The schlocky '80s horror flick Phantasm II is far deeper than you realize

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Oct 11, 2017

It's 1989. I'm ten. My older brother is 14 or 15. One of his buddies is sleeping over. The ten-year-old me thinks my brother's the coolest guy in the world, and aside from him making a regular habit of rolling me up in a sleeping bag, pounding on me, and insisting that I'll "never get out, NEVER GET OUT," he's pretty good about letting his kid brother hang around him and his friends.

Only this night, I'm not supposed to be hanging out with them, my parents say, because they're in the basement watching a movie that I'm too young to see. So naturally, at the first opportunity, I sneak down there, the dark orange shag carpet muffling the sound of my footsteps on the stairs. I duck behind the couch, and my brother just sits there, letting me think I'm pulling off some great act of stealth.

I've got this great view of the old Sony Trinitron with the fake wood trim, which is hooked up to a VCR that also sports fake wood trim. I can't make a lot of sense of what's happening on the screen, but there's a highly polished golden sphere chasing people around.

And then it happens: the golden ball finds its victim. It burrows into the guy's lower back with a series of drills and blades. Blood pours out, and from the inside, it starts churning the guy up. All the while, this guy's alive, and he's screaming in agony, and the silver sphere is just drilling and grinding his guts up from the inside, and the guy's getting flung around like a puppet controlled by some kind of maniac.

And as I'm watching this, I can only think of two things. The first is how the guy on the screen is acutely aware of what's happening to him, of how he's being killed. Accordingly, he's filled with unimaginable agony but also pure terror and only wants it to end. And then the second thing I keep thinking about is my mother's blender, and its silver blades, and how it liquefies just about anything she puts into it, and how that blender is just like this metal ball, only the blender also sports fake wood trim, and has the word 'Osterizer' on it.

Finally, the guy stops screaming and gasping for breath. He's been Osterized from the inside. One of the other characters slowly, fearfully, carefully turns him over, and there's the ball, deadly sharp blades sticking out of its entire surface. The sphere is stuck inside the guy's face. The thing blended its entire way from the base of his spine, through his stomach and chest and throat, all the way up into his mouth, where it became entangled in the flesh of the dead man's face.

And that does it. I sprint upstairs to the bathroom, barely making it on time, and I vomit. I had never thrown up from a movie, and never did again after that. That was the only time -- the time I watched just a few minutes of Phantasm II.

 

"In our first public screening of the original Phantasm a woman brushed by me during the sphere drilling sequence and went straight for the bathroom," Don Coscarelli wrote to me over email.

Coscarelli is the creator of the Phantasm franchise, having directed four of its five installments (he produced and co-wrote the fifth, but did not direct it), as well as films such as Bubba Ho-Tep, Survival Quest, John Dies at the End, and many others. I reached out to him for this essay, and before I asked him any questions, I told him the story about me throwing up.

"Very sorry for your distress," Coscarelli wrote, "but I think it is good luck for us that the second film had that impact on you like the first."

I also spoke with the film's lead actor, James LeGros, who played Mike Pearson. He laughed raucously, and said "oh my god, the only movie to induce vomiting! That's high praise!"

Sadly, high praise is not something the film received a lot of. Even Phantasm fanatics expressed disappointment with the film, their chief complaint being the casting of LeGros, who took over the role of Mike Pearson from A. Michael Baldwin, who played the character in the first film (then parts III, IV, and V).

Reggie Bannister (who co-stars in all Phantasm films as Reggie) was interviewed for the book More Giants of the Genre by Michael McCarty (2005, Wildside Press). About the casting of LeGros, he said, "There was some controversy about that. It is always difficult when you see an original film and you fall in love with it and the characters. Michael was much beloved…"

Coscarelli acknowledges that "fans were unhappy with that casting choice," adding "which I still regret to this day." But he also says that for "phans," the priority is more Phantasm, and in Phantasm II, that's what they got. So, he says, "I don't think it made them not like the film."

 

I'm sorry to learn that Coscarelli regrets the casting choice. I always liked Le Gros as Mike Pearson (not to mention his many other roles, especially as Chad Palomino in Living In Oblivion). After seeing the first Phantasm, I liked Le Gros even more in the role as Mike Pearson. First, because I think Le Gros is a much more dynamic actor than Baldwin.

Second, because the first Phantasm creates a world in which nothing the viewers (or characters) see can be trusted, and dreams blend with reality to a point where it's almost impossible to tell one from the other. So having an entirely different actor portray the same character adds another surreal element in an already distorted world.

But none of this bothers LeGros. I asked him if he was aware of the criticism, and he immediately started laughing and said "no." He laughed harder. I asked him if he cared. He laughed harder still. "No, no," he said, "I don't care."

