Sometime in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-eight, I was hanging out in the lobby of a movie theater with my parents looking at posters and being enthralled at one for an upcoming film called Phantasm II. “What’s a phantasm?”, I asked my mom, followed by “There’s a Phantasm part one?”. I immediately had to look up the word “phantasm” in the dictionary, and tried to get my parents to let me rent the first movie. I was unsuccessful on the latter, but somehow managed to get them to rent Phantasm II for me shortly upon it’s release on VHS. We had a car that was broken down and I think they were more preoccupied with getting it fixed than what I was watching on TV. And so I finally saw a film that would become one of my favorites and introduce me to a series that would become a lifelong obsession.
Phantasm II kicks off right at the end of the first film and has Reggie (a returning Reggie Bannister) saving Mike from the clutches of the Tall Man (the late, great Angus Scrimm), and blowing up his own home in the process. A few years later, Mike (now played by James LeGros from Justified, Point Break, and Near Dark) is finally getting out of a psych ward and is back looking for the Tall Man. Reggie now has a family, and has conveniently blocked all memories of the Tall Man. Reggie is trying to get Mike to be normal and give up his revenge quest. All that changes after the Tall Man bombs Reggie’s house and kills his entire family. Reggie and Mike head out in the Hemicuda cruising through small towns to track down the Tall Man who is enjoying playing this little game with them, and leaves taunting calling cards. As I stated in my review of the first film, each film inadvertently represents a stage of the grief process. The second stage is ANGER, and that’s exactly the feeling Mike and Reg have at this point as they saddle up with an inventory full of weaponry ranging from blow torches to a homemade four barrel shot gun. They know what they are up against and while it might be an exercise in futility, they will not go quietly into that good night.
Phantasm II introduces Liz (Paula Irvine) to the series. Liz is a young woman who has a psychic link to Mike and the Tall Man. This plot line should have been a stronger through line for the rest of the films, but eschews it in the sequels due to budgetary reasons. Speaking of budget, Phantasm II had the backing of Universal Studios and was the biggest release of the series. Tom Pollock, who was the president of Universal Studios at the time, was a big genre fan and was responsible for us getting Phantasm II. Pollock was also responsible for sequels to the Child’s Play series and Army of Darkness. Phantasm II is a huge effects movie and features the work of a budding KNB FX (The Walking Dead), fresh out of working off two other big horror sequels, Day of the Dead and Evil Dead II, who teamed with another Evil Dead II alumni, Mark Shostrom. At about the halfway mark of the film the trademark spheres make an appearance, and this time there are three of them. Two are silver and one is a super powered gold sphere. It was nice of them to color code them for us. The gold sphere (aka the “Rambo sphere”) shows off by slicing off ears with a side spinning blade, and gets to shove itself in the stomach of one of the Tall Man’s henchmen, drills through his body, driving him up the wall (literally) before becoming lodged in his mouth. The first half of the film is a bit slow as Mike and Reggie make their way to Liz, but the second the spheres are introduced Phantasm II never lets up. You’d think at some point though the Tall Man would have set some sort of guidance system in the spheres programming so that they will not attack his henchmen. They are rather indiscriminate.
What’s interesting about this film is how Reggie becomes the main character. He’s not playing third-string back up to Mike like in the first, and even becomes narrator of the film. Reggie is the best friend you always wished you had, who in Bannister’s own words “would throw himself on the flames of Hell for you”. Phantasm II also sets up Reggie’s Achilles’s heel: his libido, which more often than not gets him into a lot of trouble. They pick up a hitch hiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips, model/talk show host who also starred in Weekend at Bernies and Dollman). Her character is one of the most mysterious of the series. She’s obviously a pawn of the Tall Man, but she may also -BE- the Tall Man (much like the Lady in Lavender from the first Phantasm). Whether or not she’s an apparition or has any of her former human qualities at all is a complete mystery. This “open to interpretation” plot line is what is part of the charm of the series and as Reggie Bannister notes on the commentary track, “the pictures have an almost interactive feel where your conclusions are just as good as anybody’s”. This sense of “always the questions, never the answers”, has given the series a sense of longevity and helped it overcome the budget limitations it would face in the sequels.
Each film does build on the mythology of the previous; and we get a lot more of what the Tall Man is up to in this one. He’s chewing up and spitting out small towns in order to eventually take over/destroy the world. Shortly after Mike’s release from the psych ward, we get a great shot of an entire graveyard that has been dug up by the Tall Man. As we saw in the first film, he uses the corpses to make into his drawves that inhabit his world and do his dirty work. In the first film, they were faceless goons, and in this one we get a good look at them. Famous midget actor Phil Fondacaro (Return of the Jedi, Willow) plays as the drawf formerly known as Liz’s grandma in a quick scene. The famous space gate from the first film is now hidden behind a locked door which can only be opened by the prongs of one of the spheres. The idea of the Tall Man’s weapons also being keys to other dimensions is a cool concept that gives a lot of world building to the series (in Phantasm III they can open portals). In addition to this, we also get tentacled worms coming out of the Tall Man to attack our protagonists. These bizarre ideas help to world build the landscape of the Phantasm series and gives them a Lovecraftian sense of other-worldliness and it’s cliff hanger ending kept me waiting almost five years to see what would happen next to our heroes.
Unfortunately this film was released at the same time as big movies such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Die Hard, and Coming to America. Phantasm II was lost in the shuffle. As a series, Phantasm is essentially the horror version of Lord of the Rings. If Phantasm II had done better at the box office, we could have gotten bigger entries in the series and more frequently. The series is a play ground of ideas and Phantasm II showcases how great the series could be given a budget, which is no knock to the sequels which are all very good and which I’ll get into forthcoming reviews.
The series has always held a soft spot for me and has been a source of strange comfort after my father passed away. A month before his death in February 1996, my eighth grade class went on a trip to Universal Studios and the Disney resorts. At Universal Studios, they had a shop with a few VHS tapes for sale, one of which was Phantasm II, and I managed to get an older looking friend to purchase. We were kids, and nervous we’d get in trouble for buying an R-rated film; but it worked, and I was able to smuggle it back home. I still have it in a safe place to this day and it is one my most treasured memories.