“The Ball is Back!” in Don Coscarelli’s PHANTASM, the bigger-budgeted sequel to his 1979 cult classic, and the first of the series to hit Blu-ray (courtesy of Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line).
After nearly ten years in a sanatorium, Michael (James Le Gros, THE LAST WINTER) convinces his psychiatrist that he has accepted that the events of the first film were his way of dealing with the deaths of his parents and brother. As soon as he is released, Michael readies himself to hunt the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm, SUBSPECIES) – with whom he has been in constant psychic contact – even though family friend Reggie (Reggie Banister, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT 4) also tries to convince him that it was all in his imagination. When Michael predicts the house explosion that kill Reggie’s family, Reggie joins Michael in his road trip to find the Tall Man. They pass through ghost town after ghost town whose homes and buildings have been abandoned and the graveyards looted by the Tall Man and his minions. On the road, Reggie and Michael pick up the mysterious Alchemy – Chemy for short – (Samantha Phillips, DOLLMAN) who is hitchhiking back to her hometown (incidentally Perigord) which they discover is currently under siege by the Tall Man. Young Liz (Paula Irvine, PARTY CAMP) – whose dreams have also been invaded by visions of the Tall Man and of Michael – ventures into Perigord’s mausoleum in search of her missing grandmother (Ruth C. Engel) where she is used as bait for the Tall Man to attract Michael and Reggie. The trio face off against the Tall Man, his dwarves, his “gravers” (apparently human-yet-psychotic mortuary assistants), and the series’ iconic slicing and dicing silver spheres (as well as a gold one with other impressive capabilities).
Mounted by Universal Pictures during their second illustrious horror period – they began the decade with the likes of CAT PEOPLE, GHOST STORY, and THE THING – when horror fan Tom Pollock became head of production (he also financed ARMY OF DARKNESS, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, the CHILD’S PLAY sequels, and handful of other late eighties Universal genre pics), PHANTASM II benefited from the luxuries afforded by a higher budget but also suffered from studio interference. Coscarelli had resisted offers not only to do more horror films but to do a sequel to PHANTASM which he felt was a one-off film; but even nearly a decade later a sequel seemed inevitable. The three-million dollar budget wasn’t high by studio standards, but it allowed a greater scope for the story as well as a considerable degree of polish and variety to the film’s make-up, mechanical, and visual effects. Studio interference first reared its head with the casting. Besides the replacement of Michael Baldwin with up-and-coming Le Gros (Baldwin was allowed to audition, although the studio wanted a working actor), Bannister also had audition for the role he originated. The surreal tone of the original film was also largely done away with in favor of a more linear approach. The film was furthered tampered with after it was shown to test audiences; and then the MPAA had their say.
The resulting film – however compromised – is still the best of the series’ sequels. Bannister goes from sidekick to Bruce Campbell-esque comic badass (check out the chainsaw duel with one of the gravers), and wide-eyed Le Gros is suited to tougher version of his character (although perhaps a bit more childlike fear might have been more effective since his development has been arrested by this trauma). Scrimm gets more dialogue here, and it thankfully doesn’t diminish his menace. Irvine gets some opportunities to detour from the helpless female her character initially appears to be, but Phillips’ Chemy is by far the more entertaining character (clothed and otherwise). Kenneth Tigar (LETHAL WEAPON 2) also brings considerable dignity to a character that could have made a better foil for the Tall Man, but he’s really just there to get diced and drilled by one of the spheres in its first appearance in the sequel. The gore may have been curtailed by the MPAA, but what remains is surprisingly gruesome for the late eighties (particularly the sphere attack on one of the gravers) and the operation of the spheres using fishing line, motion control photography, as well as just throwing them past the camera is just as accomplished as in the original. The bigger budget afforded the film a surround soundtrack with directional effects and an atmospheric spread of the score (by returning composer Fred Myrow in association with Christopher Stone) contributing greatly to the film’s feel. Rewatching the film after several years – I actually saw this one before the original – one is also impressed by Philip Duffin’s (BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR) eerie mausoleum sets which look far more expansive (and expensive) than they actually were, as well as the cinematography of Daryn Okada (HALLOWEEN H20) – who served as a grip on the first film as a teenager – which is more polished and consistently attractive. The surprise ending was of course de rigueur by this period in horror filmmaking, but it is somehow even more fitting to this series’ nightmare logic than even on the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films.
