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Entries in Phantasm: The Sequels [1988-1998] (1)

Wednesday
Feb132013

Phantasm: The Sequels (1988-1998)

Less is Mortuary

I keep telling myself that lumping the three Phantasm sequels into one review isn't an admission of failure; it's a desperate act of necessity. For reasons as compelling as interview prep and as gross as the stomach flu, my critical output for these movies has been positively glacial in the week-and-a-half since I watched them. Besides, the hard reality is there's not enough original content in each film to warrant more than a couple hundred words apiece. So, without further ado, I present Kicking the Seat's first Mega Review!

Nine years after writer/director Don Coscarelli unleashed his original fantasy film on the world, he teamed with Universal Pictures to bring us Phantasm 2. I don't know what was in Hollywood's drinking water circa 1988, but that was a banner year for horror sequels. Franchises great (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th), small (Halloween), and questionable in size (Sleepaway Camp) all received follow-ups, and everyone's favorite death-sphere-flingin' Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) even made the cut.

If resurrecting the late-70s cult hit was meant to cash in on the horror craze, the powers that be--and maybe Coscarelli himself--made a critical error in putting part two together: whereas the brand-name slasher series were built largely on the draw of iconic maniacs creatively butchering a cattle-call of interchangeable victims, Phantasm was a dream-like, imaginative journey into darkness. Sure, the execution was often goofy, but the ideas were heady, and far more complex than most of the genre's elevator-pitch storylines. "Zombie stalks teens at camp" lends itself to repeatability far easier than "Mortician shrinks and re-animates corpses for use as slave labor on interdimensional red planet".

Yet, Phantasm 2 feels uncomfortably like a conventional slasher in that it largely rehashes the first film, while hardly bothering to expand on the mythology. In this way, it's as much a big-budget remake as it is a sequel--probably more so.

We pick up just after the final moments of Phantasm, with Michael (A. Michael Baldwin) facing down The Tall Man, and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) squaring off against a horde of hooded munchkin-creatures. Following an explosion that takes out Michael's house, the evil undertaker presumes his mortal enemies dead. Fast-forward seven years. Michael (now played by pouty powder-keg James LeGros) is released from a mental institution and embarks on a quest to destroy The Tall Man once and for all. He's aided by a reluctant Reggie and a psychic pen-pal named Elizabeth (Paula Irvine).*

Much of the film is comprised of a road trip across a burnt-out Middle America that has been largely destroyed by The Tall Man. Like The Borg, he and his minions sweep through small towns, taking out their populations quietly before moving along. The story switches between Reggie and Mike driving their sleek Hemi Cuda through various wastelands, and Elizabeth realizing that something evil is afoot in her own small town. The big-studio budget makes for delicious eye candy in the form of expansive, gothic cemeteries, fetishistically rendered embalming labs, and grotesque, ear-slicing special effects. But for the already initiated, the film may come across as "Previously, on Phantasm..." (or, worse yet, car porn).

Still, Phantasm 2 narrowly pulls off one of the great reversals in genre-movie history. Some films are slow burns, but the filmmakers don't even light the match on this one until it's practically over. With twenty minutes to go, the story's tone takes a daffy left turn into Sam Raimi territory, infusing comedic action with really disgusting chills.**

The good times come to a screeching halt at the end, though, when Coscarelli repeats the first film's closing scare. Greater than the crime of not actually being scary, the final scene's ultimate sin is reminding us of every other repeated element in Phantasm 2. Instead of learning more about The Tall Man's mysterious homeworld or using the relatively gargantuan production budget to realize weirder, darker dangers, the film devolves into Phantasm for Dummies: a geekgasm for fans who'd waited so long to see their beloved characters on the big-screen again, and a disposable afternoon at the movies for everyone else.

I can't speak for anyone involved, but Phantasm 2 smacks of risk-aversion--which may explain why the second sequel, Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead debuted six years later by slinking onto home video. This movie is notable for three things: a bizarre Home Alone-inspired micro-plot; the return of both A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury; and the realization that, yes, a Phantasm drinking game is not only possible, but possibly crucial.

Much like Jim Gaffigan's bit about all Mexican food being nothing more than differently named combos of beans, meat, and cheese, Phantasm 3 proves to be a simple rearranging of events and themes previously covered in the other films. Luckily, Coscarelli tosses in some truly weird ingredients to make Lord of the Dead feel different, if not authentic. Michael awakens from a coma and teams up with Reggie to hunt down The Tall Man. This time, the spirit of Mike's older brother Jody (Thornbury) shows up to help them out. In a bizarre altercation, The Tall Man appears, turns Jody into a burnt-out flying sphere, and kidnaps Michael. Reggie and the ball hit the road, and run afoul of a group of cartoonish thugs.

Said thugs steal the Hemi Cuda, shoving Reggie and Jody-ball in the trunk. When they stop at a house in an abandoned town, they discover little Tim (Kevin Connors), a loner who'd managed to survive The Tall Man's scourge through stealth and resourcefulness. His five-minute introduction is the highlight of movies two through four, showing a mind-bending gutsiness and imagination not seen since Michael first found out what was between those cosmic tuning forks. Tim gruesomely and hilariously kills off the would-be squatters and frees Reggie--thus becoming the new kid sidekick on the series' nine-thousandth cross-country road trip.

