The Test of Time: Phantasm II (1988)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



As we all know, movie sequels rarely if ever eclipse their predecessors. For horror movies, this is especially true. And yet, among the coldest of horror connoisseurs, one franchise addendum most to all agree is at least on par with its forerunner, perhaps even superior, is Don Coscarelli’s PHANTASM II. I know I personally think it’s a better, scarier, more accomplished film his 1979 original, even without the iconic image of The Tall Man towering over little Mike’s bed in the graveyard to prop it up. Of course, part of the qualitative leap is due to the nine-year time frame in between both flicks, allowing Coscarelli ample time to write a screenplay worthy of continuing the lore of the Tall Man.

Let’s be real, most sequels suck because they were rushed into production in a desperate attempt to cash in on the popularity of the original. Wisely resisting this kind of pressure, Coscarelli went the opposite route by taking his time to conceive of, flesh out and properly burnish the screenplay for PHANTASM II. As a result, the movie grows stronger as it goes along, with each act of the film becoming better than the last. Coscarelli also took the opportunity to hone his directorial acumen by helming an entirely different kind of movie, THE BEASTMASTER, in the interim.

This may be a roundabout way of celebrating PHANTASM II’s 30th birthday, which arrives July 8th, but so be it. It’s also the perfect opportunity to remind you guys Arrow in the Head has programmed PHANTASM II as part of Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn's "Summer of '88" series; the 35mm screening takes place on July 10th (scope out all the details here). With that, there’s only one thing left to do. Donny C., The Tall Man, PHANTASM II…meet the mother*cking Test of Time!

THE STORY: After struggling to come up with an idea for a sequel, Coscarelli had an epiphany when realizing he could simply start PHANTASM II right where the original left off. It’s a brilliant move, as it not only instantly reminds us of what transpired almost a decade prior, but would become a sort of sequel trend. After the requisite callback intro, we meet Mike (James LeGros) seven years after being committed to a psychiatric ward for the events that transpired regarding The Tall Man. As Mike feigns recovery and is set free, he immediately goes to the local cemetery to exhume his parents’ corpses, but their graves are empty. Mike’s old pal Reggie (Reggie Banister, an absolute boss with that gorgeous bald man’s mullet) shows up, and despite Mike’s warning, sees his family blown to smithereens by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Vowing vengeance, Mike and Reg hit the road to hunt and kill The Tall Man and his throng of those deleterious dwarf-deformities. And you already know - our boys do so with a stockpiled armament of wicked-ass weaponry!

Along the way, Mike has prophetic visions of a girl named Liz (Paula Irvine), who desperately needs his help in defeating The Tall Man. When the two finally meet up in reality, Liz hits the road with the boys, visiting dusty ghost-towns and ravaged gravesites en route to Perigord, Oregon, where The Tall Man is conducting his malevolent business in a creepy-ass crematorium surrounded by hundreds of burial-stones. When Mike, Reggie, Liz, and Alchemy (the sexy hitchhiker played by Samantha Phillips) confront The Tall Man and his murderous minions at the crematorium, a frenzied finale of f*cked-up ferocity unfolds. We’re talking flying, brain-sucking metal-balls and bilious mustard-goop expelled from the Tall Man’s melted face! Damn I love this movie!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: I do believe the whole of PHANTASM II holds up incredibly well by today’s standard, in large part due to the way Coscarelli handily depicts his own clear vision. I love the way most of the movie’s action occurs in narrow corridors, with the action tracking right at us or away from us at a moment’s notice. The use of depth, the foreground and background gives the movie a sinister feel unlike many, and keeps the action focused and concentrated in the feeling of being trapped. It’s simple, and subtle, but damn effective. I also think the two main characters and their chemistry still translates today as well, particularly in the dialogue Coscarelli equips them with. Who can forget hysterical lines like “well, shoot the f*cker!” or “Hey, suck on this!” spouted by Mike with that perfect blend of badass campiness every great B-movie ought to aspire to. Or how about when our boy Reg concocts that gnarly syringe full of hydrochloric acid, to which he amuses: “let’s just see him try to reanimate anybody that’s embalmed with this shit!” F*ck that, let me give you one more before we dig into the crux of what really holds up. Mike to Reg in the middle of the movie, when things get dire: ““Come on Redge, let’s be real. I’m a 19 year old kid and you’re a middle-aged, balding ex ice-cream vendor.” The line is one thing; Reg’s reaction is what sells the hilarity. It did way back when and still does now!

