Thursday, October 22, 2009

Phantasm II (1988)

Being Film #9 in Hail Horror 4

It almost took a decade, but somehow the planets aligned, money was found, and Don Coscarelli brought the twisted horror of the Tall Man back for PHANTASM II. In large part thanks to the financial successes of 80s horror franchises like FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET Universal decided to foot the bill, betting on the iconography of Angus Scrimm's Tall Man and his nefarious metal spheres to cash in at the box office.

So PHANTASM sports a larger budget, meaning we get to see some spiffy effects, like what's finally underneath the hoods of the menacing dwarfs (turns out, some great animatronic demon faces) and some pretty spectacular explosions. All the key players from the first one (reviewed here) come back, with the exception of Jodi (who died) and Mike, who perhaps at the studio's urging is now played by James LeGros, who's not bad at all, but still feels a little off, especially when paired against Reggie Bannister, who's back and better than ever as Reggie, the ex-ice cream truck driver turned ass-kicking, flannel wearing sidekick.

If the above sounds a little more like an action picture than a horror movie, that's kind of how I felt about PHANTASM II. It's not a bad sequel by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely plays up the ass-kicking and downplays the horror a bit. The movie picks up immediately where the first one ends - with the Tall Man breaking through the closet door and grabbing Mike. Reggie runs upstairs to save him, and is confronted by a horde of the evil imps. Reggie blows up the house, and Mike spends the next decade in a mental institution. When he's released, he finds Reggie and together they begin the long journey to revenge, intent on tracking down and ending the Tall Man's evil plans, which seem to consist of raiding the cemeteries of town along the Northwest, turning the bodies into more evil dwarfs which are then shipped back to the Tall Man's home planet, or something like that.

Really, the whole PHANTASM series gets points for being so completely out there in terms of story that at times you don't know what the heck you're watching. You have action, horror, science fiction, comedy...if I had to make a comparison it would be to Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD series (Raimi and Coscarelli know each other, having come up around the same time), specifically ARMY OF DARKNESS. Reggie is essentially the Ash character, even going to far as to engage in a wicked chainsaw battle with one of the Tall Man's minions. That's not the only homage to Raimi - there's a scene where Mike and Liz, a young woman sharing a telepathic link and prophetic dreams of the Tall Man with Mike, are chased by a new golden sphere that can break through doors, and basically mimics the door smashing scene in EVIL DEAD 2. On the more comical side, take a look at a another scene where one of the Tall Man's minions is bagging a well-known set of ashes:

All nice, sly touches in an engaging film, but the real fun comes from watching Angus Scrimm own the screen whenever he's on. There's always been something about the Tall Man that frightened me as a kid - Scrimm's features and imposing height bring to mind Boris Karloff in some of his more sadistic roles like in BEDLAM or THE BODY SNATCHER. You don't know anything about him - his history, his motives...only that he seems to know what's inside your head. There's a great moment in PHANTASM II where he confronts a drunk priest hiding in the mortuary. The priest is making the sign of the cross as he passes row upon row of interred caskets when he turns to see the Tall Man:

"They don't need your prayers," he says, right before he hangs the priest by the rosary he wears around his neck. The spheres are back as well, and this being the 80s, they're imbued with some new attachments like circular saws, blowtorches and, yes, laser beams. All of which pale when compared to one nasty little bugger that manages to burrow inside one poor clod, traveling up his torso and coming out (partially) through his mouth.

All in all a fun time, not too serious and retaining all the wackiness you'd come to expect from Coscarelli. It's amazing that PHANTASM lasted through four films with the same creative team, a rarity for a horror franchise, and I think that makes for a really fun time. Don't go in looking for real scares - PHANTASM II is more of a sit down with friends and laugh and high-five each other during all the cool parts.

Of which there are many.

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