Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Phantasm — following the escalating menace of the Tall Man, a supernatural undertaker from another world who steals human corpses in order to turn them into zombified dwarfs, and his battles with his greatest foe, Reggie, a bald pony-tailed guitar-playing ex-ice cream man.
The Installment: Phantasm II (1988)
The Story: The film opens with a multi-parted 15-minute prologue. There is a young woman, Liz Reynolds (Paula Irvine), who has a psychic connection to Mike and has been witnessing all the pivotal moments of his involvement with the Tall Man. Through her narration we see the events that transpired seconds after the conclusion to the first film. Remember how at the end of the previous film Mike got pulled into the black void of his bedroom mirror by a Jawa? Well, it turns out he really was just pulled inside his closet, because the Jawas are then forced to drag his unconscious body around his house trying to abduct him. Fortunately Reggie saves Mike and then blows up the house. Then we flashforward seven years where we learn that apparently all that stuff we just saw happen didn’t happen, and Mike (now played by James LeGros) has been living in an institution. He lies to his doctor and pretends he isn’t crazy anymore so he can be set free to resume his fight against the Tall Man. He returns to his hometown where Reggie is now happily married with a daughter. Reggie still doesn’t believe Mike that the Tall Man exists, but then the Tall Man blows up Reggie’s house and kills his whole family. Now Reggie is pissed. End of prologue! We jump to the present, where Reggie and Mike are traveling the countryside, following the wake of devastation left by the Tall Man as he pillages town after town, creating his army of Jawa slaves. Eventually Mike and Reg find Liz, as well as a comely hitchhiker, Alchemy (Samantha Phillips). Craziness, more spheres, and ass-kicking ensues.
What Works: Phantasm II is to Phantasm what Aliens was to Alien. While it lacks the certain arthouse sensibilities of the original, it makes up for it with sheer verve and a sharp expansion of the franchise’s scope and mythology. Very much representative of the shifting horror zeitgeist that occurred during the nearly ten years separating the two films, Phantasm II eschews the nightmare-like impressionism of the first film for colorful late-80’s good times. And by my reckoning, it works like gangbusters.
Mainlining through franchise after franchise in this column, it has been enlightening to spot the trend of franchises employing minor sequel-reboots (seboots? rebootquels?). While not exactly the norm, many franchises seem to tinker with their formula in the second installment, creating something that is easier to keep running with — Death Wish did that, as did Police Academy. And Phantasm does it, wisely so. I really don’t know how you’d make a Phantasm II that truly felt like Phantasm. Like many great low-budget horror films, Phantasm was a happy accident forged out of enthusiasm, talent, limitations and naivete. Don Coscarelli over-thought and overshot the hell out of that film, and its abridged composition is the secret ingredient to its bizarre vibe. He could have tried to repeat that process but that seems both stupid and expensive. And it wouldn’t have worked. You can’t fake that sort of thing. Coscarelli did the obvious sequel stuff here: more Tall Man, more spheres. But he also mixed things up in some less obvious ways…
In the Tremors series it made sense to up the presence of Burt Gummer. Audiences loved him. I don’t think anyone walked out of Phantasm in 1979 saying, “Boy, I hope the sequel features more Reggie!” Not only was Reg a fairly irrelevant character in the first film, he wasn’t even that interesting. It seemed like the kind of role created by a filmmaker to stuff his wannabe actor friend in (which is essentially the truth). But the sequel transformation of Reggie in Phantasm II rivals (if not surpasses) the doofus-to-badass metamorphosis of Ash in Evil Dead 2. And Reg’s signature weapon, the quadruple-barreled shotgun, also rivals Ash’s chainsaw hand. Reggie Bannister owns this film and he owns it hard. What makes him so cool is that, well, he isn’t cool. He still seems like a dorky ex-ice cream man. He wears a baseball cap that reads “Boogie Down.” He just needs a fannypack to keep his bullets in to complete the look. But he’s so capable and plausible. Reg is the everyman hero. I also love that he is kind of a scuzz. Reg wants to pick up Alchemy when she is hitchhiking, not because he wants to help her, but because he wants to fuck her. The fact that he succeeds in doing so, and becomes overwhelmed by her in bed – “I love your head!” the girl says while kissing his bald dome – just cements Reg’s glory.
The other big change Coscarelli implements here is changing the tone. Phantasm had elements of light-hearted gonzo, most specifically the finger-fly sequence. Coscarelli took that fun tone and spread it throughout Phantasm II. I don’t think we needed the tonal shift, just like I don’t think Aliens needed to change things up from Alien, but in the end it doesn’t matter because it works. Phantasm II is such an assured good time that it not only glosses over its imperfections, but weaves them into the tapestry — which in a sense is the Phantasm franchise modus operandi.
Right off the bat, Coscarelli establishes the badass new Reg and new tone. The sequence in the epic and appropriately nonsensical prologue (featuring narration from not one, not two, but three different characters) in which Reg rescues Mike and blows up the house is extremely impressive — simple yet precisely executed, and funny without resorting to meta goofiness. It also features some fantastic images: Reg going berserk and repeatedly clubbing a Jawa with the butt of his gun; a small horde of Jawas menacing towards Reg across a kitchen island; Reg climbing up a laundry shoot. Not to mention the great minor moment of Reg trying to decide if a baseball bat or a tennis racket would make a better weapon. I also love that the prologue features Reg’s house getting blown up twice in the span of about six minutes. And the second explosion features another amazing shot, when we witness the house kersplode through the windshield from the backseat of Reg’s car. Just so simple and so cool. Coscarelli clearly learned some new tricks during the 80’s.
