Now for a little bit of history. In the summer of 1988, I was 12 years old–just shy of turning 13–and the only two things I cared about in the world were girls and horror movies. I can recall those magical months so clearly because both of my divergent lifetime interests came together in one long, hot, and perfect summer vacation. And so, like some badly scripted and clichéd 1980’s movie or an equally saccharin-sweet Bryan Adams song that was never written, I found both of my first true loves in the summer of 1988.
The first was a girl named Angela and the other was a film called Phantasm II and they both came from Louisville, Kentucky.
Angela and I never had a chance, she was 15 (or so) and lived 800 miles away from me the other 11 months of the year. I knew it would never last and it ended even faster than it began. The movie made it much longer, alas the theater that housed it did not. The Showcase Cinema on Bardstown Road in Louisville–long since torn down–was one of those great movie palaces (not really great) built in 1965 in an Art Moderne style. What I remember of it was that it was this grand antiseptic cavern of mazes with white tile for miles and billboards touting all the big summer blockbusters that were playing. But I didn’t come to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willow or Rambo III (well…maybe Rambo III). I came to watch a sequel to Phantasm–a film that was made a decade earlier and that I hadn’t even seen. In fact, I think it was still several years after I first saw Phantasm II in theaters that I even got around to renting the original film. And like the sequel, the original blew me away. But, probably for different reasons. No, I came to see Phantasm because of the television commercials. Commercials that featured flying silver balls drilling into people heads in the hallways of some dilapidated mausoleum. I didn’t know what the movie was about and for the most part, I didn’t matter. I just wanted to see those overgrown ball bearings burrow into some poor bastards brain over and over again.
With the Region 1 DVD release of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm II, I can finally relive those gory days of summer while sitting in my bed watching a huge plasma television, sipping soda and eating Sour Patch Kids, just like I did back in my old theater-going days. You know, it’s been damn near a decade since I watched Phantasm II. Part of me wonders if it still holds up, and part of me doesn’t care.
For the sequel, the story picks up 7-years after Coscarelli’s original phantastic vision. Mike (now played by James LeGros) is 19 and recently released from a mental hospital into the care of Reggie (Reggie Bannister) But, when the former Ice-cream man finds his friend digging up empty graves in the local cemetery and rambling on about the return of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), Reggie tries to take him home. But the Tall Man has different plans for the pair and blows up Reggie’s house, killing his wife and child. Now, with nothing left to lose, the pair set out on a cross-country journey to find the Tall Man and kill or be killed.
The immediate notable difference between Phantasm and Part II is the scope and budget. This would just about be the only time Coscarelli had any money to make a Phantasm movie. With a budget near $3,000,000 it eclipsed the mere $300,000 that the original film employed. With that brings makeshift shotguns, blown up houses, cars and huge sets like the rows of open graves that Mike and Reggie make their way across in search of the Tall Man. If Phantasm II had nothing going for it, it would have succeeded in one paramount sequel respect. It was bigger.
Now, a lot of you will say, and rightly so, that bigger is not necessarily better. And, in some ways, Phantasm II suffers the same fate as other big money sequels. Despite the monumental increase in budget, the focus of Phantasm II is much narrower. Although all 4 Phantasm films are essentially road movies, Phantasm II abandons the total dreamscape vibe of the first film. Where the original led you to believe that it could have all taken place in Mike’s head, Part II really wants you to know that all the tragedy and all the terror are absolutely 100% real. Amazingly, Coscarelli could have taken the film even further into the realm of the uncertain just as simply as he avoided it. By starting the film and telling the audience that Mike had been in a mental hospital for 7-years, we could have easily been persuaded that–like the original–Phantasm II might just be a further psychotic episode taking place in the lead characters mind. It’s a decision that becomes even more perplexing when you factor in the surrealistic qualities of Coscarelli’s subsequent sequels III and IV.
Watching Phantasm II 21-years after it first ran through the Cineplex, I’m struck by how much more dated the film feels than the 1979 original. It has a solid collection of stock 1980’s moments–specifically the most egregious being the Commando-esque montage where Mike and Reggie break into a local hardware store and after going on a shopping spree for weapons, then re-configure those weapons into Alien-styled flamethrowers and quad-barreled shotguns. Bannister plays his aloof Reggie about the same in all four films, but LeGros’ makes his take on Mike a bit to giddy considering how terrible the kid’s life has been since his brother bit the dust in the first film. The pacing is also a bit off as well, and it feels like the film is pushing toward the climax very quickly, but when it gets near, there is still nearly an hour of film left to unspool, making the last hour seem strangely uneven.
Let’s face it. Phantasm II is as good as it gets for sequels for Coscarelli. It’s not better than the original, but it’s heads above parts III and IV which both suffer from massive budget cuts, over-reliance on the massive amounts of excess footage that the director had left over from the first film’s 2-years of principal photography, and decidedly less than coherent storylines.
The film might not live up to the great and powerful memory of a carefree summer youth where everything was much more urgent and powerful than it is today. But, watching Phantasm II brings a lot of that nostalgia back for me. It probably won’t for you and that’s fine. But when horror films or music fans, or just plain fans of anything that was ever going on when they were 12, tell you that “whatever” is just the greatest thing ever, try to remember what Stephen King was warning us about at the end of Stand By Me. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve”. Movies like life are timeless in their deception. So, it’s hard not to take Phantasm II with a grain of salt if you were coming of age in the Reagan 80’s. If you’ve never seen a Phantasm movie before, I would probably not recommend taking my route and starting at this one. Give the first one a spin then take on number II. Only the faithful “phans” will want to tackle III and IV. The rest of you might just want to stop right here and save yourselves the brain swelling banality of the further adventures of Mike, Reggie and the Tall Man.