by Jay Seaver
In general, it's probably not a great idea to settle in for a sequel without having seen the predecessor, especially when dealing with a filmmaker with as peculiar a vision as Don Coscarelli. But, hey, the Brattle didn't book the original "Phantasm" before this twenty-fifth anniversary screening of "Phantasm II", did they? So, sure, maybe this thing makes sense with a bit of context, but I'm guessing it's still downright weird.There is a helpful recap, showing how nine years ago, only two people survived when The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) - an extradimensional alien disguised as an undertaker - came to their town. Now Mike (James Le Gros), who was just a kid at the time, is being released from an asylum to hook up with Reggie (Reggie Bannister) to follow the Tall Man's trail. He's got a psychic connection to a girl in Oregon, Liz (Paula Irvine), where the Tall Man seems to be setting up shop Add one hitchhiker by the name of Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) and a bunch of flying balls armed with knives and lasers, and you've got yourself a fight.
"You can't help but admire the sheer craziness on display."
Give Don Coscarelli credit - he does not stint on the strange. Casting Angus Scrimm as a murderous undertaker is something anybody might do, and taking the next step to reanimating corpses isn't that far out. Coscarelli, on the other hand, adds premonitions, portals, and more to the hovering Sentinel Spheres and shrunken dwarf minions inherited from the first movie. As Mike and Reggie follow the Tall Man's trail, it leads through a series of destroyed towns, giving an apocalyptic feel that horror sequels with their boosted power levels and accumulating mythology should have more often, but seldom do.
It gets away from him at times; there are long stretches of the movie where it's not clear why anybody is doing anything beyond "prophecy" and "weird telepathic messages", and those are not necessarily satisfying as one watches, especially if the viewer is starting with this movie. The movie being impenetrable isn't so bad, especially since Coscarelli does a pretty fair job of presenting the sci-fi elements as if he's got everything worked out, but random is something else entirely. His plotting isn't of the same quality of his world-building.
Still, he gives the audience the blood, guts, and weirdness they came to see. There's plenty of well-done splatter, accomplished with everything from the trusty chainsaw and signature spheres to quad-barreled shotguns and acidic embalming fluid. There's an amusing bit of ribbing for another director who used a sequel to basically do a bigger, stranger remake of his first movie along with other bits of off-kilter humor. Coscarelli and his crew also have a real skill at building environments, both in how they transform safe (or, at least, understandably creepy) places into dangerous, scary settings, and then kicking things up a notch when it's time for things to get really weird. The gore isn't used to cover for poorly-staged action, either, but more as an exclamation point at the end of a decent sequence.
The cast isn't much to write home about. James Le Gros (replacing Michael Baldwin, who would resume the role for later sequels) is rightly peculiar as Mike, never seeming to have learned the exact right way to interact with people while committed. He's a decent complement to the earthier Reggie Bannister, though. Their leading ladies are pretty and seldom really bad, mainly just not having much in the way to make them memorable characters. Angus Scrimm doesn't exactly give the Tall Man a lot of nuance, but he certainly makes him a fierce, memorable horror villain.I'll probably catch up with the rest of the "Phantasm" series some day; I've liked Don Coscarelli's gonzo horror as a rule, and this movie is at least more ambitious than your average scare series. Hopefully context will make it seem better then, since on its own the ways in which it's brilliant and the ways in which it's a mess tend to cancel each other out until the film is just coming out a bit ahead.
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originally posted: 04/23/13 22:54:56