Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: Phantasm II

You know how sometimes a movie sort of comes out of nowhere and blows you away with its originality, wit, and unique perspective—e.g. Evil Dead II? When that happens, have you ever wondered (as I often have) what such a film might have looked like if it emerged around the same time, had a similarly unique perspective, but was somehow just…not successful at all?

Phantasm II is an example of the latter.

Horror aficionados of the Fangoria-subscriber variety seem to have a fondness for the Phantasm franchise (of which I have now seen only the first two films). I attribute this fondness mainly to the following:

  • The weirdness
  • The ball

I'm not going to bother reviewing the first Phantasm; I found it so lackluster and often dull that the moments of weirdness (and the one ball scene, memorable though it was) didn't really go far enough to justify recommending it, except perhaps to horror completists.

Though the sequel has a visibly larger budget, it retained the original's endearingly homemade quality. Throughout both films I was reminded often of Time Chasers, the MST3K-featured time-travel adventure shot in a small town in Vermont. They're earnest, but painfully so, because so little of what they're trying to do works. You can't hate them for it…you might even recommend them if it's a genre you care a lot about…but you wouldn't say they're objectively successful films.

What does work in the first two Phantasms are the ball and, to a lesser extent, the Tall Man. Neither film is terribly concerned with explaining what the hell is going on (and if they'd gone further with that perspective, I might have more praise to give); the ball, then, is a perfect symbol for horror mixed with straightforward confusion. What kind of security system is this? Wouldn't dozens of balls be significantly more effective? If these people have mastered antigravity technology, why the need to haul coffins around manually? Do they WANT local townsfolk to grow suspicious? Are they too arrogant in their power to care? If so, why's their teleporter so easy to disrupt?

If you've never seen a Phantasm and the above paragraph makes it sound intriguing, then I've inadvertently oversold the franchise. See Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness instead; they (especially the former) are more genuinely scary and more genuinely funny.

Which brings me to the main distinguishing feature of Phantasm II: the humor. Some of it is your typical weaksauce horror-movie one-liner stuff, shallowly imitating Evil Dead II (and yes, there is a direct Sam Raimi reference). Where the movie got genuine chuckles from me was in the self-deprecating humor. I can't imagine what the other Phantasm sequels are like—and I don't imagine I'll see them—but if I were making them, I'd go further with the self-deprecation, calling more attention to Reggie's total unsuitability as a hero; maybe make him a sort of George Costanza. I'd also send Reggie and Mike to the Tall Man's world, go balls-out (so to speak) with the weirdness, develop a socioeconomic structure for the Tall People and their dwarf slaves that makes no sense at all, include a trip to a local theater or museum just to baffle the audience further, and have the humans seem to die at the end while on the verge of escaping back to Earth.

Again: I'm probably overselling this. To simplify, Phantasm I was a low-budget horror film that strung together a variety of somewhat creepy (but presumably affordable) elements and didn't bother to explain them; Phantasm II is the higher-budgeted sequel that retains the original's clumsy, WTF worldbuilding, expanding on it hardly at all, but having a little fun with it nonetheless. There are far worse movies to waste a couple of hours on than Phantasm II, but that's not really a recommendation.

Star Score: 1.5 out of 5

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