DVD Review: Phantasm II

Posted on September 20, 2009 by Deaditor 5 Comments

phantasm2lgPhantasm II (1988)
Studio: Universal
DVD Release Date: September 15, 2009
Directed by: Don Coscarelli
Cast: Reggie Bannister, James LeGros, Angus Scrimm
Review by: Sam Hawken

Universal has a strange way of dealing with some of their properties. While a sizable few get top quality releases with loads of extras and pristine transfers, others languish one step away from the bargain bin or, worse yet, don’t get released at all. For an example of the former, look no further than Halloween II, which has yet to get a decent release containing something more compelling than a trailer, while even Halloween 5 has gotten the special-edition treatment from the horror-loving folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment. An example of the latter: Phantasm II.

Though Phantasm II is the second installment of a popular series, it has never even received a domestic DVD release until now. Whereas Phantasm II has been released (with extras!) in Region 2 as part of a lovely set of all four pictures — and once again courtesy of Anchor Bay — North American fans have had to wait. And wait. And wait.

The wait is finally over. Universal has seen fit to release Phantasm II in Region 1 with all the loving attention it lavished on Halloween II. Which is to say that Phantasm II is a bare-bones release with a scrubby-looking copy of the trailer attached and nothing else. The more things change….

Phantasm II is the only one of the four Phantasm pictures to get this treatment. From what I’m given to understand, Universal had issues with writer/director Don Coscarelli’s approach to the material and started interfering almost from the get-go. The first major change requested: recasting characters returning from the first movie.

If you remember Phantasm, the two surviving characters of Reggie and Michael were played by Reggie Bannister and Michael Baldwin respectively. Those familiar with the series know that Coscarelli, who has retained tight creative control in three of the four films, has insisted on casting the same actors in the roles they originated. This sense of continuity is much appreciated, but it’s shattered in Phantasm II when the role of Michael was recast with James LeGros.

Other things about the movie smack of studio interference. The Phantasm movies have been big on explaining themselves, which may be considered a plus or a serious minus depending on ones approach to the films. By contrast, Phantasm II is full of exposition right from the start as new character Liz (Paula Irvine) explains via voice over what’s going on and who’s involved. It’s unnecessary and a little off-putting.

The story has been clarified somewhat and that can’t help but be a good thing; whereas Phantasm was revealed to be nothing but an extended dream sequence, Phantasm II takes place firmly in the film’s reality. Michael has spent years in a mental institution following his brother’s death and returns to Reggie prepared to continue his search for the mysterious Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). Circumstances force both of them on the road together despite Reggie’s initial reluctance and mayhem ensues.

Thanks to the vastly increased budget and Coscarelli’s growth as a director, Phantasm II looks better and towers in scope over its predecessor. While the Tall Man’s plot in Phantasm involved one cemetery and a relative handful of bodies being processed into reanimated slaves for reasons left unexplained, the Tall Man becomes a destructive force in Phantasm II, traveling from town to town and stripping them of inhabitants, both living and dead.

Despite the scale being ramped up and the Tall Man’s threat accordingly increased, the tone of Phantasm II is considerably less somber than in the first installment. Dream sequence or no, Phantasm was filled with serious imagery surrounding what Coscarelli calls “the American way of death.” Phantasm II, on the other hand, is more about fighting against the forces of darkness, and has a lighter touch that’s more in keeping with its action-oriented bend.

There’s also humor, both intended and unintended. Coscarelli had expanded his visual canon by the time Phantasm II rolled around, and it shows in the way the camera moves and the way scenes are put together. The nods to other small budget — at the time, anyway — film directors like Sam Raimi and this half-serious approach, which almost seems to ask the audience directly, “Are you having fun yet?” work most of the time.

Funnily enough, it’s the one point of major studio interference that works against the overall tone of the film. James LeGros may be a perfectly fine actor (my exposure to him has been minimal), but he’s badly miscast in this kind of picture, playing the kind of character he’s asked to play.

Reggie Bannister has the right approach to his role. He plays it mostly straight, but with tongue in cheek when necessary. There’s a touch of Bruce Campbell to his performance that makes one wish for an Ash/Reggie team-up somewhere along the line, and it works given the take Coscarelli has on the material this time around. LeGros, on the other hand, plays his part perfectly straight and it doesn’t work at all.

Granted, there’s nothing in the script as it appears on screen that would suggest to an actor that anything else is expected of him or her. There are action sequences and scare sequences and why wouldn’t it be played straight? But the problem arises when the overall tone of those sequences is not altogether serious, and a straight performance sticks out badly under those circumstances. It can even become humorous in its incongruity, and that’s what happens in more than one scene and to the movie’s detriment.

In all, the movie does what sequels are supposed to do: it moves the overall story along while providing familiar situations for familiar characters. Some of Phantasm’s bigger moments — a car chase, the appearance of the brain-drilling, flying silver balls — are replicated with a twist and steps are taken not to move too far from the original pattern. It would fall to later films in the series to twist the narrative into more experimental shapes.

Strangely enough, Universal’s inexplicable decision to sit on Phantasm II for so long may have increased the movie’s mystique. Given years to wrap the film in layers of hazy recollection, those folks without a VCR (like me) might expect something a little difference from what the picture actually delivers. The end result is a movie that gives both a little more and a little less of what’s expected, but it’s at least fun while it lasts.

Brutal As Hell Rating: 3 out of 5

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