Exhuming Phantasm, Part 2

by Arthur B

Covering the two Phantasm sequels that actually had money.
The original Phantasm was a delightful, bizarre oddity. Despite having a cliffhanger ending, arguably it didn't particularly need a sequel - but a decade later the sequels started coming. Eventually it would have four followups - two made with a budget, two made without. Let's cover the first two, which each in their own way gave a big budget (or at least a "not completely miniscule" budget) take on the premise.

Phantasm II

Released in 1988, this is the only Phantasm to come out in the ‘80s - and even if I hadn’t just told you that, you could probably tell, because this is by far the most ‘80s of the series in terms of its overall approach. Not only are there no less than two massive house-destroying explosions in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, but the scale of the Tall Man’s activities has become grander; now we learn that there’s a sort of curious slow apocalypse unfolding in his wake, as he moves into a small town, taps its cemetary for corpses, takes it for all its worth, and leaves behind a hollowed-out shell before moving on to the next town. (In other words, he’s a sort of dark eidolon of economics, which kind of fits the nature of his operation as revealed in the first movie.)

Attempting to track him down are Reggie (the returning Reggie Bannister) and Mike (this time played by James LeGros, and no longer a kid thanks to the passage of nearly a decade). Mike spent 7 years after the end of the last movie in a mental hospital - also called Morningside - and Reggie forgot all about the Tall Man incident (in a “supernatural amnesia” sort of way, not a “choosing to ignore it” sort of a way). Not long after Mike gets out of the hospital, Reggie is woken up to the truth in absolutely brutal fashion, and the duo go on an epic road trip around Oregon to try and track down the Tall Man, passing through the various ghost towns he leaves in his wake. As hinted at obliquely in the previous movie, Mike has latent psychic potential, and in the intervening years he has come to share a telepathic bond with Liz Reynolds (Paula Irvine) - he dreams of her, she dreams of him, and she also dreams of the Tall Man and Mike’s encounters with him. When Mike and Reggie find their way to the small town of Perigord where she lives, they know that the Tall Man must be nearby - he’s just taken Liz’s grandparents, in fact - and the stage is set for another confrontation to try and stop his swathe of destruction once and for all.

Like I said, this is a very ‘80s action-horror take on Phantasm - alongside the more surreal elements of the series which are alive and well, there’s substantially more ass-kicking on the part of Mike and Reggie this time around, including honest-to-goodness chainsaw duels and bodged-together quad-barrel shotguns. On top of that, this had a budget ten times larger than that of the previous movie, and Coscarelli makes the best possible use of it, with much more substantial creature effects than the first movie (you can see the squished little dwarfs’ squished little faces this time, and there’s a truly disturbing bit of special effects work implementing a little “message” left behind by the Tall Man to lure Mike and Reggie to Perigord). The Tall Man’s budget in-setting also seem to have gotten larger - he’s got a range of helpers this time, rather than just the squished dwarfs and flying spheres, though both of those make a welcome return too.

One addition to the repertoire which doesn’t quite work is the gasmask-wearing gravedigger who digs up the bodies for the Tall Man - he never used to need help with that, and the gravedigger seems to be present solely to provide a big imposing guy for Reggie to have that chainsaw duel with. (The gasmask dudes are a bit better-implemented in the next movie, Lord of the Dead, in which they remind me a lot of the gasmasked miners in the Silent Hill movie.) A more effective addition this time is the revelation of additional capabilities of the floating spheres - even if that does involve cheekily borrowing some lightsaber sound effects.

All this stylish action does mean that there is a slight tonal shift from the original. In particular, the fact that Mike is now a 19 year old tough guy toting a homemade flamethrower means that we largely lose the “plucky kid who’s less helpless than he seems but is still pretty vulnerable” angle from the first movie, which was responsible for much of its charm. Apparently, kicking out Michael Baldwin was an imposition made by the studio, which may perhaps also explain the tendency towards action movie nonsense (though there's enough of that in the other sequels to make me think that Coscarelli isn't entirely averse to it).

However, the flair for surreal ideas and strong visuals that the previous movie showed is still present, which is a great help - the aesthetic of some of the Tall Man’s more futuristic toys from the place he comes from remains great, and there’s a really nice shot early on of Reggie and Mike making their way through a graveyard that has been completely plundered. (It’s also got the original’s tendency to throw in a bit of cheesecake now and again to titillate the audience, which is less appealing.)

This is the longest Phantasm movie, partly because Coscarelli seems to have felt obligated to give a reasonably extensive recap at the beginning. The recap is made bearable mostly because he shows a great knack for combining new footage, footage from the original, and unused footage to seamlessly create a continuation of that movie’s cliffhanger ending, resolving how Mike and Reggie got out of the particular mess they end up in there. Subsequent movies would make even more ingenious use of cut footage from the original shoot.

