Then and Now: Revisiting Phantasm and Phantasm II

Phantasm II

Welcome to Then and Now, a recurring column where one of us revisits a movie we haven’t seen in a long, long time and then writes about how the film’s effect on us today differs from the place it holds in our memory.

The movies: Phantasm & Phantasm II (d. Don Coscarelli, 1979, 1988)

When I last watched them: Bizarrely, I can give you the exact date of the last time I watched Phantasm — April 21, 2000. (I saw Springsteen in concert for the first time that night, and I distinctly recall me and a horror movie-loving buddy of mine popping it in as part of the day’s festivities.) I haven’t seen the sequel for an even longer amount of time, likely not since the mid-90s.

What I remembered about them pre-rewatch: Mostly just images. Angus Scrimm’s imposing Tall Man, specifically that scene with him floating above the bed. The flying killer ball. Those creepy Jawa-esque creatures going about their business at the mausoleum. Rows of marble burial chambers. Basically, I remember a bunch of weird shit … which explains why these films were among my favorites as a teen. I was always drawn to weird horror more than straight horror. For example, Nightmare on Elm Street appealed to me more than Friday the 13th. The Freddy saga seemed so much crazier and more inventive. When I rewatched Phantasm 14 years ago, it suddenly felt very low-budget and 70s-ish, but I still got a kick out of its loony universe. Something about aliens from another dimension coming to steal our dead bodies to turn them into … slaves or something? And the Tall Man, posing as an undertaker, was their ringleader … or enforcer? Eh, the details have faded again a bit. Just like the original was very much a 70s horror film, I remember the sequel being a product of the “must go bigger” 80s. One killer silver sphere became several, and their various gadgets (drill bits, protruding spikes) were used to murder folks in ways that lent a “slasher movie”-like feel to the installment. I also recall Reggie (Reggie Bannister) being a super-fun character. I know he wields a big shotgun and gets all the good one-liners. I remember the tagline “This Summer … the Ball is Back!” because, well, who could ever forget that?

Post-rewatch thoughts: The Phantasm movies make no sense. I’m not sure if I didn’t realize that in my youth or just didn’t care. But the plotting of these these two films is so incoherent that trying to figure out what qualifies as “real” within the context of the films’ own universe is an exercise in futility. For example, the original Phantasm ends with our kid hero Mike (Michael Baldwin) realizing the entire movie we just watched was a bad dream. Mike’s brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), ostensibly the film’s lead, actually dies in a car crash we never see, and the Tall Man and all the funeral-home/mausoleum shenanigans are just Mike’s delusional fantasy as he tried to come to grips with his brother’s death. Meanwhile, Reggie, who is killed in the film, still lives. Immediately after the film drops this twist, however, the Tall Man shows back up and has his minions drag Mike through a bedroom mirror. So which “reality” actually occurred? Who knows! The second film picks up immediately after the first with Reggie saving Mike from the Tall Man and a bunch of evil dwarfs by blowing his house up. Jody’s still dead. So, okay, somehow Mike did at least partially imagine the first movie, but the Tall Man is real nonetheless. Except not more than 10 minutes later we learn that this scene isn’t “real” either, but yet another Mike fantasy. Reggie’s house actually blows up again a bit into the film, but this time it’s the doing of the Tall Man, who apparently murders all of Mike’s family (who we never meet). Umm … what?!

This kind of thing normally drives me crazy. Even the Elm Street series, for the most part, sticks to a set of rules and in-movie logic. The first two Phantasms have absolutely no interest in being logical. With the first one, you can almost wave it away by saying Coscarelli intended the film to be a mediation on death and how the loss of a loved one can so brutally warp our reality, lending life itself a dream-like quality in the short term. But once you start churning out sequels, it’s harder to chalk up all that loose plotting to artistic expression. At some point, it just becomes a series of horror tropes (it was all a dream! but — twist! — the bogeyman’s still real!) strung together with little regard for whether or not they make sense.

And yet despite this one big caveat, I still really enjoy these two movies. The original in particular has a do-it-yourself charm that cannot be overcome by story nonsense. There is an amazing scene in Phantasm where Jody and Reggie just sit around and bang out a song together on their guitars. There is no point to this scene being in the movie, and it would be tough to imagine a scene like this working in most films. But holy crap is it delightful in Phantasm, in part because it helps solidify the “regular guy” status that buoys Reggie throughout the franchise. (Also helping: His non-movie-star hairline.) I like that Mike isn’t just some dumb kid, but is smart (and brave) enough to grab one of the Tall Man’s fingers when the big guy loses them in a door frame. Also classic: Jody’s quick “Okay, I believe you” when Mike tells him what happened and shows him the finger later in the movie.

Even some things that are missteps at first glance end up befitting the movie more than they hurt it. Coscarelli clearly didn’t have the budget to pull off the insect-creature that aforementioned finger evolves into, but watching Thornbury and Baldwin bounce around pretending a terrible-looking stuffed animal is going to kill them is a riot. And bizarre and seemingly pointless plot elements, like the psychic-witch lady Mike visits at the beginning of the movie, end up bolstering the weirdness factor to enjoyable levels. Phantasm remains a much-see movie for horror aficionados interested in the genre’s staggering 1970s output.

Phantasm II came nine years after the original, and I wonder how many times Coscarelli watched Sam Raimi’s first two Evil Dead films in the interim. (Or at least the first one, as Evil Dead II beat Phantasm to theaters by only a year.) Coscarelli’s sequel owes the gonzo horror series a massive debt, one that is acknowledged on-screen when some cremated remains are labeled “Sam Raimi” during the film. Phantasm II retains much of the WTF? plotting of the original. It bizarrely features three narrators over the course of the film — Reggie, Mike (now played by James LeGros, though Baldwin returns to the role in later sequels) and a new female character who shares a psychic link to Mike and the Tall Man for no fucking reason whatsoever. But it also wisely apes the Evil Dead films by upping the gore, the gags and the comedy to new heights. Phantasm II actually had a bit of a budget, and Coscarelli puts it to work: Those evil Jawas have grotesque faces now. A nasty creature erupts from that psychic chick’s back. The Tall Man is melted from the inside out thanks to some hydrochloric acid (a way better death than his stupid thrown-down-a-mineshaft demise in Phantasm).

The movie takes a while to get going, but by its final act, Phantasm II is a tremendous amount of fun. Once the spheres show up, they’re cutting off ears and burning through doors and basically going apeshit. There’s even a “sphere cam” effect that’s very Raimi-esque. (One side note: The Tall Man should really think about a different defense system. Those spheres take out more of his personal servants in these two movies than they do actual intruders. What good are killer balls that mostly just drain the blood out of the heads of your own people?!) Phantasm II actually has a chainsaw fight between Reggie and an evil mortician! Who would ever object to that?!

The sequel also does a good job of expanding the Phantasm universe. The deserted towns with emptied cemeteries that Reggie and Mike drive through make for a truly eerie image. And the film nails down the pair as kind-hearted, regular guys taking on a tough job they know no one else is prepared and/or willing to do it. You got to love their late-night hardware store shopping spree, especially when Reggie drops some cash in the register before they leave. (They won’t steal, even in the name of fighting evil!)

Rewatching these films back-to-back, it’s easy to see why there’s still a lot of love for this series and why fans were thrilled when Phantasm V was revealed in a surprise announcement earlier this year. Phantasm I and II are low-budget horror done right: With a ton of creativity and obvious passion … even if the particulars of the plotting can leave you scratching your head.