Then we enter the post-apocalyptic phase of Phantasm II, which Coscarelli does a lot with. I know A. Michael Baldwin has his fans, but I’m sorry, James LeGros is a better actor. If nothing else, he better suits the Mike of Phanstasm II. Reg and Mike make for a delightful team — Reg with his supergun and Mike with his flamethrower. I loved a lot of the small details of their post-apoc lifestyles, like Reg putting money in a cash register after he and Mike pillage a store for weapons (what a class act, this Reg!). Or when they light a fire with Mike’s flame-thrower. They have a wonderful Butch and Sundance repartee, with Mike full of idealistic enthusiasm and Reg weary and lovably selfish. “I’m a 19-year-old kid! You’re a bald, middle-aged ex ice cream vender!” Their dynamic is summed up perfectly when Mike discovers that the metal spheres serve as the key to the Tall Man’s portal room, and the two men have this exchange:
Mike: We gotta catch one of those things so we can get in here.
Reg: Yeah, sure, you catch one.
Let’s talk balls and the Tall Man. The spheres get a major upgrade here. Not only are their more of them, they have more gizmos. Now they have Predator-style laser beams and laser guns. They can also burn through doors and burrow inside people. It is established here that the spheres are attracted to body heat, which is why they have the bad habit of attacking the Tall Man’s goons. And the Tall Man himself. The Tall Man gets some expansions as well. When that sphere drills a hole in his head the Tall Man simply crushes it with his hand, unfazed. Then a weird little tentacle with a pincher on the end comes out the hole. What’s the deal with that? Beats me. This is a Phantasm film, remember. The Tall Man’s army of henchmen has expanded as well. He’s got his balls, his Jawas, his human drones, and his gas mask wearing muscle. Though, really, the Tall Man’s goonsquad is pretty incompetent. The spheres kill as many goons as Mike and Reg do — one goon even needs to cut off his own hand to escape a sphere.
Phantasm II also delves further into an element that was only peripherally present in the first film, and that’s Christianity — unavoidable when your film’s primary location is a cemetery. Now we have a priest character, Father Meyers (Kenneth Tigar), who has taken it upon himself to destroy dead bodies before the Tall Man can Jawa-ize them. His death scene is great, in which the Tall Man, using his supernatural mind-powers, lifts Father Meyers off the ground by his own rosary, creating the iconic image of the priest dangling by his neck from a tiny upside crucifix. Then he’s less interestingly dispatched by a sphere in a repeat of the sphere kill from the first film. Though he doesn’t wet his pants.
What Doesn’t Work: The post-apocalyptic nature of the film is great, but poorly established. Entire towns are wiped out, cars flipped over in the streets and buildings burnt and boarded up. Given the widespread nature of the Tall Man’s devastation it seems pretty implausible that only Mike and Reg would be aware of these happenings — what does the county sheriff make of this, or the military, or the FBI? Beyond that, we can’t really glean how much of the country is effected already. Five towns? 150 towns? 1000 towns? Visually it looks like the zombocalypse hit these towns, yet random people like Alchemy and Liz are still hanging about, and at times Reg and Mike seem to be ignoring the art direction, knocking on the door of a house that looks like it has been abandoned for years. In a broader story sense I think the franchise moved too quickly into this state, depriving itself (and us) of the fun of Mike and Reg needing to covertly battle the Tall Man and Jawas and balls without being caught by the police. Let’s remember that the film opens with Mike lying to his doctor and in the following scene Reg pointing out that if Mike is caught digging up graves, etc, he’ll get sent away forever this time. That’s a great conflict for any horror movie hero; one the film could have done something with, saving the post-apocalyptic setting for Phantasm III.
Also… why does Reg throw away his supergun?!?! Granted, he dies at the end, so it technically doesn’t matter, but who goes to the trouble of making such an improbable and awesome weapon and then randomly dumping it when they’re out of bullets? For shame Reg! I sure hope for your sake that if you’re nonsensically not dead in the next film that you also nonsensically have your supergun back.
Best Sphere Kill: A sphere mistakenly attacks one of the Tall Man’s goons, burrowing inside the goon’s torso, then grossly burrowing up through the goon’s neck, until eventually getting lodged in the goon’s mouth.
Best Tall Man Dialogue: “You think that when you die, you go to Heaven? You come to us!”
Best Reggie Dialogue: Grabbing chainsaw to face off against one of Tall Man’s goons. “Come on, you mutha!”
Reggie Moment of Triumph: Killing four Jawas with a single blast from his four-barreled shotgun.
How Do Our Heroes Lose in the End: Despite causing the Tall Man to completely melt by injecting him with embalming fluid laced with acid, the Tall Man is once again not actually defeated. Alchemy picks up Reg, Mike and Liz in a hearse, but she turns out to be evil or possessed or a zombie or whatever. Mike and Liz are riding in the back of the hearse, when they hear Reg’s screams. The hearse stops and Reg’s bloody face slaps up against the window from outside saying “Help me.” Then the hearse takes off again, leaving Reg’s bloody limp body on the road. Mike and Liz both tell each other “This is just a dream,” but then the Tall Man appears to inform them “No, it’s not.” Then, same as the end of the first film, hands break through the rear window of the hearse and pull Mike and Liz through it.
Should There Have Been A Sequel: Well, everyone is dead. Though that didn’t seem to stick last time, so yes. More Reg! More balls!
Up Next: Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead.