Phantasm II

July 21, 2011

Ominous Scrimm

Back in 1979, an apparently crazed 25-year-old writer-director named Don Coscarelli came out with a weird little horror movie called Phantasm. It was a jumble of imaginative effects, and turned into something of a sleeper, both commercially and critically.

Coscarelli seemed to be a filmmaker to keep an eye on, but he hasn’t done much since Phantasm (his most high-profile project was The Beastmaster). So it is natural that he would return to what he knows best, and Phantasm II is the inevitable result.

There’s a cursory flashback at the beginning of the new film, for those who missed the original. It doesn’t really provide any helpful information, but then storytelling is not Coscarelli’s strong suit, and Phantasm II doesn’t make very much sense in any case. The main thing here is that the special effects and grotesque imagery are in hyperdrive by the end of the movie.

The hero from the first film is grown up now, but still haunted. Mike (played by James Le Gros) has visions, and his visions tell him that bodies are being stolen from graves. When he bumps into his old friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) in a cemetery, Mike is raving: “Doesn’t it strike you strange, Reg, that every single corpse in this entire graveyard is missing?” Indeed it should. The dead are being recruited into an army of hunched creatures who scuttle around in monk’s robes and perform nasty deeds.

The two men hit the road to track down the ringleader of all this evil. It is, of course, the villain from the original Phantasm, that ominous mortician (or is that a redundancy?) known only as “The Tall Man,” played here, as before, by a cadaverous actor named Angus Scrimm. Even his name is scary.

Mike and Reg chase the Tall Man to a remote town in Oregon, where they are aided by Liz (Paula Irvine), who has been having strange visions, and a hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips), who is something of a vision herself. Everyone in this town has disappeared, and the priest is shouting about the Tall Man: “He’s taken them all! He’s harvested the entire town!”

This sets the stage for the really gruesome finale. Coscarelli combines the fearsome physiognomy of the Tall Man with the deadliness of these flying silver balls, which lock themselves onto their victims’ foreheads and make like dentist’s drills. Ouch.

The movie has some startling sequences, but it’s too rangy and disjointed to sustain itself. You can say this for Coscarelli, though: He knows how to put the screws on.

First published in the Herald, July 10, 1988

I’m pretty sure I missed the remaining films in the Phantasm saga, although fond memories of seeing the first one in a drive-in theater remain. Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep has enough pretty wonderful moments to make you wonder why this guy doesn’t make more movies.