Studio: Universal Studios
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writer: Don Coscarelli
Producer: Roberto A. Quezada
Stars: James Le Gros, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Paula Irvine, Samantha Phillips, Kenneth Tigar, Ruth C. Engel, Mark Anthony Major, Rubin Kushner, Stacey Travis, J. Patrick McNamara
Several years after their first encounter with him, Reggie and Mike track the Tall Man to a new mortuary in an abandoned town.
“Phantasm II” is a mysterious movie, albeit in a different way than its predecessor. It still has the same dream logic and non-sequitur element introductions that gave “Phantasm” (review here) its nightmarish distinctiveness. But the switch from guerilla indie effort to $3 million studio sequel necessitates some behind-the-scenes influencing that elevates the film to a wholly different plane of inexplicably weird.
“Phantasm II” released nine years after the original, yet it has only been eight since new character Liz Reynolds had her first vision of Mike and Reggie with the Tall Man, and just seven since Mike was institutionalized for the supposed delusions suffered in the first film. The number of minutes ticked off the clock from the opening title hasn’t even hit double digits and already facts aren’t lining up.
Psychic-powered blondes were all the rage in 1988 horror films like “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” and “Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood,” so “Phantasm II” would be crazy not to have one of its own. Liz has never met the aforementioned men, though she has dreams of their Morningside misadventures regularly. This gives her an unspoken bond shared with Mike that later sees the duo locking lips immediately upon their first meeting and telepathically professing their love for one another just two scenes after that. You can practically see the studio note insisting on a love interest, and writer/director Don Coscarelli pulling some seeming “Dodgeball” ending defiance by rolling his eyes and force feeding Liz into the plot in as ludicrous of a manner as possible.
Back to the beginning. “Phantasm II” picks up where “Phantasm” left off, sort of, with Liz recounting her vision of Reggie explaining to Mike by the fireplace that the first film was all a dream. Then the Tall Man shouts “boy!” as a dwarf pulls Mike through his bedroom mirror. Reggie suddenly confronts a horde of dwarves himself, forcing him to crank up the kitchen stove’s gas and blow up his own home to escape. Reggie might not have believed Mike’s crazy claims before, but he certainly does now.
Except he doesn’t. Mike lies his way into being released from a psychiatric facility several years later and Reggie finds Mike making the local cemetery his first stop. Reggie tries telling Mike that the house exploding was also part of his ongoing delusion, and there is no such thing as the Tall Man. Then Mike predicts that Reggie’s house will explode once again, which it does, with Reggie’s relatives inside. Reggie might not have believed Mike’s crazy claims before, but he certainly does now.
Maybe that should actually read, “for now.” Horror film franchises often work inadvertently hard to muddle their own canon to a point where not everything fits and sequels have multiple continuities to choose from. (See “Halloween” for a textbook example.) “Phantasm” may be the only series where nonlinear narratives are specifically part of the structure and continuity is as expendable as a Red Shirt on the Enterprise. Again, “Phantasm II” has only passed about 12 or so minutes at this point and it is already on its third “reality.”
Events in “Phantasm II” don’t become any more sensible from there, either within the movie or without. As part of the franchise faithful, I’m certainly glad they did, yet why Universal ponied up $3 million to sequelize a nearly decade-old cult favorite is as much of a mystery as the Tall Man’s origin.
“Phantasm II” definitely goes bigger in the physical effects department by exploding a car, torching a mortuary, and blowing up an entire house (twice), among other stunts. It’s evident where the majority of the seven-figure budget went. Although in retrospect given the other installments in the series, one wonders if Coscarelli was merely making the most of the million-dollar money when “Phantasm” has generally been adept at getting by on far less spectacle.
The film’s greatest fault is that the addition of ancillary characters, at least a few of whom are unnecessary, gives Coscarelli more threads to work with than can be woven into an effective rhythm. Scenes regularly jump from Mike and Reggie’s road trip search for the Tall Man to Liz’s memorial service for her grandfather to what the Tall Man and his minions are up to. On top of that, the script adds a nervous priest and grandmother for silver sphere and dwarf fodder while hitchhiker Alchemy plays love interest for Reggie. “Phantasm II” is so unsure of what to do about Alchemy specifically that after her introduction, she is left behind twice while main characters tend to more important business.
Juggling so much with already full hands results in long stretches of time spent covering minor subplots that often don’t include Mike, Reggie, or the Tall Man. The Tall Man’s already limited screen time is further diluted by dispersing his devilish duties among dwarves, catatonic morticians, gas mask-wearing “gravers,” and of course, chrome balls that apparently could not care less about their target, even if that target is the Tall Man.
As already inferred, “Phantasm II” makes little sense. The funny thing about that though, is that lack of logic is one of the series’ hallmarks and a big part of what makes the movies so endearing. It can be likened to why no one minds when James Bond villains monologue. 007 films can get away with that trope because they more or less invented it. The same standard applies to how narrative nonsense has engrained itself as an intrinsic part of the appeal for “Phantasm” films. We’d probably be disappointed if it were any other way.
Despite an exponential increase in production value and the much-discussed swap of Michael Baldwin for more recognizable actor James Le Gros lending a studio sheen, “Phantasm II” still feels like “Phantasm.” This is for better as well as for worse. I can’t imagine newcomers or non-fans being wooed by so much wonkiness in both scripting and cinematic structure. But affinity for the franchise and nostalgia for 1980s horror age the film far better than objectivity hints it has any real right to be.
Review Score: 75