Here’s an idea: what if there was a mild-mannered 19th century mortician whose fascination with death led him to create a machine that allows him to travel between time and dimensions? And what if his experiences in other dimensions gave him sinister super powers such as telekinesis, shape-shifting and the ability to create small, deadly metallic spheres made of removed brains? Oh! And what if he dug up dead bodies, crushed them into dwarves and reanimated them for use as his own army of minions?
These were thoughts going through writer-director Don Coscarelli’s head when he created the world of “Phantasm,” which first released in 1979, and introduced horror fans to the Tall Man villain. Coscarelli was only 23 years old when he created “Phantasm” with a tiny budget of $300,000 and a cast and crew of mostly amateurs and aspiring filmmakers. The original was praised as a mini classic for its surreal presentation, despite being somewhat difficult to follow at times.
Throughout most of the original, Tall Man is kept off-screen and out of sight, which heightened the film’s sense of mystery and fear. This wasn’t the case for the sequel, which was released nine years later. “Phantasm II” picks up where the last one left off and includes much more of the Tall Man, which is appreciated as Angus Scrimm has a presence that’s scarier than almost any of his horror villain peers.
You think that when you die, you go to Heaven. You come to us!
-The Tall Man
Like the original, the horror elements are elevated by very surreal dread. “Phantasm II” takes place six years later. Mike is in a mental institution after the events of the first film, wherein he’s kidnapped by Tall Man’s minions. He eventually fakes his own recovery in order to meet up with a new character, Liz, who has a psychic bond with Mike and is able to see into the future with very vivid, nightmarish premonitions.
Their hunt for the Tall Man is riddled with traps and deception. Both Mike and Liz have developed psychic abilities that give them tiny, often vague glimpses into the future. They both try their best to frantically react to whatever hell awaits them. “Phantasm II” certainly rewards viewers who pay close attention to the film’s carefully-crafted little details– as they lead to the film’s chaotic and twisty ending.
“Phantasm II” continues the original’s signature sense of dread. This sequel has the most likeable trio of protagonists of its horror movie peers of that era. Each character is flawed, but they remain focused in their mission to hunt down the Tall Man (this time armed with chainsaws and a quadruple shotgun) and put an end to his trail of death. Liz and Mike’s relationship grows in a very engaging way, as their psychic connection and fearlessness make them a capable team.
With a cleaner and more polished overall presentation, “Phantasm II” has grander ambitions than its predecessor– both in narrative scope and special effects.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the first was written by a 23-year-old with limited resources, while the second was produced by a 32-year-old with a $3 million budget (the lowest budget for any Universal film in the 1980s, but the highest budget in the “Phantasm” series). Everything in the movie’s 97 minutes of dream-like terror looks incredible– especially the scenes involving the Tall Man’s signature weapon, the metallic spheres.
Your perception of the “Phantasm” series has a lot to do with your tastes for surrealist horror. If you struggle to accept that two of our heroes develop psychic abilities or that the antagonist sometimes uses metal spheres with tiny saws and drills inside to hunt down his enemies, you may have trouble enjoying “Phantasm II.” The narrative can also get confusing.
Ultimately, it’s a real treat to watch the trio of protagonists trek across the country to various desolate towns, each displaying distressful signs of Tall Man’s rampage. “Phantasm II” is full of gruesome and terrifying moments that are often surprisingly artistic and beautiful. If you’re a fan of abstract horror and CGI-free special effects, “Phantasm II” is not a movie you should miss.
“Phantasm II” is available on DVD and digital download here on Amazon. If you’re looking for the original on blu ray or DVD, good luck. Horror fans, myself included, are still waiting for a re-release, as the original DVD has become quite rare. Be sure to check out the other entries in the Horror Sequel Marathon right here on My Vinyl Muse!