Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Films of 1988: Phantasm II

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) is a brilliantly-crafted horror movie, and a classic of the genre too, in no small part because it appears to operate on multiple levels of meaning and symbolism. 

For example, taken literally, the film is about a horrible ghoul (The Tall Man), and his agenda to strip-mine Earth’s dead. 

On a far more complex level, Phantasm concerns the industry of death itself, from hearses and coffins to graves and mausoleums. Death, we see, is an impersonal, industrial process -- a factory, in some sense -- and the Tall Man is its (cinematic) overseer.

Yet as I’ve written before Phantasm also serves as a sensitive examination of one boy’s reckoning with death as an inescapable fact of life.

Our protagonist, young Michael (Michael Baldwin) dreams of combating the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), because he is a boogeyman or personality who can be defeated.  Death itself -- the unstoppable, face-less force that took away his brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) -- cannot be destroyed. 

So adolescent Michael conjures a “phantasm” -- a dream -- that is palatable to him in a time of grief and mourning.

In that dream, mortality can be overcome; death can be defeated. The Tall Man can be buried forever.  The film, featuring moments of innocent, almost child-like wonder (witness the giant fly, born from the Tall Man’s blood..), can thus be explained as a boy’s childhood fantasy of beating death once and for all.  A fantasy that, in the denouement, he sees is but mere delusion.

Death always wins.

The sequel, 1988’s Phantasm II, is a very different film, and overall a far more conventional one.  By and large, the metaphor behind the first film -- which involves both man’s desire and inability to defeat death -- is left by the wayside, and the follow-up focuses instead on action, weaponry, and loads of stylish excess.

These predilections make Phantasm II a perfect horror film of the 1980s, an era when escalation was the name of the game, and action replaced, to a large extent, atmosphere.

Here, the action scenes are deliberately stylish and over-the-top, in the mode of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise, and Raimi himself is name-checked in one crucial scene. Guns, grenades, flame throwers and other weapons dominate the action, and one gets a thorough sense of the Rambo-fication of the franchise. 

At least two suburban houses explode in the film, and one (impressively lensed) moment sees the Tall Man standing in the foreground while all hell breaks loose behind him. He is literally surrounded by hellish fire.

It’s not necessarily a bad tor unsatisfactory approach and Phantasm II is a wholly entertaining rollercoaster of a film, even if it resolutely lacks the intellectual and artistic heft of the 1979 original. 
Where Phantasm II proves most intriguing is not in its crazy, often gruesome action, but rather in its surprisingly effective (and prophetic?) vision of a small-town America decimated by that Bringer of Death, the Tall Man.

I’ve always liked Phantasm II second best in the franchise, judging it a solid, well-made, involving sequel.

But I do miss the absent piece of Phantasm’s creative legacy: the acknowledgment and through-line that the Tall Man, his minions, and Michael’s adventures are all some phantasm that reflects a very real fear in our kind; the fear that death -- like taxes and horror movies sequels -- is utterly inescapable.

“Remember, it was all in your imagination.”

Several years after the death of his brother Jody, and his incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, Michael (James Le Gros) is released and declared cured of his mental illness. He promptly teams up with his old friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister).

This duo heads out on the road, in pursuit of the Tall Man, itching for a fight.  Michael can find The Tall Man because he shares a mental link with another possible victim, a young woman in Perigord, Oregon named Elizabeth (Paula Irvine).

Along the way to reach and rescue Elizabeth, however, Reggie and Michael pick up a stranger, Alchemy (Samantha Phillips), and must contend with booby traps left by the Tall Man.

Finally, the hunters reach Perigord, where Elizabeth has teamed with a priest, Father Meyers (Kenneth Tigar), to put an end to the Tall Man’s reign of terror once and for all.

“Let’s go shopping.”

While watching a sequel like Phantasm II, or for that matter, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), I often remember some of the punchy and very smart dialogue from Wes Craven’s Scream 2 (1997). There, Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) explains how all horror genre sequels must ratchet up the body count, feature more elaborate death sequences, and highlight what he terms “carnage candy.”

There’s indeed much carnage candy in Phantasm II.

For example, one unlucky minion of the Tall Man sees a silver sphere burrow inside of him, hollow out his innards, then make its way through his neck, to his mouth. 

Another extremely gory (and accomplished) scene finds the Tall Man’s face disintegrating after being pumped full of hydrochloric acid. 

Clearly, the disgust quotient has been upped significantly since 1979, and now the flying spheres or balls not only drain victims of their blood and gut them from within, they lop off ears, shoot lasers (like a Predator shoulder cannon) and the like.

This “bigger is better” mentality informing sequel is part and parcel of the 1980s genre cinema. Consider, again, Aliens.  The film stresses action over suspense, and pits the original hero, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) not against one acid-for-blood xenomorphic monstrosity, but a veritable planet-ful of them.

Or consider Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II (1987), which features -- amusingly -- dueling chainsaws, and entrenched commentary about small-business owners in the Reagan Era.

Phantasm II gets its own dueling chainsaws scene (in which it is proved, for the record, that size doesn’t matter…), and gives its audience full-on battle sequences with Reggie and Michael overcoming dwarf minions by the dozen.

Reggie takes out four of them with a customized shot-gun, with one pull of the trigger.

One early scene -- also perfect for the excesses of the eighties -- also sees Reggie and Michael going “shopping,” buying items from a store and crafting their signature weapons, including a fire extinguisher and the aforementioned shot gun.  They pay for all that they take, and the focus is on making weaponry, so they can take the fight straight to the Tall Man. As Reggie actually says in the film: “Come on, let’s go kick some ass!”

