Serious About Series is the sporadically recurring feature on franchises both popular and obscure. You can find the entire table of contents for what’s been covered in the past by clicking HERE.
Of all the horror franchises I wanted to write about, it’s long been my dream to do one on the strange history of the Phantasm series. These movies, with all their Tall Mans and death orbs and evil Jawas, manage to create one of the most unique artistic statements in horror cinema. How many franchises have four very solid, very different movies that span twenty years and even a variety of horror sub-genre in their quest to tell its tale? I don’t know of any that have even tried, much less succeeded, in the same way these four modest little movies did.
So this November we’re taking a trip into the world of mortuary horror, of mortal terror and endless dream sequences, a world where death is just the beginning of the horror. Wind down from your more traditional October horror movie projects and marathons with the stranger weirdness of Phantasm, a series that feels much more at home in the wastes of an encroaching winter than the harvest bounty of Halloween. Or maybe that’s just my excuse for being a month late with this project. The world may never know.
Phantasm II (1988)
Almost a decade after the original Phantasm, Universal Pictures coughed up a large chunk of change (relative to the other movies, anyway, as 3 million was a low budget even in 88) to create a sequel to a relatively obscure horror movie from the late 70s. I can only suspect that this had a lot to do with Coscarelli never stopping his grassroots campaign to continue telling this weird, atypical story. But I also suspect it had something to do with the advent of VHS and the rediscovery of Phantasm during the horror boom of the 80s. Compared to the relatively formulaic slashers, something as heady as Phantasm seems like a miracle of artistry.
With that increased budget comes an increased scope, but also a studio-mandated change of main actor. Mike, played by A Michael Baldwin in the first film, was recast with James LeGros, who looks so unlike Mike that the flashback the movie opens with is legitimately jarring. That also means, for better or worse, Reggie ends up really stepping up in this movie as he comes into his own as one of the most unlikely horror heroes of all time. But we’ll get to Reg later. Let’s talk about rewriting and insane dreams, instead.
Remember how in the first movie Mike dreamed all of the film as a way of dealing with the death of his older brother Jody? Well, apparently that still happened. And The Tall Man still turned out to be real anyway, attacking Mike just as he did at the end of the first movie. Evil Jawas assault Mike’s home. Things go crazy. Reggie (Reggie Bannister, of course), in a bid to save them both, blows up the house with a fire and a gas stove to save Mike and himself, supposedly wiping out the Tall Man and the Jawas in the process. But then we have a time skip of eight years, in which Mike was committed to an asylum, because apparently that explosion didn’t happen? Certainly Reggie didn’t stick up for him, but when he gets out of the asylum Reg is there to pick him up like a true bro.
The thing is, Mike isn’t cured. In fact, he believes in this more than ever, especially since he’s been having psychic visions of a girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) who has somehow connected him and the Tall Man in some sort of psychic link where he can feel the danger to her and is compelled like all teenage men to rush to her rescue in as grand a fashion as possible. Reggie, now married with a kid, has no idea what Mike is talking about even as Mike starts digging up graves to prove that they’re empty. Reggie, struggling with this reality that only Mike seemingly remembers, comes right up against the truth of it as Mike has a vision of Reggie’s house exploding (much like the house in the dream past did) and they rush home just as it goes up in a fireball. Reggie, instead of grieving for his family, decides instead to just trust Mike implicitly and rewrites his own history to remember or doesn’t care about not knowing about these threats he apparently has experience in.
Which begs the question: what the hell, Reggie? Either he did remember and lied and got Mike committed, or he had his memory wiped, or Mike fell into an alternate universe when he got recast and it took Reggie losing his whole family to remember what movie he was in. Or maybe none of those. Eventually Phantasm is just about letting go of your perceptions of reality, though it’s certainly fun to try to pick apart just what happened in this 30 minute span between Phantasm and its sequel because it makes literally zero god damn sense even by flimsy movie logic. We’re along for the ride, and it just keeps getting weirder from here.
Reggie and Mike break into a hardware store and pull a full Evil Dead 2 as they gear up. Makeshift flamethrowers, guns, and even an insane four barrel sawed off shotgun that becomes Reggie’s signature weapon are all created here as suddenly our mental patient and ice cream man are turned into hunters of the Tall Man. They drift through the small towns of America, chasing after the signs of this monster, driving through towns that have turned post-apocalyptic in his wake, digging around graveyards that have been emptied of bodies that the Tall Man inevitably sends to his crazy crushing planet for slave labor (though that really doesn’t play much of a part in the plot outside of ‘hey remember the motivation?) and turning into Jawas.