Which is not to say he's dismissive of the film. In fact, he's "very proud of it" and also noted that it was his first lead role. "I learned so much about filmmaking during the course of that movie. So I will always be grateful for that experience."

He's gives high marks to his costars, in particular Angus Scrimm, who played the franchise's antagonist, the Tall Man. He's not a gruesome spectacle of melted flesh such as A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger, or a masked murderer such as Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees. He is a stern-looking undertaker and he's pure malevolence.

"It's all about presence," LeGros says about Scrimm's performance as the Tall Man. "That's what I liked about it. He didn't really rely on any gags. He was just this iconic evil. That's what I loved about Angus' performance. It was just wow."

Credit: YouTube

 

The Tall Man commands three metal spheres armed with razors and drills and other weaponry. So brutal are these spheres, even the other bad guys in Phantasm II are terrified (and killed) by them. The balls don't care. They just want blood.

Scarier still, the Tall Man is not just intent on killing people, but he's even more dedicated to exhuming corpses---entire cemeteries' worth. For what? Honestly, I'm not sure. But the senselessness of it just makes the film that much more unsettling.

The movie features embalming and cremation and graveyards and corpses. And while Phantasm II itself is obviously a bizarre and fictitious spectacle, those elements are all real. Adolescence is a time when you start becoming more aware of and fascinated by things like death, and this film pushed all those buttons for me: What happens when we die? Is our blood really sucked out and replaced with some kind of fluid? And what kind of person would want to do that for a living? Phantasm II (as well as the original) offered horrifying answers to those questions.

I wonder if that's why the franchise struck such a chord. I asked Coscarelli and he replied, "I think very! The great Stuart Gordon says that horror films are a rehearsal for our own deaths. I agree."

Death haunts the movie in ways that last longer than the time it takes for blood to dry. It's also a road movie about two lonely figures going from ghost town to ghost town in what is perhaps one of the coolest cars ever: a 1971 Plymouth Hemicuda. All the while, the protagonist mumbles about his visions and nightmares in a moody voiceover. Characters drift in and out, appearing to be dead at times, then alive again.

When not following our heroes on their journey, a good portion of the film is dedicated to a funeral for an elderly man attended by three relatives and a highly troubled priest. Rather than using it as an opportunity for cheap scares and blood, it's played as an atmospheric, unsettling and intense meditation on grief, loneliness, and religion.

I told James LeGros about this, but I wasn't the first. "I've heard people say [Phantasm II] creates this dystopian desolation," he says. "And I think that's a good way to put it."

 

 

When the Tall Man appears, this movie does not mess around. At one absolutely disgusting point, the Tall Man's finger is pierced by a long pin. He holds it up, and we see that it's not dripping with blood; it's dripping with some kind of thick, yellow fluid. He licks it and smiles.

There's also a scene that features a character getting embalmed with sulfuric acid. (Enough said.)

The scene that made me throw up when I was a kid actually has a little less blood than I remembered, but it didn't keep my wife from covering her face with both hands and saying, "OH MY GOD OH MY GOD" over and over again when we rewatched it recently.

In fact all of the sphere scenes are fantastic. LeGros chuckled when he recalled what it was like to shoot those back before the widespread use of CGI.

"It was a f***ing completely different world... the illusion had to be created in-camera... To get the effect of the thing the whizzing past my head and gently grazing me, they basically threw a f***ing silver orb at my head as hard they could," he says, starting to laugh. "Sometimes I'd get beaned in the head that with that thing but they wouldn't catch it on camera. So we had to do it like a lot. Which nobody in their right mind would put up with [now.] ‘You're gonna throw a softball at my head? Are you kidding me? Forget it!' But I didn't know anything. I was a kid, I didn't know any better."

Back then, I didn't know any better, either: I threw up, but then the next morning, I was back for more. I snuck downstairs and watched the entire thing. And ever since, I've been obsessed with the movie. It's not perfect. It's got its flaws. But it might just be my favorite horror movie.

It's not better than The Shining. But then, I really don't think of The Shining as a horror movie. Maybe I'm being semantic about it. But I don't watch Kubrick's The Shining and think about my own mortality. I don't watch Carpenter's The Thing and think about what will happen to my body or my soul after I die.

But Phantasm II, despite how completely outlandish it is, does make me think of my own mortality. And it does that while being an unconventional, vaguely Lynchian road movie with an absolutely awesome car.

Phantasm II and films like them, Coscarelli posits, "help us all become desensitized to real death."

"Plus," he writes, "they just look so cool!"

Indeed, they do.