Always a home video favorite, PHANTASM II was late in coming to DVD (along with many of Universal’s back-catalogue of horror titles other than the anamorphic upgrades of the titles they licensed to Image and Goodtimes at the dawn of the format). Universal’s 2009 DVD featured a barebones dual-layer, progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.82:1) transfer that was attractive but subject to a moderate amount of DNR not unfamiliar in Universal transfers (in 2011, Universal reissued the film in a two-disc four movie set with Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE, Wes Craven’s THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, and Bernard Kowalsk’s SSSSSSS). Scream Factory’s MPEG-4 AVC encode appears to be derived from the same master, although it looks sharper with sometimes bottomless blacks (enhancing the suspense considerably when Chemy stumbles upon the hearse on the side of the road after Elizabeth’s car breaks down). Audio options include a DTS Master Audio 2.0 rendering of the original Dolby Stereo track as well as a 5.1 upmix. The upmix is better than some of the other Scream Factory releases thus far because the Dolby Stereo track was very active to begin with (optional English SDH subtitles are also included). This is probably the best the film can look currently short of a new transfer and restoration which seems unlikely given that Universal owns the film (Coscarelli himself has the rights to the other three entries).
Director Coscarelli and stars Scrimm and Bannister are on hand for a commentary (presumably the same one that appeared on Anchor Bay’s 2005 British five disc boxed set of the series). Scrimm starts off in-character but “The Tall Man” departs before the gimmick can become tiresome and is replaced by the actor (who is more warmly received by Coscarelli and Banister). Coscarelli also reveals that the same house explosion was used for both the opening scene and the later one (requiring a photo double of Bannister in the car with Le Gros so that Bannister and the double for Michael Baldwin could be photographed being blown off their feet with another camera, while yet another camera photographed Scrimm walking away from the explosion, and three other cameras covered the house explosion itself from various angles). The house was on land being developed by CalTRANS, so it was sold to the production for five hundred dollars (other houses on the land were available for the same price, provided that the buyer moved them elsewhere). Although fans were not happy about the recasting of Baldwin (who put off talking about the second film in the commentary for part three) with Le Gros, Scrimm, Banister, and Coscarelli remember him fondly and speak highly of his performance and working methods (Bannister points out a subtle touch by Le Gros that suggests that he watched the first film and studied Baldwin’s performance). They also speak highly of Irvine, Tigar, and Phillips (Scrimm seems most up-to-date on her TV and radio career), as well as cinematographer Okada, production designer Duffin, sphere designer/engineer Steve Patino (PUMPKINHEAD), and the make-up effects crew which also included Everett Burrell (who worked under Tom Savini and would also work with Greg Cannom), Gregory Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman (later of KNB Efx with Howard Berger), and David Barton (LEATHERFACE) on animatronics. Coscarelli also points out the easily-missed appearance by a then little-known Stacey Travis (just before she did HARDWARE for Richard Stanley) as Elizabeth’s sister Jeri, and that Phil Fondacaro (TROLL) played several of the hooded dwarves (Ed Gale played the dwarves for the stunt-intensive scenes, and background ones were played by children in masks). Overall, it’s an entertaining listen with contributors who are generally fond of the film and each other.
