With a $300,000 budget and a $12 million gross worldwide and counting, 1979’s Phantasm is pretty much considered a small hit in terms of box office success. Although it’s not every one’s cup of tea in terms of horror due to its surrealist and non-linear storytelling, there are many who consider the film a genuine cult horror classic. But unlike many of its other contemporaries, such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Amityville Horror, and etc., Phantasm sat alone without any sequels that could expand on the universe it had created. In fact, writer-director Don Coscarelli felt he said all he had needed to say with Phantasm, moving on to 1982’s Beastmaster as a way to express his creative juices in a different way.
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Things changed in 1987, when Universal Pictures wanted a horror franchise it could make money from. All the big names were already taken by other film studios, leaving Phantasm as one Universal could easily snatch up. Universal wanted Coscarelli involved with the project, which put a lot of pressure on him since he had no idea how to write a sequel for Phantasm. He had considered the first film to have a conclusive ending. It also didn’t help that Universal wanted to replace one of his main lead actors, A. Michael Baldwin (Mike), with a good-looking young actor (James LeGros) that could bring in a female audience. Once Coscarelli got over the change and actually had a story in mind for Phantasm II, he learned that Universal wanted control over the project due to its $3 million budget and desperation for a successful horror film that could soon develop into a competing franchise. Instead of the surrealistic nature of the first film, Universal demanded that the sequel was a more linear, straightforward horror film – or else no deal. Coscarelli followed all the rules handed down to him, leading to the release of Phantasm II in the summer of 1988. Unfortunately, the $3 million film only garnered a $7.3 million U.S. gross, making it a flop and the end of Universal’s partnership with the Phantasm franchise.
Today, many horror fans have nostalgic memories about Phantasm II. Some even consider this to be the peak of the franchise, besting the original because it was more linear and action-oriented. At the time of this film’s release, I also found myself gravitating more to this sequel than to the original because it was more in line of what was generally presented in mainstream media at the time. But now as an adult, I definitely prefer Phantasm over Phantasm II. That’s not to say Phantasm II is a bad movie. In fact, it’s a good sequel for sure. But I’m sure it would have been better if the narrative was executed better and if Universal didn’t stick their noses into the project.
Picking up from 1979’s Phantasm, Phantasm II begins with Reggie (Reggie Bannister) saving Mike (using some archived footage of A. Michael Baldwin) from the grasp of The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). The two escape through a window before their house explodes, realizing that The Tall Man has escaped as well. This is told to us by a young woman named Liz (Paula Irvine), who seems to share a psychic connection with Mike and knows of the Tall Man’s terror.
Seven years pass, and Mike (now played by James LeGros) is released from the Morningside Psychiatric Clinic when he tells his psychiatrist that he has finally accepted that his experiences with The Tall Man were all in his head. Once he’s out, Mike continues his search for The Tall Man by visiting graves and digging up plots to see if there are bodies in them or not. Reggie interrupts Mike, trying to convince him that The Tall Man never existed. Mike lets Reggie take him home, but once there, their house explodes with Reggie’s family inside.
Reggie, now upset that The Tall Man has taken more people away from him, decides to fully help Mike stop him once and for all. They drive through several towns, noticing chaos around them as no people are anywhere living in them. The Tall Man is now moving his evil through the United States, while luring Mike into his web at the same time. Reggie and Mike encounter Liz and a hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) – who all battle The Tall Man in a massive showdown involving four-barrel guns and flying spheres.
Phantasm II is a sequel that, while entertaining, sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the franchise. It’s less dreamy and surreal, the chemistry between the new cast is definitely different, and just the overall presentation feels less Coscarelli and more Universal. But before I delve into the problems Phantasm II has, let’s discuss what it does right.
