Don Coscarelli Review – Phantasm II (1988)

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I will fully admit that I was quite hesitant about watching and reviewing this movie. Phantasm was a film that worked well all on its own. It was a clever, mystifying film with a well-rounded ending. It didn’t need a sequel at all, and I was worried about the sequel derailing the narrative and style that was so cleverly established in the first movie. Unfortunately, in a way, I was right.

Phantasm II was released in 1988, 9 years after the original Phantasm in 1979. It was distributed by Universal who also helped with the production of Phantasm II, and as a result of Universal’s meddling, Phantasm II is the ‘black sheep’ of the Phantasm series. Universal wanted to remove a lot of surreal and experimental plot elements, they wanted a love interest for Mike, and they wanted to get rid of the main actors from the first movie as they weren’t established actors. Don Coscarelli needed to comply with what Universal wanted, or else Phantasm II wouldn’t be his creation anymore. In the end, Universal allowed Don Coscarelli to keep Reggie Bannister as Reggie, but A. Michael Baldwin does not appear in Phantasm II. Mike is thus replaced by actor James Le Gros in his first ever starring role. To this day A. Michael Baldwin is embittered by this change, saying that Phantasm II is “the film which shan’t be named”. Nonetheless, Phantasm II earned over double its budget back at the box office despite mixed reviews from critics at the time. Phantasm II is still a phan favourite though, and it is commonly ranked as the second-best Phantasm film (behind the first).

What struck me personally about Phantasm II was how different it is to the original movie. Its story is much simpler than the original movie despite Phantasm II having a premonition plot that drives the movie, and a multi-character narrative that follows three different characters each with their own story arc. In Phantasm II, alongside Reggie and Mike who go on a road trip to find and kill The Tall Man, the film introduces Liz, who has constant dreams about Mike and The Tall Man. Their stories run together throughout the movie until they meet up in the third act and strike back at The Tall Man and his menagerie of macabre horrors. Whilst the plot of the first movie was strange and thought-provoking, the story of Phantasm II resembles that of a road trip movie with an emphasis on the friendship between Mike and Reggie as they search for The Tall Man until the violent third act where all hell breaks loose.

The style and tone of Phantasm II could not be more different to the original movie. Whilst Phantasm was subtle, mysterious and created a foreboding atmosphere of anxious dread, Phantasm II is much more straight-forward, character driven and almost action oriented. A lot of the mystery and horror that characterized the original film is gone, replaced with 1980s cheese and violence. The Tall Man is no longer the mysterious, nightmarish entity he was in the original movie, in Phantasm II he plays a more active role in his villainy as he hunts down and assaults the main characters throughout the film. However, because of how well he was built up in the original movie, it is quite disappointing to see the suspense and mystery taken out of his character. In Phantasm II The Tall Man has become a little washed over and is portrayed as just another horror villain, similar to what they did with Pinhead in Hellraiser 3.

However, that being said, it’s very clear to see that although Phantasm II is still classified as a horror movie, Phantasm II isn’t about the mystery of the present horror, because that was already firmly established in Phantasm. Phantasm II is about the friendship between Reggie and Mike. These two characters are very well portrayed throughout the whole of the film as two great friends who’ll stick by each other thick and thin. Part of this is because of how well their relationship is written by Don Coscarelli, the other part is the damn good performances from James Le Gros and, surprisingly, Reggie Bannister. Now, I don’t know what the hell happened to Reggie Bannister, but in the 9 years since Phantasm and Phantasm II, he became a much better actor. His stunted line deliveries from the original movie are gone, and in Phantasm II he throws himself into the role delivering a memorably good performance. It’s so bizarre because between Phantasm 1 and 2, Reggie Bannister had quit acting and worked in a funeral home, so I suppose that his good performance came not from his acting ability, but from Don Coscarelli’s vastly improved direction. Either way, however, the acting, performance and character development in Phantasm II is vastly improved from the original movie.

Phantasm II also sports a technical prowess. Sets, special effects, cinematography and lighting are all incredibly strong aspects of this movie. Although the hard, shadowy lighting from the first movie isn’t present, the lighting in Phantasm II has a much more natural aesthetic. The hard, marble sets from the first movie have been replaced with many more detailed sets with a more decaying and ungodly aesthetic. The creatively bright lighting also shines a spotlight on the film’s fantastic special effects. Phantasm II is not a film full of blood, guts and gore from the outset, and instead chooses to use gore sparingly throughout the film. However, when the film does decide to show a healthy amount of gore onscreen, the effects are fantastically brutal and memorable. The gore effects are very well crafted and incredibly well designed, almost bordering on the more violent spectrum of 1980s movies. However, Phantasm II is quite well paced and spaces out it’s gore quite well, and because of this, each gory death is quite shocking and memorable to witness.

However, one thing about Phantasm II that really bugged me about the film is not just the tonal shift from the first movie, but also the tonal shifts that happen throughout the entirety of the movie. Phantasm II is a film that stays quite grounded and serious throughout the majority of the film, but it has a weird propensity on ridiculous sequences. The film jumps from serious horror and drama to downright silliness far too often for my tastes and it’s quite jarring to experience. For example: in one scene, Mike and Liz communicate surreally by dream in order to further their romantic relationship, then it cuts straight to Reggie engaging in one of the strangest, most ridiculous ‘sex’ scenes I’ve ever witnessed. In another: Mike and Liz are chased by a gold sphere deadlier and threatening than the returning silver spheres, only to have the Gold Sphere sport a laser and blow away a rat, taking away any sense of seriousness from what should have been a very tense scene. I would have preferred it if the movie stayed in a serious horror tone instead of jumping back and forth between serious and ridiculous. Nonetheless, even with that being said, the ridiculous tone is not that detrimental to the movie in the long run because a lot of strong elements are still present in the movie that overshadow the jarring tonal shifts.

Despite how different Phantasm II is from the original Phantasm, Phantasm II is far from being a bad movie, despite what many critics may have said at the time. Time Out said about Phantasm II: “the only valid reason for seeing this belated sequel is that it goes some way towards explaining the incomprehensible plot of its predecessor….”, which is a sentiment which I feel really insults both Phantasm and Phantasm II, but it’s a sentiment shared by many critics of the time. Personally, I enjoyed Phantasm II for what it is and although it is nowhere near as good, thought provoking or as terrifyingly intense as the first movie, Phantasm II is still a decent flick with a lot of good elements that make it quite enjoyable.

 

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