In another deserted town, they encounter Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a jive-talking, nunchaku-wielding bad girl who becomes the requisite third wheel and hopeful sexual conquest for Reggie (in the previous movie, it was a hitchhiker named Alchemy, played by Samanth Phillips). Once Rocky slips into the back of the Cuda, you can either check out for rest of the movie or line up your shot glasses.

Let's assume you're feeling frisky and decide to go with option "B"--keeping in mind that this only works when marathon-ing the series in one sitting. Toss one back every time...

  • A car explodes
  • A car flips over
  • A car flips over, and then explodes
  • Someone jumps out the back of a moving hearse
  • Reggie cons a girl into sharing a bed with him
  • The girl turns out to be evil (in fantasy or in reality--double-shot for both)
  • The Tall Man steps out of the shadows and hisses something about being ready to begin

There's probably a sphere-shaped mixology book's worth of additional material here, but you get the picture. The movie ends in another dank mausoleum with The Tall Man getting the upper hand at the zero hour, and yet another little kid being yanked through a mirror by grubby little munchkin hands before a sharp cut to black. The longer the sequels drag on, the more apparent it becomes that Coscarelli is sketching an epic on film (revising and erasing, revising and erasing) in the hopes that, one of these years, his budget will match his yet-to-be-realized grand vision--or vice versa.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Phantasm 4: Oblivion. Reggie meets a new girl he wants to screw but can't trust, and Michael wanders the desert with Jody's laconic spirit guiding him on a vision quest through the Tall Man's origin story--like Jacob Marley on some killer holly-wreath weed. The genius of the fourth and ostensibly final film is that Coscarelli weaves in the unseen history of Mike, Jody, and Reggie's initial encounters with The Tall Man, by way of cutting-room-floor footage from 1979's Phantasm

It's a fascinating device that, combined with the revelation that the series' Big Bad started out as a frustrated Civil War doctor, promises to cover new territory--a welcome relief from two movies whose original material could have been rolled into either of the bookend entries with zero confusion for the audience. Sadly, the film ends with more questions than answers, such as:

  1. Why, when Michael was a kid, did he cut The Tall Man down from a noose trap?
  2. Why did The Tall Man need to be cut down from a noose trap, when his main weapons are flying spheres with retractable razors and an army of vicious, resourceful dwarves?
  3. How was Jody able to help Michael out, when he was ostensibly part of whatever transdimensional goo that The Tall Man controlled? And if he was, in fact, just tricking Michael into becoming a pawn in The Tall Man's game--why the ruse? Why not just either kill Michael or zap his brain with whatever dark magic seduced the pre-Tall Man Tall Man?

Perhaps Oblivion's biggest blue-balls frustration is the tease that we'd finally learn how The Tall Man came to be. We get some mysterious glimpses of him working on soldiers in the midst of battle, scribbling notes in a cluttered study, and offering Michael lemonade (?). Then he walks through a rudimentary version of the transdimensional portal and re-emerges a few seconds later as an evil bastard. Sorry, gang, that's neither an origin story nor a way to end a series built on mystery; that's the kind of sliced-and-diced narration that requires an origin story and Usual Suspects-style wrap up. I'll give Coscarelli this much credit: he pre-saged Lost by more than a decade.

I come here not to bury Phantasm but to praise it. At its core, Don Coscarelli's vision is full of innovative, cinematic potential. For whatever reason, he's never been able to expand on that promise beyond the first film. The sequels are littered with neat ideas that go nowhere, and lame ideas that get stretched into bland taffy before our weary eyes. It's great that the series has a fanbase, and that this family of actors and crew members have found the celluloid equivalent of a high school reunion. But as a viewer, Phantasm has become less enjoyable than watching an over-the-hill jock wistfully stir punch.

That's why I'll welcome the day when Coscarelli gets the budget, time, and creative freedom he deserves in order to give Phantasm a proper re-launch. Hell, it doesn't even have to lead to a sequel: I'd just love to see a modern-day take on this material with the advances in filmmaking technology and storytelling that have made trippy movies so cool in the last thirty-four years. I realize that day may never come, and that the writer/director may simply move on to different, and more interesting projects. I'm okay with that, too. John Dies at the End has more of the original Phantasm's spirit in its opening fifteen minutes than films two through four have in their entire run-times.

And, yes, I firmly believe that a bigger budget--and perhaps some collaborator or studio influence--is necessary for a Phantasm re-launch to be successful. True, Coscarelli's had some rotten experiences in the big leagues, but the projects he's tackled most successfully since Oblivion have been those he's adapted and/or been hired to do--such as Bubba Ho-Tep and the premiere episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror. With a bit of gentle, informed nudging, he moves fluidly in the right creative direction; without it, he spends years traipsing around the California desert with friends, filming things that smack oddly of lesser Puppet Master entries.

*Yes, '88 was also the year of mental institutions and psychic teenagers in horror (see Hellraiser 2 and Friday the 13th Part 7).

**The cue for this transformation, fittingly, is a sight gag involving a bag of cremated remains marked "Mr. Sam Raimi". And before you accuse me of not paying attention, know that I did catch the opening sight gag with Reggie encountering one hooded munchkin who, through the power of comic editing, became five. But there's a good hour-plus where that kind of humor goes missing until our pony-tailed hero starts mixing sulfuric acid with formaldehyde in a Bugs Bunny-esque plot to dupe The Tall Man. Everything in between is bizarrely self-serious and, consequently, heart-breakingly dull.