THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with Phantasm II. Well, not the movie so much as the trailer. I loved seeing a flying silver orb lodge into a man's head while the ominous, deep-voiced narrator seriously intoned, This summer...the ball is back! I missed the movie theatrically, but saw it on video, only to find myself massively disappointed that it wasn't 90 minutes of the ball attacking people. Watching Scream Factory's Collector's Edition Blu-Ray of Phantasm II, I feel much more generous toward the film. While the plot still doesn't make a whole lot of sense, there are plenty of inventive, first-rate horror/gore scenes, all of them stylishly executed. Plus, the incomparable Angus Scrimm as the Tall Man!
This sequel finds the original's main characters, Mike (now played by James LeGros) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister), setting out on a quest to find the Tall Man, an evil mortician who wields deadly orbs and leads a clan of sinister, cloaked demons. Mike has a psychic bond with a young woman, Liz Reynolds (Paula Irvine), who has been having strange nightmares and visions. They use this bond to meet up, and the three make their way to Perigord, Oregon, picking up a hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) along the way. The group eventually reaches the crematorium where the Tall Man does his thing. Not wanting to be stopped, he unleashes the highly destructive balls, which come equipped with little spears and spinning saw blades, perfect for tearing apart human flesh. Several characters, including a priest (Kenneth Tigar), are unlucky enough to discover how they work firsthand.
To this day, I've never seen the original Phantasm. Both times I saw this sequel – in 1988 and 2013 – I found the dimension-hopping story somewhat muddled and confusing. Perhaps it makes sense if you've seen the first film, or perhaps it's intentionally dreamlike and ethereal. Regardless, plot isn't the primary selling point of Phantasm II. Horror is, and on that count, the movie delivers. Writer/director Don Coscarelli provides a suitably grim atmosphere, getting maximum mileage from the mortuary setting. Angus Scrimm is a valuable asset, too. As the Tall Man, he's deeply menacing. The perpetually grimacing Scrimm looms over the other actors, speaking his dialogue in a booming, quiver-inducing voice. And then there are those glorious orbs, which inflict gruesome damage upon helpless victims. Their sheer unlikeliness as instruments of death makes them sinister, while the film devises ingeniously nasty things for them to do. Phantasm II's special effects team does magnificent work showing the ghastly results of a ball attack.
Phantasm II has plenty of these moments, and that's what makes it fun, in spite of a half-baked plot. There's even a subtle sense of humor displayed; a briefly-seen bag of cremated ashes lists the them as being the body of “Mr. Sam Raimi,” a nod to the director of The Evil Dead. I don't know whether you could accurately call Phantasm II “good” or not, but as a gore-filled piece of '80s horror with a premise unlike any other in the genre, it's completely enjoyable.
Phantasm II is available in a sparkling new Blu-Ray from Scream Factory, a company that's doing for genre films what Criterion does for art pictures. The movie has been nicely transferred to Blu-Ray, with sharp images and good sound.
The bonus goodies are plentiful, including a playful audio commentary from director Don Coscarelli, Reggie Bannister, Paula Irvine, and Angus Scrimm, who initially speaks in character as the Tall Man.
My favorite supplemental feature is “The Ball is Back,” which runs about 45 minutes and offers a thorough accounting of how the sequel came to be (the head of Universal Pictures was a horror buff) and the struggles that went into making it. In this doc, Coscarelli discusses the cuts that had to be made in order to secure an R rating from the MPAA. Perhaps most interestingly, he reveals that Universal wouldn't let him cast original actor Michael Baldwin in the role of Mike. While he, Scrimm, and Bannister all agree James LeGros did a fine job, they also clearly feel bad about one of their own being left behind. (Baldwin resumed the role for future sequels.) “The Ball is Back” is packed full of information about Phantasm II, making it essential viewing for fans of the film.
The stuff that Coscarelli had to scrap is accounted for on the disc. There are deleted scenes, plus an 18-minute assemblage of alternate takes and excised gore shots from the workprint version. This allows you to see the missing material for yourself. Also on the Blu are vintage documentary shorts exploring the makeup and gore effects, and a short entitled “The Gory Days with Greg Nicotero,” in which the legendary effects whiz reminisces about how the movie's most horrific scenes were accomplished.
The original trailer that I fell in love with is here too, along with trailers for Phantasm and Phantasm III, a still gallery, and some original TV spots. Rounding out the disc is a most delightfully unexpected bonus feature: an old Encyclopedia Britannica short in which Angus Scrimm (under the name Rory Guy) portrays Abraham Lincoln. Watch your back, Daniel Day-Lewis!
The Scream Factory's Phantasm II Blu-Ray is top quality all the way around. The supplemental features are extremely entertaining to watch, and the new cover artwork is great. The ball is indeed back, and it's back in a big, big way.
For more information on this and other Scream Factory titles, please visit their official website.
Phantasm II is rated R for gore and violence, language, and sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!