The gore is pretty cool in this film. This one comes mainly through our favorite friends in these Phantasm films – the flying spheres. Not only do we get silver spheres, but we get this nasty golden one that seems more sentient than the silver ones. And when they come to play, they do quite a lot of damage. We get a rat get destroyed by a laser. We get the usual sphere drill through the head, which gushes out blood through the other side – either in red or mustard yellow. We also get a great bit where the sphere actually enters someone’s body, travels inside, and tries to escape through the person’s mouth. Pretty nasty stuff, but cool as well. We also get a scene with a monster coming out of someone’s back, speaking like The Tall Man. And did I mention we get like three explosions in this film? Talk about overkill, but the 80s loved their explosions. I thought the make up and special effects were nice here.
As for Don Coscarelli’s direction, he handles it well considering the mess behind-the-scenes. Phantasm has always been Coscarelli’s pride and joy, even when he was directing more mainstream fare like 1982’s Beastmaster. The film moves at a quick pace, even during the slower moments in the first hour. I love the locations, especially towards the end with the ghost towns and that creepy funeral parlor. The tension and suspense is good, due to nice editing and framing. I thought the action scenes were handled well. And there was definitely a nod to Sam Raimi here, as many shots were done Evil Dead style. I particularly loved the POV shots of the flying spheres, with their heat vision. Very stylish film here that has nods to the original film, but adds newer stuff in. I dug the visuals here.
Phantasm II works with a small cast and the actors really carry the film well. James LeGros replaces A. Michael Baldwin in the Mike role for his first and final appearance in a Phantasm film. Now known as an indie film darling, I thought LeGros was pretty good as Mike. He may be a bit muscular and good looking to be an adult Mike, but he handles the role well – especially during the final act. I kind of wish A. Michael Baldwin had stayed in the role, only for continuity sakes though. Reggie Bannister is awesome as sidekick Reggie. Here is where the character becomes the hero who kicks major ass and thinks with his small head when it comes to beautiful women. There’s a bit of Bruce “Ash” Campbell in the performance, which I didn’t mind at all. Bannister plays Reggie a bit tongue-in-cheek, making the role fun to watch. Paula Irvine was cool as Liz. I bought her act, although her arc with Mike was a hit-and-miss. Samantha Phillips looked hot as Alchemy. She doesn’t get to do much other than that, but once she shows her boobs, it didn’t really matter. And Angus Scrimm is always awesome as The Tall Man. The man is just a presence, not needing to say much to intimidate people. Cool cast here.
The shift in tone that Universal requested isn’t completely a bad thing either. The first Phantasm is a classic piece of horror cinema for many reasons. The biggest one is probably due to how its story was told. Unlike many other horror films at the time, which told its story in a straight forward sort of way, Phantasm has a dream-like, surreal quality about it that raises more questions than answers. This probably upsets a lot of people, but many fans enjoy trying to unravel the mystery of what Phantasm is trying to tell both visually and narrative wise. It sets itself apart from other horror films, which is why it gets a ton of respect in the community.
As I mentioned earlier, Universal wanted Coscarelli to change how the narrative was told for the sequel. Wanting to compete with other horror films that were in the horror market at the time, Universal nixed the whole dream-like deal and wanted the story to make more sense for the mainstream audience. So besides the final moments of Phantasm II, the rest of the story follows a predictable, familiar template in terms of its narrative. Some fans hated this, as the sequel doesn’t attempt to make the narrative mysterious and pretty much tells a linear story that anyone can easily follow and understand.
But I don’t really mind it too much. Because of the change, Phantasm II becomes its own film and doesn’t knock off the first film – which is the opposite of what other horror sequels had done at the time. It’s a lot more tongue-in-cheek at times, and definitely more action oriented than suspenseful and mysterious like the first film. The first hour is your standard road movie, where characters and locations are established. The last half hour is your action-horror stuff that pretty much resembles the final moments of the first Phantasm.
Sure, the film is not as interesting or captivating as the first film. But I don’t mind the change and the story is told well. Mike and Reggie are still interesting characters, especially Reggie. Mike’s psychic connection to The Tall Man and Liz are interesting developments that don’t really get answered, which is unfortunate. But the idea is a nice plot device. Reggie is heroic and a bit of a fun horn dog, which gives him a ton of personality. I do feel the Mike and Liz love story is a bit forced, but it’s never in your face enough to really bug you. And The Tall Man is great. He’s hardly in the film, but he’s always casting a shadow over everything. Plus his intentions to move through the country to accomplish his goal is a great development that would become grander in later sequels.
