When it comes to new releases from Scream Factory (Shout! Factory's horror releasing arm), reviews have begun to sound like a broken record of repeating praise. Words like quality, passion, care, and effort are commonly applied to their DVD and Blu-ray releases of films which genre fans clamor for, but which major studios often overlook as undesirable. In this way they've developed a devoted following,
Who perpetually salivate for the next taste of restored cinema magic. The needle hovers above the grooved vinyl tracks of praise once again, as Scream Factory prepares to release Don Coscarelli's epic sequel, Phantasm II.
In many ways, Phantasm II is superior to it's predecessor. Gone is the confusing metaphysical feel of the first film. In it's place is a far more linear story, a road movie which picks up right where the previous film ended. Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is downstairs playing the guitar by the firelight, when The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) busts through a mirror to attack young Mike (A. Michael Baldwin and a stand in). Beset by an army of evil zombie dwarves (which resemble monstrous Jawas), Reggie rigs the gas stove to blow, then runs to rescue Mike, diving clear in the nick of time. Flashing forward ten years, Mike is released from a mental institution and reunites with Reggie, who believes they both imagined everything. They're headed home to have dinner with Reggie's family when The Tall Man blows up the house, family, and all.
From that moment on, the pair swear to track and kill The Tall Man, if such a thing is even possible. In their bad ass 1971 Plymouth Barracuda, Reggie and Mike travel across the American North West, encountering ghost towns wherever their nemesis has been. In one sense it feels like an RPG video game, with our protagonists forming a party, finding new weapons and gear, then moving from encounter to encounter, triumphing over the odds. Phantasm II is smart and clever in the mold of camp, without ever becoming campy. It walks a precision line of intelligence and gore, ending up on the same team as Cemetery Man, with a healthy dash of Aliens.
The camera work contributes a great deal toward making the case for Phantasm II's importance in the pantheon of horror. Cinematographer Daryn Okada relies heavily on dutch angles to establish unease and dread. It's coupled well with kinetic movement; the camera being dollied backward as characters move quickly toward it is the most effective of these techniques. Without these integral touches, Phantasm II may have easily slipped into less interesting territory, but it never does as the eyes are kept constantly engaged.
The transfer on display here is superb, displaying deep color saturation and crips contrast. The color saturation is partially critical as the film has an almost abstract, surreal quality to it, which isn't pronounced when the colors are muddied or washed out. An excellent place to note the strong contrast with deep blacks is Liz's notebook sketches of Mike during the opening. The mask makeup of the zombie dwarves holds up incredibly well under the scrutiny of high definition (which is unsurprising since Greg Nicotero of The Walking Dead fame was involved). For fans contemplating an upgrade from DVD this should feel like a compulsion rather than a choice.
The special features are plentiful and offer a much welcomed look behind the curtain. Several TV spots, as well as the trailers for the first three Phantasm films kick off the proceedings in truncated style. There's also a standard behind the scenes feature centered on the makeup work and an audio commentary with director Don Coscarelli, and actors Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister (which makes this release worth the cost of admission alone). Not content to leave it at that, a compilation of work print scenes is also included. These snippets of film have time code plastered across the bottom, and lack most sound effects, but in exchange for roughing it, fans will see footage from scenes that didn't even make it to initial edits. Presumably this material comes from Coscarelli's private collection as he's infamous for hanging on to everything. Even more exciting is a brand new interview feature created by Shout! Factory, which includes nearly all of the principal cast, a good number of the primary crew, and Coscarelli. They wistfully reminisce about their time making the film with such whimsy that fans will find themselves uncontrollable grinning for it's generous run time.
Scream Factory gives the fans what they want and more, going above and beyond to earn their money. In their earnest fervor the release of Phantasm II surpasses 'want' to become 'need' faster than a flying silver ball can bore out brains. It's available for preorder from the Shout! Factory main page and comes out on both DVD and Bu-ray on March 26th. See it BOOOOY!
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.