CULT CORNER: Phantasm II (1988)

The Tall Man returns in one of the best horror sequels ever made.

Who made it?: Don Coscarelli (Director/Writer), Roberto A. Quezada (Producer), Universal Pictures.

Who’s in it?: James LeGros, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Paula Irvine, Samantha Philips.

Tagline: “The ball is back!”

IMDb rating: 6.5/10.

Last time we saw Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister), they were under the impression that they had just defeated the evil Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), an alien with a human disguise who came to Earth to raise an army of the living dead. Mike retreated to his room, only to see the fiend in his mirror; thus starting the Phantasm tradition of concluding a chapter with our characters being pulled through glass, their fate unknown. Little did the filmmakers and audiences know that we’d be seeing a resolution to that infamous final scare nine years later…

Don Coscarelli’s brilliant sequel to his own Phantasm picks up at this exact moment, despite the fact that almost a decade has elapsed. Bannister, hair dyed to look convincingly younger, hears the commotion upstairs and goes to investigate, eventually saving Mike from the Tall Man and his dwarf minions. After some typical derring-do, they escape the house just before a spectacular explosion primed by Reggie goes off, which announces, boldly, that Phantasm has gone “big-budget.”

Ironically, Phantasm II was the least-expensive film Universal put out in the 1980s, but also the priciest film in the series. Despite inevitable studio tinkering that led Coscarelli to recast Mike with “working actor” James LeGros, this has to be one of the few horror sequels that completely trounces the original for overall quality. The writer/director clearly took stock of what worked in his shoestring original and decided, post-Aliens, to turn it into an action/horror/comedy hybrid. It was a bold move that paid off handsomely as this could be the funnest and most rewatchable entry in the underrated franchise.

The story picks up some time later and sees an aged Mike released from a psychiatric ward having fooled the doctors into believing he has changed. But he still believes in the Tall Man, returning home to find the local graves raided as expected. Reggie naturally catches up with him, but it’s a homecoming tinged with tragedy. Reggie’s family is killed in a payback bombing set by our villain, and it isn’t long before the pair are stocking up on weapons to hunt the Tall Man down…

Phantasm II is nowhere near being a throwaway follow-up merely content to repeat the first film’s highlights (although, there’s plenty of fan service). It builds greatly on the mythology, the Tall Man’s plot, and gives the proceedings a humourously campy nature that is perfectly in-keeping with the original. It feels like a genuine continuation and gives everything we expect to see a much-needed spit and polish, including those ever-popular silver spheres of death.

Like Ash in the Phantasm-influenced Evil Dead series, our heroes here are bumbling fools with good intentions and seeing them pair up in a buddy action film with horror overtones is wonderful. While, in retrospect, it would have been better for Baldwin to have reprised the role, LeGros is without a doubt a better actor, and he certainly brings out the best in Reggie. Bannister is a simply wonderful comedic presence in this movie, whether being badass, being scared shitless, or wielding a four-barrel shotgun. You can’t help but love this hick, and he quite effortlessly steals the movie.

There’s also real stakes this time beyond the safety of our heroes. The Tall Man is slowly making his way across the country, leaving towns desolate and human life short. It gives everything an apocalyptic edge and only drives the film harder. Coscarelli keeps the pace going wonderfully, offering killer set-piece after set-piece with barf-worthy make-up effects supervised by Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) that still stand up today. Though the performances are still inconsistent and the tone is appreciably cheesy, there’s so much competence and heart in Phantasm II that you just get swept along with it.

I also love where they take the Tall Man in this instalment. Scrimm clearly relished the chance to return to his villainous role, and with his increased screen-time, becomes Coscarelli’s answer to Vincent Price. He has a blast playing this indestructible foe whose real visage is concealed beneath that fake skin; what does he really look like? And how does he keep coming back for more? Phantasm II is wise enough not to answer these questions, bringing up fresh mysteries and electing to give everything a shot of adrenaline. That includes those terrifying “Sentinels,” which are now numerous and heavily-upgraded, with the ability to detect body heat and burn through solid barriers. This is Phantasm part one on speed, and it’s doubtful that new “phans” will be disappointed.

Endlessly creative, exciting and creepy, Phantasm II is that rare genre continuation that not only lives up to the original but in some ways tops it. Some may dislike the change in genre and mood, but there’s no arguing that this is a more sure-footed venture and one of the very best sequels the horror world has ever put out. If you’re thinking about giving the franchise a go with the impending fifth part on the way, make sure you stick around for this one before judging it. This is schlock cinema at its finest…

Best Scene

Here’s a clip from Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray. There’s no stopping those balls!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The $3 million budget was exactly ten times that of the original.
  • One of the headstones in the film bears the name “Alex Murphy”, a reference to RoboCop (1987).
  • Brad Pitt auditioned for the role of Mike.
  • One of the undertakers can be seen filling a plastic bag labeled “Mr. Sam Raimi” with ashes. Raimi, a friend of Coscarelli’s, visited the set often.
  • Universal executives wanted to recast both A. Michael Baldwin and Reggie Bannister because they were unknown. Coscarelli resisted their efforts and was forced to audition Baldwin and Bannister for the opportunity to reprise their roles. In the end, his efforts won him a concession: he was allowed to keep one of the two, but had to replace the other.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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