“The Ball is Back” (46:38) is an amazingly comprehensive retrospective documentary featuring the participation of Coscarelli, Scrimm, Bannister, Paula Irvine, Samantha Phillips, Kenneth Tigar, cinematographer Okada, production designer Duffin, make-up effects artist Mark Shostrum, and producer Roberto A. Quezada. The first three repeat a lot of information from the commentary track, while Duffin’s and Okada’s soundbytes relay information that the other three offered upon the commentary (Quezada is still impressed with what Duffin achieved on the budget, which included digging out a cemetery full of the empty graves himself in eight hours with a backhoe). Irvine expresses discomfort over the psychic sex scene, while the lively Phillips more fondly recalls her first nude scene and sex scene (intercut with Bannister’s own recollections). Shostrum and Coscarelli discuss the effects work and the other contributors (including the spheres by Steve Patino) while actor Tigar recalls shooting his sphere attack (and having to later reshoot the ear scene because a review of the footage revealed that the impact shot actually fell in between frames). All of this is illustrated with film clips and aged behind the scenes video. Unfortunately, Le Gros does not participate in the commentary or interviews (he may have been put off by the fan reaction to him replacing Baldwin at the time, or he might just be as busy as Tigar is these days going by his IMDb page). In “Gory Days” (22:01) – a 2005 featurette produced for the Anchor Bay UK set – Greg Nicotero – who had worked under Tom Savini on DAY OF THE DEAD and Shostrum on EVIL DEAD II just before PHANTASM II – discusses his contributions to the film’s effects and points out the contributions of the other artists illustrated with archival behind the scenes videotape shot by him in which Robert Kurtzman gives a tour of the workshop. Nicotero also discusses the experience of working on PHANTASM II by day and Scott Spiegel’s NIGHT CREW (which would be released under the more familiar title INTRUDER) by night. The video footage also includes an amusing homage to the bug attack scene from the first PHANTASM scene as performed by Kurtzman, Nicotero, and Shostrum.
While the limited edition German and Australian two-disc sets of the film included the workprint version in full, Scream Factory has included the extra scenes as sort of digest condensation of the film (18:58). Highlights include a phone conversation in which Tigar’s priest asks for help from an exorcist (the audio mix on the workprint is unfinished of course, so the phone voice is presumably that of script supervisor Lou Ann Quast), the awkward dreamscape sex scene between Liz and Michael, as well as some truly grisly additional gore during the scene where one of the sphere’s burrows into the body of one of the “gravers”, as well as some more blood-spurting during the first sphere attack (which looks noticeably censored with cuts and cutaways in the release version, especially when compared to the equivalent scene in the first film). The unmated workprint footage is sourced from videotape with the expected deficits (more so when upscaled on your TV), but it’s highly doubtful the footage exclusive to this version will surface in better condition. A separate section of deleted scenes (6:51) is composed of little sometimes redundant extensions, including additional dialogue in the aftermath of the second house explosion, in the back of the limousine with Liz and her grandmother about her recurring dreams, and the Father Meyers noting the number of hearses in the funeral home’s parking lot (“enough to bury an army”) among other bits (these snippets are sourced from 35mm and integrated into the surrounding footage, but the lesser image quality is evident).
The separate videotape behind the scenes (9:12) – focusing on the make-up effects – and on-set (9:08) – focusing on the pyrotechnics – segments are somewhat redundant since they were heavily excerpted in the documentary and Nicotero featurettes. Besides the film’s trailer (1:27) and four TV spots (1:20), the disc also includes upscaled trailers for the first and third entries in the series (each preceded by a disclaimer that Shout Factory does not own the rights to these films) as well as behind the scenes, make-up effects, and poster/stills galleries. Last up is a 1961 Encyclopedia Britannica short film about the life of Abraham Lincoln with Scrimm in the title role under his own name Rory Guy (18:40). Although much younger, Scrimm is still very recognizable, and that familiar voice is a little unnerving coming from our sixteenth president. Being one of Scream Factory’s loaded editions, PHANTASM II comes with a slipcase as well as a reversible cover with the original poster art on the inside (the non-slipcase titles usually just have a selection of stills on the inside cover). (Eric Cotenas)
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