More seriously, what continues to impress through fresh eyes in PHANTASM II include the following: the score and setting, the villain(s), and practical-FX driven weaponry.

Indeed, PHANTASM II has a number of kickass set-pieces and eerily accompanied soundscapes. Just as the movie gets better as it goes along; the sets become more elaborately atmospheric and the music becomes more menacing as well. Not only does the iconic main theme strike fear into the heart of God, but the coldly haunting reverberations are what really stick out. The score by Fred Myrow and Christopher Stone continues to be a major asset to the movie. And look, there’s no place to set a horror film than amid a decrepit, grave-filched cemetery and creaky, ghoul-filled crematoriums. The finale taking place at the foggy Perigord graveyard is f*cking perfecto!

The Tall Man and his evil homunculus underlings though…yeah, f*ck all that! PHANTASM II retains its potency almost solely due to Angus Scrimm’s churlish comportment onscreen. Coscarelli knows what a gravely powerful presence Scrimm is, effectively having him stand still and intimidate with his hulking frame, nothing more, often appearing in the background or corner of the shot amid a nice little jump scare. There’s a reason the Tall Man has become an iconic, all time classic tier-two horror villain. And it’s not just The Tall Man, but his murderous midgets and funerary henchmen as well. These gross little bastards just won’t quit.

And speaking of won’t quit, let’s talk about those f*cked up flying metal spheres that not only siphon brain matter, brutally so, but shoot infrared lasers as well. Goddamn! No doubt, The Tall Man upped his game in a big bad way in the sequel, and it’s this trademark weapon that has not only made the movie a low-key classic, but also contributes to the flicks staying overall power as well. The visual FX of the flying spheres still hold up today, and play perfectly against the more tactile, practically handled weaponry of Mike and Reg. The scene where the boozed-up priest gets his ear lopped off sets the table for an escalation of abject carnage. The masterful makeup and FX, rendered by young Greg Nicotero, Howard Bergman and the KNB FX team, in the scene where homeboy savagely catches a spiked-sphere plum through the mouth, jaw and cheeks – it too beats the f*ck out of time’s erasures!

Let’s double back to that hardware store arsenal that the boys scooped up on the way out of town. Nothing at all has aged about Mike rocking a badass homemade flamethrower and welding mask. Or Reg locked and loaded with a quadruple sawed-off shotgun and a healthy bandolier across his chest. I’m talking about Mike with a chrome .45 in one hand, Reg with a giant electric corkscrew in the other. Shite’s too sick!

No, you want sick? The Tall Man getting injected with a gallon of hydrochloric acid and spewing fleshy-melted goo and yellow projectile bile…that’s sick! And not all, either. This f*cker sprouts some kind of nasty scorpion antennae right before that. Unreal! Both are examples of top-notch FX that still work as convincingly today as back in the summer of ’88.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Really, outside of some complaints about the painfully outmoded 80s fashion – that particular breed of coiffed 1988 feather-mullet to be specific- the movie itself has little to grouse about. Sure the acting is suspect in spots, but that stood out 30 years ago, and detracts from the film even less now. Same goes for Reggie’s death. Hate to see my brother go like that. Shed a tear and pour one out for guy every time!

THE VERDICT: It’s easy to see why many people deem PHANTASM II that rare breed of sequel that actually surpasses its originator. It has a bigger budget ($3 million, the highest of any PHANTASM movie, but the lowest for a Universal film), a really well drawn screenplay, a killer setting and menacing musical score, an iconic villain the ups the ante and introduces new gadgetry, a first rate FX team, and some terrific chemistry between its two leading actors. All of these things are steered in the absolute right direction by Don Coscarelli, who takes full ownership of the material and, by taking nine years to adequately conceptualize and actuate, gives us horror fans a sequel we can rightly praise. The test loses again, PHANTASMS know no time!




Extra Tidbit: The silver spheres were inspired by Philip K. Dick's short story Second Variety.
Source: AITH



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