Collins’ Crypt: Blu-ray Review - PHANTASM II

BC takes a look at Scream Factory's new PHANTASM II Blu-ray.

Fun bit of trivia that provides a good example of differing perspectives: Phantasm II is the biggest budgeted film in the series by a wide margin, but it's the smallest budget for any film Universal produced in the 1980s (and one can presume, the '90s and beyond). For Don Coscarelli and his crew, they were like kids in a candy store; to the ones signing the checks it was pocket change. And that's probably why the film was released in the middle of summer - it was almost guaranteed to make money no matter what, so why not try for some of the big summer cash? If it tanked, there were next to zero consequences... except to its filmmakers.

Indeed, Coscarelli has never had another wide theatrical release (though only the two subsequent Phantasm sequels went straight to video in the US; his other films have at least gotten into a few theaters), and star Reggie Bannister's only big-screen appearance outside of Coscarelli features was his bit in Wishmaster. James LeGros has done just fine for himself (this was his first lead role), but still, it's a shame that Universal didn't put it out in October of that year, where its only competition would have been Halloween 4 (and Pumpkinhead to some degree - it wasn't even playing wide). Thus it probably would have made a lot more money and, if nothing else, allowed the sequels to retain or even expand their "big" budgets to accommodate Coscarelli's ideas, instead of having to scale back to almost nothing. Hell, Phantasm IV is like 30% deleted footage from the first film so they could save money while telling a story that involved a cast of six.

But on the flipside, we can now look at this sequel as an interesting anomaly in the series: the one time a Phantasm movie didn't really have to cut corners! Extensive sphere animation, lots of locations, a full mausoleum set... these are things they didn't always have at their disposal in the others, and Coscarelli is too good a filmmaker to let them go to waste. And the most controversial aspect of the film - the recasting of Michael Baldwin with LeGros - isn't really problematic, since LeGros is a much better actor and has great chemistry with Bannister. If anything, the sequels took a step back when Baldwin returned to the role - they might get along in real life, but his chemistry with Reggie just wasn't as comfortable. Apparently Coscarelli had to fight just to keep one of them in their original roles for this film, and chose Bannister over Baldwin - there's no question he made the right choice.

It's also, for lack of a better word, the most accessible of the movies. Even with the minimal budget, Universal wasn't about to sink money into something as batshit as the original, so out went the dream logic and sequences, lengthy bits of no real importance (no one plays guitar for an entire scene here), or really any of the stuff that helped make the original so memorable. Here we get explosions and more gooey gore that was all the rage in the late '80s, and while it's still a bit weird compared to the era's Freddy sequels and such, as a result it just feels a bit too "normal" at times. The plot is pretty straightforward; Mike is released from a mental institute where he was placed because no one (even Reggie) seems to think what happened in the first film was real, and quickly goes back to trying to prove that The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) is still out there. Reggie finds him and tries to bring him home for dinner, only to arrive in time to see Reggie's house (and his family inside of it) blown up by The Tall Man and his minions. So they do what you or I would do: break into a hardware store, use their newfound technical/engineering savvy to create some makeshift weapons (including a four-barreled shotgun), leave a wad of cash in the register for their "purchases" and set off in a Hemicuda to find their nemesis.

It's here that the minimal budget shows some; we are told that The Tall Man has wiped out small towns across the country, but we don't really see much of it - just a single street in a ghost town (The Tall Man's wrath was actually shown more effectively in the fourth film, by utilizing the greatest trick in the world: going downtown LA on any random Sunday morning, which is naturally and eerily devoid of any life). It's also where the film's thin plot (and possibly Coscarelli's inability to get too weird) causes problems, as we lose Mike and Reggie for an extended period of time so we can follow Liz (Paula Irvine), a new target of The Tall Man thanks to her grandfather's recent death and psychic connection to Mike. All of a sudden the movie is about her and the priest that ran the grandfather's funeral, with a lot of scenes that are seemingly remaking the original: Liz wanders the mortuary, finds out what happened to her loved ones, etc. It feels very padded, and even when Mike and Redge finally come back the movie kind of treads water for a bit until The Tall Man kidnaps Liz and our guys go off in pursuit.

From then on it's pretty terrific - the shotgun gets some use, the spheres (including the new gold "Rambo" sphere) tear the hell out of some folks, and The Tall Man's "demise" is wonderfully gruesome, not to mention a marvel of in-camera, practical FX work (created by legends Greg Nicotero and Howard Kurtzman, before the creation of KNB with Howard Berger). We also get another visit to The Tall Man's planet (seen at the end of the original) and another fun car chase with incredible stunt driving. And the first act stuff is solid as well, but man, that second act... you could almost remove it from the movie and just dub in a line where Mike says "That girl I see in my dreams, I think The Tall Man has her!" and cut to where they're arriving at the hideout, and it wouldn't make any real difference. Especially in retrospect, since so much of this stuff appears to be building up Liz as a new permanent member of the group and then (spoiler!) she's killed off in the opening moments of Phantasm III anyway. There's a pretty tight continuity between the films with regards to the main group (Reggie, Mike, Jody, and The Tall Man), but it's funny how anyone else they pick up along the way is instantly discarded when the next one begins.