Not everything works, obviously, but when it does, it does it well. Phantasm II has great moments and introduces story elements that later sequels would focus on. It does everything that a sequel needs to do. And while Coscarelli may have been forced by Universal to turn Phantasm II into a more mainstream and lighter in tone sequel, he never lets that hinder his storytelling process and takes advantage of the change. This sequel may be less involved than the first film, but it definitely has more fun.
On the other side of the fence though, the linear narrative is not as timeless as the story in the first film, because that film allowed the audience to interpret what they witnessed for themselves. You don’t really get that in Phantasm II, although the story is still well told.
The other major issue came with the casting of the lead actors in Phantasm II. Don Coscarelli, loyal to his cast & crew and to his continuity, wanted to keep both Michael A. Baldwin and Reggie Bannister on board. However, Universal wanted to replace both actors with more well-known actors so the sequel would sell better for the then-MTV audience. Coscarelli and Universal butted heads over this, to the point that Universal allowed both actors to audition for the roles.
Then when they did audition, Universal said that Coscarelli could only pick one to star in the film. Feeling having Reggie Bannister would be more beneficial to the film and that the studio would rather replace the lead role anyway, Coscarelli let Baldwin go. He was eventually replaced by LeGros.
I understand the reasoning for the change from a business standpoint, but I feel this ruined continuity and LeGros, while decent in the role, didn’t have the same kind of chemistry with Bannister that Baldwin did in the original. Plus, the addition of LeGros didn’t really help the film’s box office at all, causing Universal to dump Phantasm after this – which thankfully allowed Coscarelli to work independently and bring Baldwin back to continue his story for three more sequels. This casting decision would ruin all continuity. Flashbacks to Phantasm II would have to be reshot just to put Baldwin back in for certain moments in the next couple of films. It just made things more complicated when they didn’t need to be.
I wish studios would stop interfering into productions more than have to. If it wasn’t broke the first time, don’t try to fix it. That’s all I’m saying.
There are also unnecessary story arcs that play out in Phantasm II that don’t add all that much, especially any scene with Father Meyers and Liz’s family. I understand that Liz’s character needed her own arc to explain her reasoning in the film’s narrative. But I felt the scene with her grandfather’s funeral that involved her grandmother and Father Meyers just ruined the flow and stalled the film a bit for me. It’s not bad, but after spending so much time with Mike and Reggie prior to this scene, it feels a bit jarring. Also, I felt the characters other than Liz were just there to be fodder for The Tall Man, while Father Meyers was there to add a good vs. ultimate evil aspect to the film that was already there with Mike and Reggie vs. The Tall Man. And if this scene was meant to explore Liz’s character, it didn’t really work because I still didn’t know much about her besides Liz loving her family and feeling scared of The Tall Man. Like I said, the scene isn’t terribly written. But it feels out of place with the rest of the film at that point.
Then there’s Alchemy. Oh Alchemy, why are you here? Besides for the ending and to feed Reggie’s libido, I have no idea why this character even exists. Yes, she was hot. Yes, she shows us her nice boobs. Yes, Samantha Phillips wasn’t a bad actress. But on a narrative level, she could have been left out and not much besides the ending would have been changed. She was a pleasant distraction visually, but had no place in the story for me.
Phantasm II isn’t as good as the first film, but it’s still a fun sequel. It has cool gore moments, energetic direction by Don Coscarelli, good acting, and a narrative that takes what was established in the first film and moves it along, rather than repeating what was done before. It does have some unnecessary characters, controversial casting that ruins continuity, and moments in the narrative that ruin the flow a bit – most likely due to studio interference. But it’s definitely watchable and a worthy companion piece to the first film.