson. However both Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm are very obviously a decade older. They've turned grey and Reggie has stopped trying to compensate for his baldness with that little ponytail. In a story about shuffling off this mortal coil, it's rather appropriate to have a visual reminder of both the heroes' and villains' mortality.
Phantasm II also has the best "staking a vampire in its coffin" scene I've ever seen, no matter that the corpse isn't a vampire. For once, we actually get a feel for the desecration involved.
However there's a whole bunch of things that don't work at all.
The girls aren't great actresses, with particularly loud raspberries going to the line "And I don't have a clue as to how the hell we're going to get in here." Hint to Samantha Phillips: that's one sentence, not two. Reggie Bannister as, er, Reggie is pretty good except when he's trying to be macho, whereupon he becomes unspeakable. It's possible that this is deliberate (a balding middle-aged former ice cream salesman who thinks he's Rambo) but ridiculous is ridiculous. His chainsaw duel is pretty unbelievable too, but I can forgive that for its cool resolution. Where's the last place you'd want to get chainsawed? Yup, you guessed it.
Angus Scrimm has bags of screen presence, but sucks when trying to beat people up. Similarly the Jawas have gone from being the evil horrors of the first film into just being ugly stunted people. I suppose expecting them to be scary in two consecutive films was too much to ask. And the zombified funeral attendants just don't have the snap of the original's evil dudes. There's a lot of recycling and exploration going on in this script, but precious little actual innovation.
Even the little details niggle. Alchemy has sex with her knickers on?
But overall, this isn't a bad film. Our two heroes are likeable. I was getting ready to hate James le Gros for not being Michael Baldwin, but I warmed to him from the point where he gave a happy grin before saying "let's go shopping" for the Aliens-esque tooling-up scene. It was probably a wise decision to make Phantasm II less confusing than the original, or else the series would have dissolved into incoherence. That way lies Highlander. And at least it's not a beat-by-beat rehash, as with too many sequels, though it continues the same story and themes.
I'm glad I watched this, but I didn't adore it as I did Phantasm. There's nothing particularly original or different about it, but it's a good, solid, interesting film.