For years Phantasm II was the only one we couldn't get on DVD in the US; Universal held on to their rights (Anchor Bay had the others) for whatever reason and thus left a hole in our collections unless we wanted to import. It was finally (and quietly) dumped in a barebones edition a few years back, but we knew that we could have better - and now we do. Fitting for the series' only "big budget" installment, it's now the first to be released on high-def Blu-ray, allowing us to see every pixel of that non-pixel blood and goo in glorious 1080p. It's a pretty solid transfer; nothing mind-blowing but nothing to complain about either, and the same goes for the sound, though some of the dialogue in the 5.1 mix seemed low (which seems to be a common issue on these new Scream Factory blu-rays), but the original 2.0 sounded just fine, so if you're a purist that's the one you'll go with anyway. As always, Scream/Shout has created new box art for the cover but offered the original art on the flipside, so you can take your pick.

The real draw is the extensive collection of supplements, a mix of old and new. The commentary with Coscarelli, Bannister and Scrimm was created around 2006 (Coscarelli mentions having just seen Crash, the poor bastard) for the UK set and has been ported over for our enjoyment. It can be a little heavy on what I call "IMDb audiobooking," where the participants seem obsessed with pointing out the subsequent roles/jobs for its cast and crew as if we couldn't just read their resumes ourselves if we were that interested, but otherwise it's an engaging track with tons of info and anecdotes, though sadly very little is said about the recasting of Mike and/or dealing with Universal's wishes. But that's not surprising; Coscarelli is one of the most gentlemanly filmmakers I've ever encountered, and it would be weird to hear him talking trash or even making snide little jokes about things that probably didn't sit well with him or his friends. The trio do open up a little more on the brand new retrospective doc, explaining a few of Universal's demands and also about their dealings with the ratings board and disappointment over the film's ill-fitting summer slot. No LeGros, but the rest of the cast is present (including Sam Phillips, who came to a screening I hosted of the film at the New Beverly a few years ago and proceeded to talk nonstop for 20 minutes before I even asked a question for the "Q&A") as well as some of the crew. If you've picked up any of the other recent Scream Factory sets you should know what to expect; having watched about six of these in the past couple months I can see that Red Shirt is kind of working from a template for their production/editing, but if it ain't broke...

Curiously absent from the doc is Greg Nicotero; I assume he was off in Atlanta doing zombies for Walking Dead. Luckily, Shout has brought over a 22 minute piece from Blue Underground where he goes into detail about all of the film's makeup creations, with plenty of behind the scenes stuff and a brief history of KNB's formation the following year (for Intruder), so makeup fans can get more insight in their work than they would if he was one of the talking heads in the other piece. There's also plenty of behind the scenes material; one piece focuses on the FX yet again (though not just Nicotero's contributions) and another shows the work at the house that they blew up for the movie. There are also a few still collections of even MORE of this material, alongside the usual trailers and TV spots (including trailers for the first and third films, curiously).

There are also two collections of excised material; a traditional deleted scenes montage (taken from non-remastered material, so we can see easily what was cut in the case of extended scenes) and 18 minutes of footage from the original workprint. Apart from the MPAA-cut gore, none of this stuff is very interesting to me; there's more with the priest, a really terrible conversation between Mike and Reggie directly after the explosion that took the latter's family (seriously, they're like 50 feet from the still burning house and having a pretty calm discussion about their next move), and other minor bits of no consequence, like Reggie telling Alchemy to meet them at a Holiday Inn. For years I've heard about this longer workprint and assumed it had some weird stuff that had to go per the studio, but honestly except for the gore (which is still plentiful in the R rated cut) I don't think any of it will be missed.

The final extra is one of the most interesting and has nothing to do with Phantasm: a 1951 short film featuring Angus Scrimm (with his real name, Rory Guy) as Abraham Lincoln. It's an 18 minute Cliff's notes of his life highlights, from childhood all the way up to the end of the Civil War, and while Scrimm is no Daniel Day-Lewis when it comes to embodying the man (though he does have a solid physical resemblance), it's still highly recommended, and kudos to Shout for including it. Someone recently called them the Criterion of horror, and it's this sort of "extra mile" thing that makes that sentiment pretty truthful - with the added bonus of these releases being far more affordable than Criterion's discs. That said, you're getting slightly less value this time around; while their other recent releases have all been combo packs, they have split it this time for whatever reason - you can get it on Blu or standard def DVD, but not both. Hopefully this is just an anomaly (From Beyond, released the same day, is a combo) as I love that I can get both discs in one package, often watching the movie at home on my Blu-ray and then watching the bonus features on my break at work via the DVD. Plus if a friend wants to borrow just to see the movie you can let him take the DVD and not have to worry if the jerk loses it because you'll still have the superior version.

For many "Phans," this was probably the first that they saw, being that it had the most high profile release and was the most accessible (and given his acclaim for his subsequent career choices, I'm sure a few LeGros fans checked it out out of curiosity), so I know it holds a special place in many hearts, and it's certainly a worthy followup to the original. But I still prefer the 1979 film, and can't help but miss the weirdness and nightmare logic that the others all delivered. However, it holds up quite well, and Shout has done a terrific job setting the bar for what a Phantasm Blu-ray should deliver. Your move, Anchor Bay!