All the while, Mike is hunting for Liz and Reggie decides the post-apocalypse is a good time to get him some in the wake of losing his wife by picking up a mysterious hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips), a name that basically might as well be Evil McDemonTits because that’s how she’s set up from the very beginning before dropping out of the plot almost entirely until the end of the movie (more on that later). Likewise, Liz manages to spend most of the movie just being in vague peril until Mike shows up, at which point the Tall Man gets very serious about putting her in defined peril, but not as much as Mike and Reggie, because they’re the heroes. In fact, most of the movie, having spent the time building up this weird world of vanishing towns and monster-hunting Reg & Mike, plays out without a whole lot going on.
Eventually they come across the Tall Man and have their confrontation, a pretty great bit where they dissolve the Tall Man by using an embalming needle and injecting him with hydrochloric acid, which leads to a lot of goopy scenes of the Tall Man melting into a yellowish puddle not entirely unlike Judge Doom, complete with exploding eyeball gag. Everybody rides off into the sunset, or at least into the expected cliffhanger final sting at the end, and that’s really the movie.
Going into this project, I remember thinking Phantasm II was by far the weakest of the four movies, and I still stand by that. There’s a lot of world building being done here, expanding what the Tall Man is doing and making Reggie into the champion of the little man he is destined to be. But by and large it’s bigger sets and smaller impact, a lot of driving around waiting for things that outside of a few key moments isn’t even weird in the same way the first movie was or later installments would go back to. It’s by far the most conventional horror movie in this franchise, and suffers heavily for it. Phantasm is many things, but conventional should never even rate on the list. Not that it isn’t a good time, but it’s slight, and seems like more set up than pay off. Hopefully not a problem we’ll have with future installments (yeah, right).
Gleaming Balls of Death
There’s actually quite a bit more with the balls this time, as they take their obvious place as one of the things people remembered about the movie. In fact, if you’ll notice on the poster above, the movie was advertised with “The ball is back!” which is exactly the kind of tagline that would turn me off of movies if I paid attention to things like that. Way to go, advertisers. But yeah, this movie isn’t quite tripping balls (I was going to wait until next week to use that, but I’m impatient), but it certainly finds new things to do with them.
The best one, as anyone who has seen the film could attest, is when a new golden sphere mistakes one of the Tall Man’s goons for our heroes (a recurring fact of life, it seems) and lands squarely in his gut. Spouting some sort of buzzsaw thing, the ball burrows inside of him, and climbs up his chest into his neck, where the blades spout out of his neck along with a bunch of blood as the guy, distended throat and all, twitches and jerks around under the sheer force of the ball’s movements. It’s gross, it’s inventive, and it’s cool as hell. As any great kill should be.
The Reggie Factor
This is definitely the movie that makes Reggie into the uncool hero he was meant to be. And I mean that with no irony, because the movie goes out of its way to make Reggie patently uncool. Still rocking the bald ponytail look, this new Reggie might be okay with guns and bombs, but he’s still a loser ice cream man who barely knows how to pass for a decent human being. He wears a Boogie Down baseball cap. He half-asses his way through life and death situations. He whines about everything. He picks up a hitchhiker with the express purpose of fucking her. And you know what? He does.
That’s the magic of Reggie: he’s a loser, but the film embraces it and turns it into a sort of weirdo strength. Reggie can get the girl (and she can be way into it) despite him having no charm whatsoever. He can kill hoards of bad guys and have a chain saw duel, even if said duel is predicated on a dumb small penis joke about the size of respective saw blades. In Reggie, we see the first real ‘awkward is the new macho’ hero archetype that began to gain prominence and is now the default mode of heroes in pop culture. Reggie wasn’t lame, man, he was just decades ahead of his time. I’m sure he’d be a big hit in 2012. No ice cream job for him, he’d be too busy being a twitter personality. Just tweets about hot ladies he tried to get with and instagrams of unironic baseball caps.
So everyone drives away, and the Tall Man is melted, and Alchemy shows up just in the right time with a hearse to carry them all after being mostly missing from the climax of the film. If that didn’t tip you off already, there was that bit about her being obviously evil from earlier. Oh, and she slept with Reggie. That’s basically proof that she’s not who she appears to be, as no beautiful woman would get with Reggie no matter how dire this post-apocalypse might get. Not when Mike’s right in the other room being pouty and young and giving off a bad boy vibe.
So it’s no surprise when suddenly Alchemy, while playing with her hair, pulls out a chunk of her skull and laughs maniacally as she wrecks the hearse. Mike and Liz, sitting in the back, watch on in horror as Reggie is seemingly killed right outside their window. And then the hearse starts driving again, just in time for the partition to fall and the Tall Man to leer at them from the front with his typical gangly menace, right before hands reach through the back window of a moving car and pull them out of the hearse, a wildly silly homage to the end of the first movie that just throws even horror movie logic straight out the window. Which, if you’ve been following along, is kind of Phantasm‘s best trait.