Phantasm II (1988)
After five Phantasm films one would think that Don Coscarelli had a master plan from the beginning. Instead, by all accounts, the original Phantasm was made because Coscarelli was sure a horror movie would be a hit, and because he liked the audience reaction to a jump scare in his second movie, Kenny and Company. The whole movie supposedly ended up having a dreamlike feeling simply because, although it had a plot about an alien disguised as a strange mortician shrinking corpses to transfer back to his planet for slave labor, the path it took in telling the story was anything but normal due to the fact that it was a bunch of frightening scenes strung together.
At the end of Phantasm Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) is with his brother's best friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister), and it turns out that his brother Jody has passed away. Everything seems peaceful until the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) appears in Mike's mirror, and a number of the dwarfs attack Mike and abduct him. The problem is, Jody and Mike were the ones who defeated the Tall Man, with Reggie dying. Whether intended or not it makes the whole thing seem like a boy's dream, as Mike is constantly trying to reconcile the death of his parents and the fact that Jody is planning on leaving town, leaving Mike to fend for himself. Hidden within everything that happens was a coming of age story about a young man dealing with loss and feeling abandoned himself, whether the death having been his parents or his brother Jody supposedly dying in an accident.
Phantasm II was not supposed to happen. Coscarelli pretty much thought he told the story, went on to The Beastmaster, and laid low for a good portion of the 1980s. Universal wanted to get in on the lucrative late '80s horror market and provided Coscarelli with a budget he couldn't turn down. Unfortunately, it came with rules, including that the story must not be as surreal and that there had to be a love interest for the older Mike. There were others, and Coscarelli agreed to go along with them - and, surprisingly, still made a worthwhile sequel.
Mike (James Le Gros) has turned 19 and has managed to convince the doctors at the mental hospital that he imagined everything. Rather than heading home he makes a beeline for the local cemetery, where Reggie finds him digging up empty graves. What Mike remembers was Reggie saving him from the attack by the Tall Man and blowing up his own home to kill the dwarfs, but Reggie remembers none of it. However, the reality hits him when Mike has a premonition of Reggie's family being killed due to the Tall Man's manipulations, and they arrive shortly before it happens.
This leads to the two going on the road in search of the Tall Man and his minions. Also in the mix is a psychic girl named Liz (Paula Irvine), whom Mike has been aware of the entire time. He and Reggie, along with a hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips), reach Liz's town of Perigord, Oregon, to find that the Tall Man is almost finished draining it of its citizens. There he and Reggie decide to make a stand, assisted by Liz, but the Tall Man himself has more minions and weapons at his disposal than he did in the past.
One of the most recognizable things from the Phantasm series is the silver spheres. Guided by the Tall Man, they fly through the air searching for a victim, although they never seem too accurate - they just go for whatever is warm. When they do, they typically attach themselves to the victim's head and drill out their brains. This time around there is an advanced gold sphere, with lasers and rotating blades. On the good guy's side, Reggie has a chainsaw, power drills and a makeshift four-barrel shotgun, while Mike has a his own personal flamethrower. Happily, all these get used, and used effectively, in the course of the film. I was happy to see that once stuff was introduced it didn't go to waste.
More money also meant better effects, although I think they still used a lot of the low-tech methods of filming the spheres as they did in the first movie. The effects crew included David P. Barton, Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman, among others, so they are top notch. Although they wanted Coscarelli to tone down some of the strangeness, at least Universal on their end supplied people who could deliver on the blood, animatronics and latex gore effects, even if they understandably had to be toned don significantly to make sure the movie got an R rating.
The big compromise that Coscarelli had to make was in casting. Both A. Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister had to audition for the parts they had played in the original, as Universal wanted to at least get someone who they thought was an up-and-coming star into one of the lead roles. That was the reason Baldwin's part was recast with James Le Gros who, honestly, isn't terrible in the role, but is nowhere near as interesting as Bannister. In all honesty I'd probably be saying the same thing if Baldwin had returned, since the dynamic between him and Bill Thornbury as Jody in the first film was one of the things that helped ground it more in reality. Paula Irvine is okay as Liz although, for all the buildup, she doesn't do much except get captured, although she finally ends up useful toward the end. Samantha Phillips is a lot more interesting as Alchemy, and the sex scene between her an Bannister is hilarious, and it looks like he genuinely did not know what was going to happen.
Like in the first movie the Tall Man does not overstay his presence, but Angus Scrimm is the focus of attention every time he is on screen. There are dwarfs, "gravers" (gas-masked zombie minions) who plunder the cemeteries and, finally, undertakers that help prepare the bodies for transit. Early on there is also Father Meyers (Kenneth Tigar), who tries to do what he can to prevent the Tall Man from achieving his goals.
I don't think Phantasm II is better than the first. We get a bit more of a hint of the Tall Man's goals, especially in the abandoned towns he leaves behind and, though he was told not to do a bunch of dream sequences and to make the movie more of a linear action film, it still has hints that what is happening may be simply the dreams of an older teenager, this time not specifically dealing with loss but imagining himself the hero of a story featuring one of the closest people in his life after his brother's death. There is also a lot more wild humor this time around. It is a shame it wasn't more popular than it was, if only to have convinced Universal to put some real money behind the next sequel, or at least behind whatever project Coscarelli was thinking of doing next.
Phantasm II (1988)
Time: 97 minutes
Starring: James Le Gros, Reggie Bannister, Paula Irvine, Angus Scrimm, Samantha Phillips
Director: Don Coscarelli