What, oh what, is there left to say about the Phantasm franchise? Ever since writer/director Don Coscarelli made the first entry with little more than spit, grit, and a whole lotta punk rock ethos, fans around the world have thrilled at the utter insanity and dreamlike power of these films, personified by Angus Scrimm's All-Time Horror Icon, the Tall Man. There are some who cannot get on the Phantasm train, and while I see where these individuals are coming from...I still kinda want to point at them and laugh, because the Phantasm flicks are really, truly in a class of their own. These are movies made for a budget that Hollywood studios would laugh at as it wouldn't cover COFFEE for the entirety of one of their productions. These are movies that do not operate under any form of traditional narrative logic or "rules"...they (and Mr. Coscarelli, always) make their own rules. Despite the budget, despite the seeming lack of coherence, despite the unavoidable elements of cheese, the Phantasm flicks have ever been hugely ambitious endeavors. Those of us who count ourselves as fans understand this, and are grateful.
In 1988 (somehow) the folks in charge at the good ship Universal decided to give Don Coscarelli a chance to make a sequel to his 1979 cult classic, and said "Here's 3 million bucks. Go make something that'll get those kids' asses in seats, don't make it as weird, gory or fucked up as you seem to feel the need to, and we'll all make a ton of cash." Universal did not know who, exactly, they were dealing with, I must suspect...because for Coscarelli, 3 million dollars is like 20 million to almost every other director out there. Don's movies are the way they are BECAUSE of his budgetary restrictions; he has always been forced to think his way around corners, to figure out what exactly the money needs to go to in order to make the flick effective for HIM, and that is because Don approaches these movies as One of Us. He makes the movies he would love to see. So what he came up with was a flick that may have been a little less gorier than he wanted (and not for a lack of trying or shooting those scenes), but was still plenty weird and operated on dream logic a great deal and remained wonderfully, excitingly fucked up in the way that only a Phantasm flick is. Phantasm II is, to this day, the highest budgeted flick in the series (certainly the most streamlined) and the extra polish/gloss means it is some people's favorite. It's not mine -- I will always have a soft spot in my cold, twisted heart for the original -- but I'd be lying if I said it's not the one I watch the most and have the most fun with.
If you're reading these words and don't know the plot of Phantasm, kindly throw yourself off the closest tall structure. Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh. On the off chance you are a horror newbie and are working your way through the classics, I will sum up: there's an evil mortician known as The Tall Man who is slowly taking over cemeteries in the Pacific Northwest, grave-robbing the corpses and doing awful things to them. He can use these corpses to do his bidding in various ways; his favorite method seems to be turning them into cousins of the Star Wars universe's Jawas (these little bastards are considerably less pleasant, it must be said). Also dude has access to flying silver spheres that enjoy drilling themselves into your forehead and spraying your blood EVERYWHERE, for what that's worth. When regular people discover the sort of nefarious activity he is up to, bad things happen to them. In the first flick, it was teenaged kid Mike, his older brother Jody, and their buddy Reggie (ice-cream man, part-time musician, and full-time ladies' man/badass). Phantasm II begins exactly where part one left off: Jody is dead, and the Tall Man snatches Mike into his evil clutches. Reg has to save him, does, but the Tall Man escapes and it's off to an institution for Mike (note to all concerned: when the proper authorities ask, do not start babbling about tall body-warping ghouls, his dwarf army, and other dimensions; it doesn't go well) for the next decade or so. There's something about a girl Mike (played as an adult by James LeGros) sees in his dreams, Liz (Paula Irvine), her grandparents, and her own connection to the Tall Man and his plans for them, but whatever. Mike gets out of the nuthouse, meets up with Reg (Reggie Bannister, cool as ever), the two of them secure a small arsenal which they then load up into their beastly 1971 black Hemicuda, and off they go to do battle with the Tall Man and his minions, hoping to save Liz and defeat an ancient evil beyond our universe. You know...the usual.
I'm fairly sure I spent more time than necessary on the plot, as "plot" is a pretty hilarious word to use when discussing the Phantasm films. It's secondary at best, because what Coscarelli is interested in are moments of maximum nuttery, trippy effects and cool ideas, throwing them into a blender, and seeing what comes out. It's a fine recipe, and wholly unique through his execution of these elements to these films and these films only. There are no other horror movies quite like these. No one could even come close to pulling it off and they'd be stupid to try; this is pure, 100% Coscarelli and we are all better for it. For this sequel and the bigger playground he'd been afforded to enjoy, Don pulls out all the stops. The Hemicuda gets a couple stunts, defines badassery, and looking back it's a clear influence on Sam and Dean's Metallicar in Supernatural (which is awesome). We actually get to SEE the dwarves in this one, all up close and nasty, and FX genius Mark Shostrom (bringing along some of his assistants that worked on Evil Dead II with him, hungry young dudes like Greg Nicotero & Robert Kurtzman, who may have gone on to do fine work themselves, who knows) does an excellent job with these ugly little mothers as well as a plethora of other psychosis on display. One gag in particular, a nasty little present the Tall Man has left for our heroes to find, squelches its way out of somebody's back in an excellently sickening way and is a testament to the beauty and artistry of 80's practical effects work; to this I say "kudos, gentlemen" and clap until I am removed from the premises...which sadly, happens far too often.