Phantasm II possesses two saving graces; ones that keep the film from being a brain-dead Rambo in the Graveyard film. 

The first is the film’s sense of visual humor/style.  As I noted in my introduction, Sam Raimi is name-checked during one scene in an embalming room. A bag of ashes (Ash?) are thrown in a bag labeled with the director’s name.  This tribute is perfect, because Phantasm II, much like an Evil Dead film, never stops moving, and never remains still for along. Coscarelli’s camera plows through doors, one after the other, in a very Deadite-ish gag that nonetheless works like gangbusters. 

Similarly, Reggie’s run-in with a Graver (another Tall Man minion) is funny, tense, and grotesque.  Coscarelli demonstrates here and throughout the film that he can shift between tones with aplomb, and keep the whole enterprise moving at a crazy, gonzo clip.

More impressive, however, is the subversive idea, just under the surface in Phantasm II, that when Big Time Industry comes to a small town…the small town dies.  Much of the film involves Reggie and Michael pursuing the Tall Man from American ghost town to American ghost town.  Michael observes that “small towns are like people. Some grow old and die a natural death. Others are murdered.”

What murders these small towns is the arrival of the Death Industry, under its CEO, the Tall Man. He arrives, and strip-mines the towns for all their usable (on his terms) resources. He takes over the local mortuary, and before you know it, graveyards are being emptied at a rapid rate. His take-over (with his own employees: dwarves and gravers, namely) literally kills the small towns in short order. The denizens of the town die, and are made slaves.

Not low-wage slaves, either. Just slaves. 

For many years (ten, actually) I lived in a beautiful southern small town; one with beautiful old architecture and a downtown consisting of long-standing mom and pop shops. In the span I lived there, this town was murdered, per Phantasm II’s lingo, by the arrival on the main highway, not far away, of shopping goliaths like Wal Mart, K-Mart and Target.  The downtown shops emptied at an incredible rate until the whole area -- so picturesque and evocative of an earlier era in American history -- became a ghost town, an image like something out Phantasm II.

So perhaps Phantasm II is more than a perfect representative of its gung-ho era -- the hyper-militarized, excessive, action packed 80s.

Perhaps in some way the sequel was forecasting what the future of that world could one day look like, in the 90s and beyond.  Considering the death, in so many places, of old fashioned, small-town America, it’s hard not to view the enthusiastic line of dialogue in the film, “let’s go shopping!” as carrying an ironic, double meaning.

I also find Phantasm II’s undercutting of traditional religious belief to be startling, especially given the traditional nature of the time period from which the film hails. One of the most frightening notions ever put to the horror film is voiced by the Tall Man here.

When confronted with Father Meyers and his Christian faith, The Tall Man mocks religion as fantasy, as delusion.  “You think when you die, you go to Heaven? You come to us!” He taunts. 

It’s a chilling declaration, and promise that the afterlife is not paradise, but slavery.  It’s downright chilling.

Finally, I appreciated Coscarelli's choice to tell Mike and Reggie's story (the 1979 original) through charcoal sketches in Elizabeth's notebook.  I felt, personally, that this was an interesting and artistic way to resurrect images from the first Phantasm.

Phantasm II cannot match the brilliance and artistic depth of the original 1979 film, but in the era of Freddy Krueger and Friday the 13th sequels, it stakes out a claim for quality by balancing so well its scares and its laughs. The sequel doesn’t open itself up very well to multiple readings, and the “dream” or “rubber reality” concept is half-enunciated. 

Here, for example, Reggie doesn’t remember being attacked by the minions at Michael’s house, even though Michael remembers it. This suggests the scene was a dream.  But it is never explained how Michael parses this experience in the real world.  Was his house actually destroyed by a gas leak? 
It’s awkward and confusing to viewers that Reggie only comes on board with the plan to eliminate the Tall Man after his house also explodes, in the present. If the movie had just treated the first scene as real, it wouldn’t need to create a modern, artificial explanation for Reggie’s loyalty to the cause.

And the film’s end, of course, is a slapdash re-assertion (or regurgitation) of the original’s idea that Michael’s battle with the Tall Man is just a phantasm, not reality.  But it’s more difficult to make that case here than it was in the original film because Michael seems to be sharing a folie a deux with Elizabeth.  Their delusion of a Supernatural (or alien?) Death Merchant is mutual, thus making it unlikely to be just a young person’s fantasy about defeating mortality.

So Phantasm II is great to look at, watch, and experience…but not so great to think about deeply.  If you can accept the sequel on those terms, it remains one of the most entertaining horror sequels of the last half of the 1980s, and one featuring a few superb sequences.  The Tall Man’s denunciation of our faith is one example, and the view of small town America decimated by the Big Death Industry is another.


  1. Phantasm II had a much bigger budget than the first movie. Yes, II was much more pleasing to watch (having a lighting budget and all.) But yes, it was Rambo-ized.

    Part III was just....bad.

    Oblivion is very much the true sequel of the original. There is much speculation about what Ravager (allegedly in post-production) will deal with, but from a lot of the teasers being put out, it appears that quantum physics and alternate universes will play big in the movie.

  2. Honestly, and for reasons I can't pin down, never liked the original Phantasm. 2 is the only other film in the series I have seen,, and i enjoy it immensely. Fast paced and exciting with amazing make up FX. I especially love the Golden Sphere and it's antics. Got to meet Angus Scrimm once and wow, was he ever a sweet gentleman.


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