“You think that when you die, you go to Heaven. You come to us!”
Chances are your opinion and ranking of the Phantasm franchise depends on which film was your first point of entry. For those that started from the beginning, a literal DIY labor of love that felt more like a surreal stream of consciousness over conventional narrative, Phantasm is the clear winner. But for many, like me, Phantasm II served as the gateway into the series.
The biggest and final theatrical release of the franchise (until 2016’s Phantasm: Ravager), Phantasm II shares a lot in common with Evil Dead II not just in scope but in that it forever alters the course of the series and places an unlikely hero front and center. Released theatrically on July 8, 1988, Phantasm II faced stiff competition amidst summer blockbuster season, but 30 years later remains a highlight in horror.
Writer/director Don Coscarelli never intended for Phantasm to exist beyond the confines of the first film. In his mind, it was a self-contained story where the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) won in the end, as death always does. But the fans clamored for more, and Universal Pictures was very interested in releasing a horror franchise. Coscarelli eventually realized that if he picked up the story right where the last film ended there was a lot more story left that he could tell.
Thanks to studio backing, Coscarelli had a much bigger budget at his disposal. Considering the Phantasm universe has no rules, this meant unbridled creativity and a special effects team unleashed. Special makeup effects designer and creator Mark Shostrom and his team of artists, including Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman just before they formed KNB EFX Group, delivered the best effects of the entire series. The Tall Man’s hooded minions no longer looked like Star Wars Jawas; they were fully articulated monsters. Shostrom himself spent a lot of his time working on the Tall Man’s acid break down in the climax of the film, all oozy, pulsating flesh and yellow blood. The prop team also upped the ante; the silver spheres not only multiplied in quantity but they brought deadly new tricks with them.
For series’ purists, a huge point of contention in this sequel is that it lacks most of the main cast from the first film. A. Michael Baldwin had stepped away from acting in the years between films, and Universal was adamant that a working actor be cast in the now grown role of Mike Pearson. Brad Pitt was among the list of actors who auditioned for Mike, but it was ultimately the chemistry between actors James LeGros and Reggie Bannister that won LeGros the role. LeGros was very likeable as the adult Mike, and his character’s camaraderie with Reggie grounded the film, but ultimately Phantasm II unwittingly established Reggie as the series’ hero.
Though Mike is technically the lead of the film, and Reggie is the savvy, plucky sidekick assisting Mike on his quest to save love interest Liz Reynolds and thwart the Tall Man, it’s ultimately Reggie that emerges as the true protagonist. His sense of humor is a counterbalance to the intensely serious Mike, and the quad-barrel shotgun introduced in Phantasm II harkens to another ‘80s demon fighting hero: Ash Williams. Consistently the one to save Mike time and time again, it is Reggie that audiences tend to gravitate to the most. It’s Reggie that emerged as the action hero.
There’s no light without dark, and the dark heart of the series is the Tall Man. A sort of grim reaper, death personified type, Scrimm created an iconic horror villain. His cold delivery of “Boy!” with his purposeful walk makes him a sort of Boogeyman type that belies the warmth of Scrimm. Scrimm began his career as a journalist and wrote liner notes for artists like the Beatles before eventually becoming the primary villain of the Phantasm series. It was a role he clearly enjoyed playing, and he seemed to enjoy interacting with fans even more. Phantasm II brought his character further into the spotlight of pop culture.
Phantasm II stepped away from the surrealism in favor of conventional storytelling due to its studio backing, bringing in new fans while alienating some preexisting fans. This sequel maintains the series’ rumination on death, but wraps it in an action horror road trip film. It’s fun, and it’s a great showcase of the practical effects work of some of the industry’s top artists. That it was released smack in the middle of summer, facing competition from the likes of Die Hard, Coming to America, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, meant that while Phantasm II was still profitable, it ended the theatrical franchise potential Universal had originally hoped for. The restrictive ratings board didn’t help, either.
Even still, this battle between Reggie and Tall Man holds up well 30 years later.