As much as I've been enjoying all these new movies recently, I decided to have a bit of change last night and watch something I'm already familiar with. And as Angus Scrimm was in Scream Bloody Murder and I'd had an itch to re-watch Phantasm II for a while, it seemed like the ideal candidate for a re-visit.
The film picks up exactly where the first left off, with Reggie (Reggie Bannister) saving Mike (A. Michael Baldwin during this beginning sequence) from the clutches of the Tall Man (Scrimm) and his Jawa-esque minions, by making an insane, death-defying dive through the upstairs window and then blowing the shit out of his own house (he'd left the kitchen gas running and the fireplace burning, the sly devil).
Years later, Mike (now played by James LeGros) is in an institution, where he has formed a psychic link with a girl called Liz (Paula Irvine), who reaches out to him for protection from the Tall Man. Feigning his recovery, Mike is released and pretty much instantly resumes his midnight shenanigans from the first film, i.e. rooting round cemeteries. Here he bumps into his old pal Reg, who is obviously not surprised to find his young friend here. Initially reluctant to join in Mike's mission, Reg is soon back on board after seeing his house (and entire family!) blown up yet again (!).
Apparently seeking a horror franchise to call their own, Universal bankrolled this sequel to the tune of $3,000,000, which was pocket change to them, but a huge step up financially for Coscarelli and co (according to Wikipedia, the original cost $300,000). Unfortunately, this added budget obviously brought with it a certain amount of baggage in the form of inevitable studio interference. Specifically, they asked Coscarelli to replace Baldwin with a working actor (i.e. LeGros), and to avoid dream sequences or anything that might confuse the audience. As a result, the film arguably leans more heavily towards action than horror this time. And furthermore, while we spend plenty of time with Mike (and Liz), I feel personally like the focus seems to shift more towards Reggie this time around, who through the course of the film goes from being a reluctant hero to something of a poor man's Bruce Campbell by the end (by the way, there's a cheeky reference to Sam Raimi included for the eagle-eyed to spot).
Like the original, this is a fun movie, with plenty of heart and humour. But it's a real shame that the suits stopped Coscarelli from adding any dreamlike weirdness to proceedings, as I really miss the vibe that the original exuded so potently from end to end. In fact, having a sequel sort of destroys some of the psychological ambiguity one can read into the first film taken on its own (i.e. POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT - Was is all just young Mike's anxiety ridden nightmare? END SPOILER). The replacement of Baldwin by James LeGros has obviously caused a certain amount of controversy, but I think he does a fine job. Sure it's a bit jarring seeing the grown up Baldwin come back again in the next two movies, but to be honest none of that bothers me... in fact, it's one of those weird things that sort of adds to the odd charm that the series has in spades.
All in all, this is a great sequel, with plenty to recommend about it. Before I forget, I should briefly mention the gore effects, which are probably the most spectacular of the entire series (kudos to Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman, later of K.N.B. EFX); I don't want to spoil any of the specifics, but it's clear that the added budget didn't hurt things in this department, and this element alone (especially one particularly crazy kill) almost makes up for the relative lack of oneiric atmosphere. There are a few moments where they temporarily capture that vibe again, but it never really lasts, and furthermore, it feels like exactly what it is... i.e. a late eighties equivalent of the original... or to put it another way, you could say that the relationship between Phantasm and Phantasm II is sort of analogous to the one between A Nightmare on Elm Street and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (which is also from '88, funnily enough), if that makes sense. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy all four movies quite a bit, but the originals and their respective sequels push almost totally different buttons, so it really depends what mood I'm in when I'm thinking which I'd rather watch. At any rate, I highly recommend this, and the other two sequels, to anyone who enjoyed the original.