Coscarelli shoots the hell out of the mausoleums, crypts, and abandoned cemeteries like a champ, and that palpable Phantasm atmosphere of dread and revulsion permeates seemingly every other frame. The silver spheres are back, joined by their bigger, badder cousin, a GOLDEN sphere, and this sucker's one hell of a deadly upgrade --watching it tear into flesh and destroy bodies with ease is an excellent Friday night (or Tuesday afternoon, whatever) pastime for all. It's been said that the original version Coscarelli shot and delivered to the studio was about twice as gore-soaked as what was released, but aside from the death of priest Kenneth Tigar (which is still damn bloody and VERY cool) nothing jumps out as being horribly edited, even if we in the audience know the flick could have been a little wetter overall. LeGros is just fine as Mike (replacing the original's A. Michael Baldwin, who returned for the subsequent sequels; fanboy outrage aside, LeGros does well), Irvine does what she needs to do without being horrible about it, and as a hitchhiker the boys meet along the way, Samantha Phillips in the role of Alchemy cements every single thing you've ever heard about staying away from chicks with the crazy eyes, no matter how attractive you may find them. Reggie Bannister (God, how I want the hat he wears in a couple scenes that reads simply "Boogie Down") is Reggie Bannister, which basically means that no, we are not worthy and should bow down to his easy humor, fiery resolve, and utter willingness to kick evil's ass all over the place. Reg is THE fan favorite in the cast; he always has been and always will be. In terms of heroes, anyway...because Angus Scrimm will always be the face of Phantasm. As well he should be. The Tall Man is instantly one of the most recognizable villains in horror history, and Scrimm plays him to utter perfection. His voice (that booming "BOOOOOOY!!!" has haunted many a mind, I am positive), piercing stare, and imposing stature all add up to the definition of "nightmare fuel." Scrimm is just the best (okay, worst, but piss off, semantics) and will be beloved by fright fans for time eternal. If none of that has sold you, maybe you'd be interested in the closest thing cinema has seen to the Holy Hand Grenade since Monty Python (okay, maybe that's hyperbole, but the way they introduce it feels that way)? Or a quadruple (YES) barrelled shotgun? What I am telling you that if this has somehow slipped past you then you need to RUN, not walk, to procure a copy for your very own. The gang flat out brings it, and you should not be disappointed.
As they seem to be determined to do, Scream Factory is making all of my dreams come true with this disc; seriously, one could write an entire 10,000 word article about all of their releases and how they seem to be reading our minds in terms of the 70's and (especially) 80's cult classics they are so lovingly giving such fantastic debuts on Blu-ray and DVD. In the case of Phantasm II, their Blu-ray is more than up to their usual high standards: the video is outstanding, and while it may not be reference quality, the 1080p HD transfer (1:78:1) looks fantastic, as I couldn't detect any issues with colors/blacks/grain other than what would come from the original print. Thankfully there is little evidence of any kind of DNR problems whatsoever, and on the audio front, Scream Factory provides two DTS tracks (5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo) that get it done admirably and agressively. The surround track proved itself a bit more immersive, with excellent directional effects, but neither has any distortion or issues with muted dialogue or anything like that.
Scream Factory, as usual, outdoes itself in the extras department. In addition to a feature-length commentary track by Coscarelli, Scrimm, and Bannister, we get a ton of great new stuff. First up is a 46 minute retrospective entitled "The Ball Is Back" and for fans it is a literal treasure trove of information, anecdotes, and laughs. We've got Coscarelli first and foremost (who describes the Phantasm series as a "rumination of death" among other great tidbits and recollections), Reg, Scrimm, Irvine, Phillips (who is EXACTLY who you assume she is after watching her play Alchemy), Shostrom and even Tigar, who tells a great story about how they pulled off a specific gag in his death scene. The doc more than meets the high standards that the company has set for its extras, and is matched by a slightly shorter (22 minutes) look at solely the FX side of the production, entitled "The Gory Days" and is almost exclusively Greg Nicotero's look back on working the show -- this too, is superb. We're also given 6 minutes of deleted scenes from the 35mm source provided by Coscarelli himself, and 18 minutes of unfinished workprint scenes (with such joys as roughly 5 extra seconds of Tigar's death scene and all the bloodspray we've been craving in the theatrical release all these years!). Then there's two 9-minute video-shot behind the scenes segments ( concerning makeup FX and on-set footage, respectively), 3 still galleries, trailers for the first three flicks in the series and TV spots for part II. Last, but not least -- and indicative of the lengths Scream Factory goes for us -- is an eighteen minute, black and white short film about Abraham Lincoln. What the hell does that have to do with anything, you ask? Well, it comes from the personal archives of one Rory Guy, who plays the part of Lincoln in the short. The reason it's included here is simple: Rory Guy is none other than Angus Scrimm himself, and it's a nice little treat for fans of the man who has scared the almighty shit out of us all these years.
Phantasm II is more fun than should probably be legal for those of us who dig body-snatching ghouls, gun-and-flamethrower toting heroes, and insane gore wrapped up in an acid flashback. Scream Factory continues to deliver the goods and are proving themselves, with every release, to be a horror geek's best friend. I thank them from the bottom of my heart, along with Angus, Reg, and the undersung genius that is Don Coscarelli; I simply cannot recommend this disc highly enough.