So once again we have survived.

Phantasm II

PHANTASM II: LORD OF BALLS

There’s actually not a subtitle on this one, I made that up. Anyway this is the first sequel, made 11 years later with the backing of Universal Studios. It’s the year after EVIL DEAD 2 but it’s the same kind of thing Universal did later with ARMY OF DARKNESS, taking a cult movie and its director, putting a little more money behind it and hoping to trick mainstream audiences into thinking they care. Nobody knows why they did it, but we’re kind of glad they did.

The advantage of the Universal money is that they have some pretty good special effects. The disadvantage is that they have to ditch the original star, A. Michael Baldwin (a rogue Baldwin brother not related to Alec Baldwin), and replace him with James LeGros of DRUGSTORE COWBOY. You know, for that guaranteed James LeGros demographic who will just go to any James LeGros movie over and over again, and get all of their friends to come, just to watch James LeGros. It’s like the old Hollywood saying goes, don’t ever make a movie that doesn’t star James LeGros. Trivia: no movie has ever made a profit without James LeGros, and vice versa.

Phantasm IIYOUNG HIP UNIVERSAL EXECUTIVE: Yeah, so it’s the sequel to this low budget movie from 1979, it’s a weird movie but it has kind of a following, people really were creeped out by this old man who says “BOY!” and by this metal ball. We got the old guy returning, and it’s a little more action oriented than the first one, we have three different huge fiery explosions, and some really good effects, some weird monsters tearing out of people, and…

OLDER UNIVERSAL EXECUTIVE: Hmmm.

YOUNG HIP UNIVERSAL EXECUTIVE: I know it sounds weird, it sounds like a hard sell, but horror sequels are very popular right now. ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13TH… there is this whole subculture of people, they read Fangoria magazine, they idolize the guys who do the special effects, they know all about this director, Coscarelli.

OLDER UNIVERSAL EXECUTIVE: And it’s about metal balls?

YOUNG HIP ONE: Yeah, flying metal balls with drills.

OLDER UNIVERSAL EXECUTIVE: I’m not sure this–

YOUNG HIP ONE: We just signed James LeGros.

OLDER GUY: Greenlit. Here is the money, I want you to drive directly to the set from here, do not slow down, begin filming immediately. MOVE!

No, I’m not sure why it is that they needed to replace him. LeGros does fine but I would’ve preferred a little continuity here. Other than the re-casting though this feels like pure Coscarelli. Remember how A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET ended with a weird, reality-bending thing, it seems like everything is fine but then Freddy appears in what we thought was the waking world to yank Nancy’s mom through a window? PHANTASM has a similar ending where it turns out the whole thing was a dream, or so we think, but then the Tall Man comes out of Mike’s mirror.

Unlike ELM STREET, the PHANTASM sequel actually continues from that ending. So I guess the first one was a dream, except the Tall Man is real. Or something. The movie starts by replaying the final scenes of part 1, Mike and Reggie talking about hitting the road, then Mike goes upstairs and has his mirror trouble. Reggie hears it and runs to get a weapon, only to get attacked by the dwarves (this time with an excellent animatronic monster face). It turns into a full blown action sequence and somehow I didn’t notice while watching it that they only show Mike from the back because it’s a stunt double.

To pull the actor switch they skip forward many years. LeGros as Mike has been locked up in an institution, pretending he doesn’t believe in evil morticians from another dimension turning corpses into 4 foot tall monster slaves. But one day when Reggie comes to visit he finds Mike has snuck out to dig up graves. It seems like Reggie has somehow forgotten why he blew up his own house to kill evil dwarves, so Mike re-convinces him and they blow the joint, becoming a pair of badass drifters in a muscle car, following the Tall Man’s trail throughout the northwest, trying to put him out of business. They’re like the hunters in VAMPIRES or Blade, going around with various power tools, finding weird monsters and blowtorching them. Meanwhile Mike has prophetic dreams and a telepathic connection to a blond girl having Tall Man problems of her own. When the girl gets kidnapped I thought it would be like Dracula (the book – I know how to read) and they’d be hot on the trail using the psychic connection like a tracking device. But they don’t bother.

The Michael and Reggie scenes seem to take the story from part 1 to the next level, but the early scenes with the girl sneaking around spying kind of rehash it. When they combine forces it gets better. They build more deadly contraptions (a booby trap made out of a beer can, string, and a hand grenade) and they fight more metal spheres. There’s a new one that’s gold, can burn through doors and has a buzz saw on it. Mike figures out how to throw the balls as a weapon. Heven captures one and uses it as a key to get into the portal room.

This is interesting because it proves the balls are just machines. If we understood how they worked we could learn to use them safely. In fact, if we knew how they worked we could really use that technology for the betterment of our civilization. Obviously some asshole would want them for the military, send them into Pakistan or some shit. But forget about the blades, this is some sort of a self-propelled flying device. It can hover. It can fly in perfectly straight lines at varied speeds with no apparent wings, jets, propellors or audible motors. Who knows what powers it? It might help our energy crisis, it might not. But surely applying this technology to vehicles would have a game-changing effect on the amount of pollution we put in the air.

