January 14, 2014

Movie Review: Phantasm II

In 1979 the world was taken by storm when Don Coscarelli unleashed his unique vision of horror upon us. Phantasm introduced us to the evil of the Tall Man as well as the heroes, Mike, Reggie, and Jody. The film delivered a nightmarish world upon the screen where an evil creature, disguised as a mortician would take the dead and change them into dwarf slaves, which he would send through a gate to another dimension. It was a scary film that tackled themes of loss, death, and abandonment. It is a movie that has grown on me, gotten under my skin, and proven itself worthy of my love. Now, it only took nine years but a sequel was finally made, the aptly titled Phantasm II.

"This Summer..... the Ball is Back!"

Unfortunately, the film could not be made without some concessions to Universal Studios. While Don Coscarelli retained pretty tight control over the rights, the studio still held the purse strings and was able to exert some of their control over the production. One of these concessions was in the casting, while Coscarelli wanted to bring back all of his original cast members, the suits said no. They wanted working actors to step into the shoes of the familiar. They ultimately allowed him to choose between Reggie Bannister and A. Michael Baldwin. Bannister was chosen and newcomer James LeGros was brought in to play Mike. Other concessions included requiring a more straightforward story and none of this “it was a dream” stuff.

These changes essentially wiped out the bizarre goodwill that was built up by the nebulous ending and dark atmosphere of the original. In its place, the sequel brings a much more tangible evil, an accelerated plan, and a more action oriented direction. Phantasm II is a very different film. Yes, the Tall Man is still an evil being, he still has his flying spheres, and the team of Mike and Reggie are still ready and willing to take on the evil force, wherever it may go.

As Phantasm II gets underway we are introduced to a new character, Liz (Paula Irvine). She is paging through a notebook filled with notes and drawings. As the pages turn she delivers a voice over explaining what has gone on before. We even get a new look at what happened after the climactic moment of the first film. Reggie finds himself face to face with Tall Man's mini-minions (who look suspiciously like Jawas, a fact Coscarelli learned after filming had already started on the original). We see the two escape as the house explodes. So, you can probably scratch the “you were having a nightmare” excuse for the end of part one.

The time line jumps forward a bunch of years and we rejoin Mike in a mental asylum, where he has spent a good deal of time getting over his Tall Man fixation and the reality of his brother's death. As he gets out he rejoins Reggie. Mike clearly just told the doctor what he wanted to hear, as now he wants to get back out there and find Tall Man. Another explosion later and that is exactly what happens. The dynamic duo break into a hardware store and take all the stuff they need, although it is carefully shown that they do not steal, they pay for the stuff. They are heroes after all. They hop in the Hemicuda and hit the road.

This sequel is a road movie that sees everyone involved taking a much more active role in the proceedings. Considering that the nightmare theory is out and this is a very event being perpetrated by a very real entity, it is only logical that everything be treated as such. The Tall Man, who seemingly worked under cover of darkness for a long time, according to the first film, has stepped up his efforts and is actively going from town to town, harvesting the dead and the living to be used as his servant dwarves. I am guessing that knowing that Mike is still out there poses some sort of threat. He is still a pompous evil who always feels he has the upper hand, but I guess even he knows when he has to step up.

Mike and Reggie pursue him from town to town, encountering wiped out ghost towns left in his wake. They pick up some help along the way, but when it comes down to it, it is always going to be about Mike and Reggie. They come equipped with chainsaws, flamethrowers, and a pretty cool four barrel shotgun (outdoing Ash's double barrel and predating Undead's triple shotgun).

I think this is one of those rare sequels that works very well with its predecessor while being quite different. A movie that retains the feel but does things in a very different way. Other examples would be the relationship between Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II and between Alien and Aliens, and perhaps even between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. This one amps up a more action oriented tale and also comes across as a bit more light with some comical touches.

There was a time when I preferred this film to the original. I am not so sure anymore. Do not get me wrong, I still quite enjoy this turn and it certainly benefits from improvements in special effects technology and an increased budget. There is a slick look and the gore effects look pretty darn good. I think it lost something in the atmosphere department and I think the straightforward narrative is both a blessing and a curse. It does not have the same questions or themes as it had, it is more a standard good vs evil story, although that is spiced by the fact it is a road movie with our heroes pursuing the bad guy pretty actively. That is not something that you typically see.

One of the most detrimental elements is the recasting of Mike. Simply put, James LeGros is not good in the role. He plays the role straight, this is not a bad thing but I think the role needs a little bit of irony and a whole lot of personality. Sadly, he has none. He is so flat and lifeless as to be a non-entity. This leaves the weight of the likability of the movie on the shoulders of Reggie Bannister, who really steps up his game. Of course, there is also Angus Scrimm whose presence is always imposing, the guy just oozes menace and I would not want to have to face him down.

While this is something of a downgrade from the first, it is still immensely entertaining. This is a fun movie. It may not be a good followup to the tone of the original, but it does expand the world that was introduced and adds a tangibility to it that increases the reality of the danger if not scariness of the horror. If you can get over James LeGros performance there is certainly plenty to like about this movie.


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