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead

Released straight-to-video in 1994, Phantasm III continued the pattern set by the last film of kicking things off with an immediate continuation of the cliffhanger of the preceding movie. In this case, we see that the subjective experiences of Mike (now played once again by Michael Baldwin) and Reggie of the end of that film were very different; after some twists and turns, Reggie and Mike end up surrounded by the Tall Man and his crushed-dwarf minions, but Reggie has a grenade he’s willing to use to blow them all apart rather than allowing the Tall Man to take them.

This prompts a very interesting response from the Tall Man - for some reason he specifically wants to take Mike whole, or at least not completely wrecked. (He’s happy to take away the severed head of another deceased character.) That’s only the first of a series of troubling developments - when recuperating, Mike has a classic near-death experience, complete with seeing the departed Jody (played once again by a returning Bill Thornbury), but Jody warns him not to go into the light - and true enough, the Tall Man happens to be lurking there. Then, a bit later, Jody appears to both Reggie and Mike - but he’s apparently been turned into one of the spheres, which are revealed to contain compressed human brains.

Jody’s attempt at rebellion against the Tall Man’s control fizzles and Mike is taken, but the mostly-inert Jody-sphere is left behind and attempts telepathic communication with Reggie. This sets him on an interstate road trip where he continues to travel in the wake of the Tall Man’s depredations, eventually teaming up with precociously violent kid Tim (Kevin Connors) and stone cold Army veteran badass Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), both of whom are the survivors of towns cleared out by the Tall Man.

Lord of the Dead continues the previous movie’s extension of the mythology and escalates it pleasingly, hitting a nice balance between maintaining the air of surreal mystery whilst at the same time developing the mythology in a way which heightens that mystery rather than demystifying it. The new revelations we get about the spheres only makes them seem stranger, for one thing, and between that and the near-death experience it nicely amplifies the basic premise of the series as expressed by the previous two movies - that our very afterlife has been subject to a hostile takeover by malevolent forces who want to exploit it for their own ends.

With the Tall Man’s slow apocalypse picking up the pace, Coscarelli’s script does an excellent job of extrapolating the consequences of it further and further. Now entire counties have been depopulated by him, and as a result the territory left in his wake has become increasingly weird - and not just because of the supernatural or super-technological material he leaves behind. There are entire gangs of looters now who make their living picking clean the collapsed towns he leaves behind, communities of orphaned children looked after by adults from towns which the Tall Man happened to miss, and Tim’s hyperviolent Home Alone take on personal protection is brutally uncompromising and verges on the sinister.

Ah yes, Tim. Tim is one of those child characters you sometimes get in movies who are annoyingly competent and don’t really act or talk like a child; this is a bit grating, especially if you compare it to Michael Baldwin’s much more believable performance in the original movie. It could be worse - this is, after all, a dreamlike series where any particular character encountered might or might not be objectively real in the first place - but still, it’s a little too obvious that Tim is meant to be filling the same niche that Mike fitted in the original, right down to the final scene.

Rocky is much more interesting as a new character, though she isn’t used as much as she deserves to be. She’s also at the centre of some really unfunny comedy with Reggie pestering Rocky for sex, though he doesn’t get anywhere and she does end up getting the better of him and in principle the scene reads like we’re meant to see Reggie as being basically in the wrong here. Unfortunately, “being a sex pest” isn’t considered to be quite enough of a transgression by the movie to make it lose sympathy with Reggie or stop presenting him as a hero, and Reggie is rewarded by having a sex scene with Rocky in a dream a few minutes later, though at least it’s heavily implied to be Reggie’s sleazy dream-fantasy of Rocky rather than the real deal.

Incidentally: what is it with movies throwing in a “comedic” scene where a nebbishy white guy tries to creep on a black woman who’s been consistently portrayed as being a super-tough badass who has no time for this shit? There’s that bit with Grace Jones and Tracey Walter in Conan the Destroyer too. Is this a systemic thing? A fetish thing? Is there a particular film financier who is known to get off on that sort of scene? (Note: I wrote this draft of the review before the whole Harvey Weinstein thing blew up and almost considered cutting that line, but on second thoughts maybe the question needs asking.)

Lord of the Dead enjoys a budget which isn’t that much less than Phantasm II’s, which is pretty good going for a straight-to-video movie, though it does feel like it’s spinning its wheels a bit in early parts. Things really perk up once Jody invades Reggie’s dreams to recruit him into a rescue attempt of Mike from the Tall Man’s mind repository, at which point the distinction between actions taken in dream and in waking life begin to outright disintegrate. Some sequences are basically riffs on scenes from the original, but this is forgivable when they are as well-executed as they are here; there’s a bit where the Tall Man’s hands get severed when a dimensional portal is shut with him partway through it, and what happens next is a slapstick sequence worthy of the classic “this is what happens when you cut off the Tall Man’s finger” scene in the original.

The movie ends on one of the best cliffhangers in the series, with its final act delivering major developments in both the overall mythology and in the particular story of the main characters. However, whilst the stage was set for an epic conclusion, things wouldn’t pan out that way - as we’ll see in the third and final article.

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