There’s a scene in the middle of Phantasm II where an evil minion finishes grinding down the skeletal remains of some poor sap and funnels them into a labeled bag. The name on the label? Sam Raimi. As if it weren’t clear enough from the film already, writer-director Don Coscarelli acknowledges a kinship with the director of The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, another series defined by elaborate mythology, slapstick comedy, cool practical effects, and an impish cult sensibility. That Coscarelli made Phantasm II at Universal helped buff out some of the original film’s rough edges—though the studio only allotted $3 million—but it otherwise feels pleasingly lost in his own hand-crafted universe. Along with Raimi, Coscarelli cut against the grain of ’80s horror, leavening scares with comedy and making icons out of Angus Scrimm’s “The Tall Man” and a roving silver sphere that functions as a kind of deadly Swiss Army Ball.
Picking up right where the first Phantasm left off—a radical move in itself, given that the first film came out a full nine years earlier—Phantasm II opens with a quick recap of how the last one ended before cutting to six years later, when the boy hero has grown into James LeGros. (Coscarelli attempted to use the entire original cast, but the studio balked on A. Michael Baldwin.) LeGros’ wild account of what happened to him has landed him in an institution, but he fakes his way out after receiving psychic messages from Paula Irvine, who shares his connection to The Tall Man, a mortician assembling a dwarf-sized army of the dead. LeGros convinces his older buddy Reggie Bannister to come along on a mission to stop The Tall Man, who’s been going from small town to small town, exhuming bodies from graveyard coffins.
Coscarelli’s interest in creating oddball genre pieces for an imagined cult audience—his other films include The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep, and John Dies At The End—is a strength and weakness. The Phantasm series offers a wealth of information about creature types, psychic phenomena, and other dimensions for fans to unpack, but those elements can gum up the action, too, and there are stretches of Phantasm II that make the simple quest of defeating The Tall Man into a complicated muddle. But Coscarelli is a whiz with dialogue—assessing their dim chances, LeGros says to Bannister, “I’m a 19-year-old kid and you’re a bald, middle-aged ex-ice cream vendor”—and the film has a refreshing spirit of adventure uncommon to the genre, especially in the slasher ’80s. At a certain point, LeGros and Bannister come armed with a flamethrower and a quadruple-barreled mega-shotgun, respectively, and if there’s no fun to be had in that, there’s no fun to be had at all in this world.
Key features: Continuing Shout! Factory’s “Scream Factory” series, the disc includes a commentary with Coscarelli, Scrimm, and Bannister, and new interviews with all three of those men, plus Paula Irvine.