Eight years ago, then 25-year-old film maker Don Coscarelli turned out a true sleeper, "Phantasm," a scary gem of a movie that was more a thriller of the supernatural than horror picture. It created its own nightmare world in a small-town America where Norman Rockwell images intersected with those of Salvador Dali. It was a fully realized visual experience, an authentic piece of pop art, which proceeded with an implacable yet mysterious logic all its own.
Coscarelli's "Phantasm II" (selected theaters) takes up seamlessly where the original left off, but it soon evolves into something more in the horror picture tradition. Instead of catching us up in a surreal fantasy, it proceeds with a strong narrative drive--and a large, gratuitous dose of grisly and trite rotting-flesh special makeup effects.
Coscarelli did a better job when he left more to the viewer's imagination. Although the film is handsomely photographed and scored, it is also needlessly literal.
The difference between the "Phantasms" is the difference between "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "2010." Coscarelli's sequel is a fast, entertaining fright show, but it's not inspired in the way the original was.
Those who have never seen the first film--or not for a long time--may find that it takes a while to get one's bearings. We learn that our 12-year-old hero Mike, now 19, has spent the intervening years in a mental institution, recovering from his traumatic battles with the horrific Tall Man (once again cadaverous Angus Scrimm), that mortician-grave robber who for the pure evil fun of it turns corpses into ghoulish dwarf killers, hooded and robed like monks.
"Phantasm II" is essentially a chase adventure in which Mike (James Le Gros) teams up with another survivor of the Tall Man, family neighbor Reggie (Reggie Bannister), to hunt down the malignant mortician and also to save the endangered pretty blond teen-ager (Paula Irvine). Encountered along the way is a wry hitchhiker (sultry newcomer Samantha Phillips, a distinctive standout in the solid cast).
"Phantasm II" (rated R for typical horror gore; some sex and nudity) is fun--but not the trip the original was.
A Universal presentation. Executive producer Dac Coscarelli. Producer Roberto A. Quezada. Writer-director Don Coscarelli. Camera Daryn Okada. Music Fred Myrow, with Christopher L. Stone. Production designer Philip J.C. Duffin. Associate producer Robert Del Valle. Special makeup created by Mark Shostrom. Film editor Peter Teschner. With James Le Gros, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Paula Irvine, Samantha Phillips, Kenneth Tigar.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).