If you watch the extras on the DVD for the original PHANTASM, one thing director DON COSCARELLI was particularly proud of was his casting choices. He felt that the audience automatically sympathized with characters that they could recognize from their own lives rather than perfecto Hollywood types. I agree with that thought but guess what? UNIVERSAL PICTURES didn’t, and so PHANTASM star A. MICHAEL BALDWIN was replaced by JAMES LEGROS for PHANTASM’s nearly decade later sequel. Apparently BRAD PITT was also up for the role so I guess the word we can use is “compromise.” Hey, JAMES LEGROS is a likable enough guy and I don’t have my glasses on right now, but nobody could accuse him of being a pretty boy, right? Let’s give him a break! Still for some PHANTASM fans this was a bit of a disappointment although they must have been at least partially appeased by the presence of Mr. Irreplaceable himself REGGIE BANNISTER.
PHANTASM II was released in 1988. Do you remember what song the world of horror was singing in 1988? I do. It went a little something like this: “Freddy Krueger, Freddy Krueger, yea, yea yea!” So ironically, even though our Mr.Krueger pretty much climbed up out of the dream world on ANGUS SCRIMM’s back, now “The Tall Man” has got to start dancing to Freddy’s tune! At least that’s how I read an early scene where his tallness appears as a worm creature protruding from a hunchback in order to bark out nasty threats. Once the ELM STREET pandering is out of the way, COSCARELLI begins a rather brave attempt at expanding his PHANTASM universe triple fold. By which I mean, instead of one killer ball you now get three and instead of one cemetery you’re now conceivably dealing with every cemetery in the world. MICHAEL (now JAMES LEGROS) and REGGIE, their families wiped out by “The Tall Man” and his minions, hit the road HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN style and decide to destroy the scourge once and for all.
PHANTASM II has somewhat of different tone than its predecessor. It’s post apocalyptic, it always seems to be night and, whereas the original sported vibrant crayola box hues, we now get muddy watercolors. You also suddenly get two, count ‘em two, pretty lady characters. One is Liz (PAULA IRVINE) who shares a lovey-dovey psychic link with Michael and one is Alchemy or “Chemmy” (SAMANTHA PHILIPS) who has a very convenient for Reggie case of Acomophilia (sexual attraction to baldness). Although the first half of the film putters around a bit as it tries to get newbies up to speed, the second half, where it is decided that THE EVIL DEAD is the film to cuddle up to and emulate, gets to be more rousing. Cameras bust through doors, chainsaw fights ensue, one liners fly about and we even get a bag of ashes marked SAM RAIMI. I prefer this half to the earlier one, but it is still a bit difficult for me to adjust to this new approach. Look at me, I just called something from 1988 “new,” how sad is that?
PHANTASM II is a likable enough sequel but it often breaks a noticeable sweat in its effort to please. As fun as it is to visit with the characters and to witness the special effect upgrades, I kind of miss the laid back, lazy summer charm of the original film. I also can’t help wondering what could have been had COSCARELLI been left to his own devices and allowed to let his imagination run wild (preferably with A. MICHAEL BALDWIN in tow). That said, even with the forced action set pieces and panting attempts to keep up with the times, PHANTASM II still keeps at least one bony finger on the morbid wonder that made the first movie so great and I thank it for that. I also thank it for my favorite Tall Man line of the series, “You think that when you die you go to heaven…YOU COME TO US!”
NOTE: Even though the movie PHANTASM II doesn’t exactly knock my tube socks off, this promo spot sure does. I can remember the anticipation it injected in me like it was yesterday. Is it a dream? No, it’s not!