If he wanted to, the Tall Man could stop global warming. He wouldn’t even have to do it as an act of interdimensional kindness. He could take out the patent and become a trillionaire. And he’d be a hero. But the Tall Man will never do that because he’s a zealot, a “dead ender,” unable to let go of his backward, abusive way of life. The only way we can fix this is to go through that portal and change the hearts and minds of the Phantasmiacs. We’ve got to show them a better way than their slave-based economy. Until we destroy the demand for dwarf slaves the Tall Man will always need our dead bodies. And if he needs dead bodies he’s not gonna give a fuck about global warming. It only makes his job easier. Plus it probaly reminds him of the windstorms and scarlet skies back home.

Coscarelli was friends with Sam Raimi, and EVIL DEAD 1-2 definitely seem to be an influence. There’s a great metal ball POV shot that chases the heroes and breaks through doors, just like the Evil Dead spirit in part 2 I believe. More importantly they sort of turn Reggie Bannister into a tongue-in-cheek badass like Ash. He’s not as arrogant but he’s memorable because he’s a man’s man but he kind of looks like Clint Howard. He’s not some square-jawed hunk and he doesn’t try to hide his baldness, not even by shaving the sides. The baldness doesn’t stop him from getting laid, in fact it helps. The car doesn’t hurt either. Or his skill with a chainsaw.

PHANTASM II: THE SECRET MORTICIAN’S OTHER BALL is not a great sequel like EVIL DEAD 2. But it’s a good one. We’ll see if the other ones achieve the same standard of quality.

NOTE: For some reason this has never come out on DVD in the U.S. I had to watch a PAL important box set of the series. I guess Anchor Bay had the rights to release it there, but not here for some reason. All I can guess is this must give a strong hint about how the flying ball technology works, and the Tall Man is trying to keep us from seeing it.

UPDATE: Never mind, it’s on DVD and blu-ray now

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 7:46 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “Phantasm II”

  1. No, seriously guys, are we really not going to talk about PHANTASM V? And the fact that it exists?

  2. Subtlety, I don’t believe discussing the new phantasm will jinx it, so
    I will throw in my two cents by saying what we already know, the trailer looks awesome
    and I’m impressed that the filmmakers not only got this movie made, but did so without
    the intense scrutiny of the nerd media.

  3. I linked to this review from the HELLRAISER 2 review and I am surprised Vern didn’t like this one more. It’s a fun continuation of the mythology established in the first film that takes an A TEAM like approach to combating the tall man and his minions.

    As a side note I am excited that this franchise is still alive and that it is coscarelli still behind it.

  4. Pretty sure I’ve seen this one before, but probably only once and around the time it would’ve first come out on VHS. This one did not work super well for me. Probably, that’s in part because I’m in “compare it to the original” mode instead of “compared to subsequent sequels” or “compare it to other B movie splatterfests of the 80s” mode.

    Things I liked
    1. The buddy element.

    2. Some truly inspired death scenes, especially those involving the Tall Man and his thugs.

    3. That scene where Grandma wakes up next to embalmed, lips-sown-shut Grandpa is some effectively creepy, horrific shit.

    4. Even though I’m not head over heels for Reggie like the hardcore Phantasm franchise partisans, he’s a fun, lovable character, and I enjoyed him in this.

    Things I Didn’t Like
    1. It’s not as effectively creepy and ominous as part 1. We get more Tall Man screentime and more mortuary set pieces, but the uses of the Tall Man, the dwarves, and the balls tend to veer into campiness more so than menace.

    2. There’s less sense of mystery. The premise from pretty much the beginning is that they’re hunting the Tall Man across the Northwest, so it’s less of a “what the hell’s going on down at the mortuary?” caper, and more of an itinerant, seen-this-a-thousand-times Van Helsing / Scooby Doo kind of vibe this time-around.

    3. Mike especially and the Jody-Mike relationship are the heart and sould of part 1. That really anchored and propelled part 1. Mike is the “final girl” protagonist with whom we identify. I really cared about those characters. Reggie was kind of the goofball comedy relief guy. He’s not a grounded, everykid character like Mike was or a more straight up cool older brother like Jody. And James LeGros is not a good Mike. Nothing against him, but he’s an also-ran Jason Priestley all wrong for this role.

    4. Too brightly lit, has a backlot/soundstagey feel to it, whereas part 1 had more of a scrappy, indie, grainy 70s look, and the houses and buildings had an earthy lived-in quality. This one has kind of a an early period X-Files cinematography about it.

    5. The whole premise that the Tall Man and his crew are just setting shop in one small-town mortuary after another , leaving each town a kind of broken post-apocalyptic husk was kind of silly. Like no one in the neighboring towns would get wise to what is happening. The running motif of broken down cars just crashed into abandoned retail locations is almost like a running joke.

    In summary, whereas the first film had more rooted, everyperson character, unique and compelling imagery, a real sense of nightmarish dread, and an emotional payoff of sorts, part 2 is gory and campier. Whereas the original film achieves a kind of greatness when Mike’s journey is viewed as a kind of lucid grief nightmare, this film has no such pretensions and is more of a silly, upping the ante approach that is typical of the slasher sequels of this time period. The kills are kind of fun, but they amount to so many empty calories. Whereas part 1’s characters and their plight resonated and felt rooted and grounded in their lives and their town, this film has a more artificial, rootless quality to it. Gnarlier kills, but lacking the palpable dread, suspense, or mystery. Part 1 was strange and creepy; this is just silly and gory.

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