Writer/director Don Coscarelli fought it for a long time but it was inevitable that he would have to sequelize Phantasm. The financial potential were obvious: the first film was a big indie hit whose success continued on cable and home video. On a story level, Phantasm offered a highly distinctive take on the mystery of death, couched in the kind of pop-gothic elements that entrance the horror audience. Once those fans got a taste of that world, they wanted more.
Nearly a decade after the first film’s release, Coscarelli complied with Phantasm II – and while it doesn’t hit with the concentrated impact of its predecessor, it has a willful weirdness that will interest fans of the first film. The opening moments reveal that Mike (now played by James LeGros) survived the seemingly bleak ending of the first film thanks to the heroic actions of Reggie (Reggie Banister). He spends several years in a mental institution but emerges determined to vanquish his spectral nemesis, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), from this world. When the Tall Man plays his first card by destroying Reggie’s home and family, Reggie joins Mike on his quest.
What the two discover is that the Tall Man is roaming the small towns of America, harvesting the dead from their graves and leaving desolation in his wake. Mike has a sort of “spirit guide” urging him on in the form of Liz (Paula Irvine), a young woman with a telepathic link to him. She has visions of the Tall Man that come to fruition when he targets her town. Mike and Reg arrive in time for a showdown with the Tall Man and his minions – but the villain’s ability to bend reality ensures that there will be no easy way out of this confrontation.
Despite the gap between films and a change in leads, Phantasm II feels very much of a piece with its predecessor. There are some script problems, mainly a midsection that meanders in an attempt to connect the atmospheric first third with the action-oriented final third, but Coscarelli’s blend of morbid moodiness, Raimi-esque slapstick black humor and surrealistic horror touches remains very much intact here. The attempts to expand the Tall Man mythos connect well and the setpieces have a genuine kinetic verve to them, especially an opening scene that has Reggie squaring off with the Tall Man’s minions in a house that’s about to explode.
The cast also plays an underrated role in helping Coscarelli establish and maintain the film’s tone of straight-faced eccentricity. Future indie film regular LeGros does well as the adult-age version of Mike, playing the bulk of the film straight while also tapping into the comedic vibe that particular scenes require, while series regular Bannister brings a style of inspired amateurism that is part of this series’ do-it-yourself appeal. Irvine acquits herself well as the ingenue but the scene-stealer in the female area is Samantha Phillips as a mysterious hitchhiker who has an unforgettable bizarro-slapstick sex scene with Bannister. Finally, and most importantly, Scrimm carries himself with Price/Karloff-style horror icon gravitas as the Tall Man. He makes multidimensional evil look effortless and that’s why the fans love him.
It also helps that Coscarelli had a bigger budget here – $3 million, about ten times more than he had for the first film. That translates into bigger, bolder production design – the funeral home sets are as impressive and detailed as the sets in bigger Hollywood productions – and splashier makeup effects. Mark Shostrom did the honors in the latter category and effects hit the right blend of spook-show grossness and rubber reality: the faces of the midget-size minions are suitably gnarly and a “meltdown” sequence during the finale is a real tour-de-force of practical latex and bladder effects, the kind of stuff one rarely sees in modern horror films.
In short, Phantasm II might not have the seamless feel of its predecessor but it’s got the dark imagination and a singular vibe to keep horror fans hooked. There’s no other horror franchise has the kind of deadpan, all-American style of macabre weirdness that the Phantasm series has – and Phantasm II taps into that mood effectively.