It's been a long and difficult road for the Phantasm series on home video, particularly here in the United States. The original has certainly received lots of love thanks to the original special edition laserdisc back in 1995. Since then, though, the path to completing the series on home video has been a difficult one, particularly here in the United States. UKers and those of us who are region free and have PAL playback ability were rewarded with a beautiful sphere set from Anchor Bay UK back in 2005. Still, it wasn't until 2007 that Anchor Bay finally was able to secure the rights and start releasing some special editions of the Phantasm movies here in the United States. Between 2007 and 2008 Anchor Bay US released the original, the third, and the fourth as special edition DVDs, incorporating most of the extras from the UK sphere set. Even with much to celebrate, Region 1 still had yet to see a Phantasm II DVD release. With DVD being around since 1996 and the rights for Phantasm II sitting with Universal the entire time, that's pretty disappointing. Here we are in 2009 and Universal has finally decided to release Phantasm II onto DVD here in the States, albeit as essentially a barebones release, even though some nice supplements already exist for it in the UK set.
It's my favorite sequel in the series, yet I can't help but be somewhat underwhelmed as I start this review. Thankfully the movie is solid enough; I just can't help but be disappointed by Universal's effort. Lets hope a stellar transfer can make up for the missing supplements. Lets have a look.
The first Phantasm ended with Michael being dragged away by The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). The sequel picks up where the original left off. The Tall Man and his crew of cloaked dwarves are about to drag Mike out of the house, but Reggie (Reggie Bannister) won't stand for it. He runs downstairs and grabs the shotgun, only to find himself surrounded by dwarves. Reggie turns up the gas on the kitchen stove and, after a brief struggle with the dwarves, grabs Mike and escapes by jumping through a second floor window.
It's now several years later and Mike (James LeGros) is about to be released from a psychiatric clinic. During his time there, Mike established a psychic link with a young woman named Liz (Paula Irvine). Liz has visions of The Tall Man and his army of creatures moving from town to town, plundering grave yards. She senses The Tall Man coming for her and calls to Mike for help. Mike tells the doctor what he wants to hear in order to be released. Once out, Mike does the most sensible thing he can imagine: goes to the local graveyard and starts digging up graves, only to find them all empty. Reggie shows up shortly after and tries to convince Mike it was all in his head. The Tall Man welcomes Mike home by blowing up Reggie's house, which had several of Reggie's family members waiting inside to celebrate Mike's release.
Mike and Reggie stock up on supplies at a gun shop and hit the road in search of The Tall Man. They encounter abandoned, rundown towns with empty graveyards and traps that The Tall Man has left behind. During their travels, Reggie picks up a hitchhiker named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips. Mike has had visions of Alchemy and worries what the future holds with her in tow.
Mike and Reggie catch up to The Tall Man, but it may be too late. He has found Liz and has already sent his dwarves to capture her. She manages to escape to the cemetery and it's here where she at lasts meets up with Mike. They embrace as if long lost lovers and return to Alchemy's place. Not long after, The Tall Man arrives and kidnaps Liz. Reggie and Mike quickly follow. They must catch up with The Tallman if they are to prevent him from destroying Liz. But it's not only The Tall Man that awaits the duo. Chainsaw wielding maniacs, flying spheres, and midget dwarves are standing in their path to The Tall Man. They must battles these foes if they are to save Liz and attempt to destroy The Tall Man once and for all.
While my feelings for each of the Phantasm movies vary, Phantasm II is hands down my favorite. While this review is for Part II, I'll preface my thoughts on it by stating just how much I love the original. Phantasm writer, director, and creator Don Coscarelli created a horror masterpiece with the original Phantasm and managed to do so on a shoestring (at best) budget. The eeriness and dreamlike atmosphere that made the first movie so magical is unmatched by the sequels. Having said all that, I find myself enjoying the sequel more, and certainly watching it more. Three viewings in two years may not seem like much, but for me that's plenty.
Coscarelli has talked publicly about many of his grand ideas for the Phantasm series. The much talked about Phantasm's End script by Roger Avery was indeed grand, but ultimately canned when Coscarelli and company realized they'd never be able to raise the money needed. Instead it is Phantasm II, at least as of this writing (one can always hope), that ends up as the big budget movie of the series. To Coscarelli, long since a master of the low budget domain, the meager three million dollar budget mine as well have been thirty million. Luckily for horror fans, Coscarelli's Phantasm II fails to fall into the same trap as other big budget horror sequels that simply squander the excess funds away and fail to deliver anything memorable. He instead took the three million and made a movie that not only gleams with its high production value, but also gives us a glimpse of the epic tale Coscarelli dreams of. The rundown towns and plundered graveyards are two examples of this. The bigger budget also gave fans some of the best effects of any Phantasm movie to date. Not only is there more gore and special makeup effects to go around, the spheres too get an upgrade. Part II has three primary spheres, with one being gold. The spheres are fitted with nice new razors and other weapons to help in their tasks. One of the spheres even has an infrared motion sensor of sorts.
Horror fans know it's not just the makeup and effects that make a good movie. Sometimes, even in a horror movie, the story matters. While the psychic link between Liz and Mike is a bit hokey, it's a minor plot point and is ultimately not a hindrance. On top of a good story, the action in Phantasm II is unmatched by any of the other movies in the series. It is best described as a combination of the original Phantasm crossed with an Indiana Jones movie. The last 30 minutes of Phantasm II are just pure action. I can remember being in a state of complete disbelief and utter enjoyment when I first experienced it a few years back. Truly Reggie and crew ran out of bubble gum, and it was time to kick some ass. Okay, different movie, but you get the point...
The acting all around was top notch. Scrimm steps back into the role of The Tall Man with ease and delivers a masterful performance. Reggie proves that even a middle-aged, balding, ice-cream man can be an action hero. Some fans were no doubt disappointed by the departure of Michael Baldwin in the roll of Mike. Baldwin did return to the role in Phantasm III and IV. The reason for Baldwin's departure from Part II seems to be based on studio pressure. I'll admit I'm not partial to Baldwin's performance in III and IV, and I'm convinced that James LeGros gave the best performance as Mike. The change in appearance was easy enough to accept since several years had past between the original and Part II. The change in attitude, of Mike's growth not only into manhood, but of courage, is also easy to accept considering what he had been through during his first encounter with The Tall Man. Really it's Michael Baldwin who appears as the awkward one when Part III, and eventually Part IV, roll around and he's back in the roll of Mike. The courage in the character begins to dissipate and the whiny Baldwin delivers to perfection. I realize that's where Coscarelli was taking the character in the story, and perhaps LeGros wouldn't have done so good in Parts III and IV due to the very reasons I'm praising him. Still, I can't shake my opinion of Baldwin giving us a whiny, subpar performance of Mike.
Finally, lets not forget that Phantasm II is where Coscarelli first introduces some comic relief to the series. Fans seem to be conflicted on this, but I enjoyed it. While it takes away from that eerie, creepy atmosphere that was so well established in the original, its presence in Phantasm II helps take the series in a different direction. Bannister just does so well with the playful comedy; it's hard to imagine the Phantasm movies without it. Even with the comic relief, Scrimm manages to keep The Tall Man in check and deliver another chilling performance.
If on the off chance you've let Phantasm II slip you by, or you haven't seen it in ages, I strongly recommend giving it a visit. Fans of the original are bound to enjoy it, and even the crazy few that aren't too fond of the original are sure to enjoy its sequel. Highly recommended!
If there is one area Universal did right in with this release, it's with the image quality, which I reluctantly admit has always been what I consider the most important aspect to any DVD. The transfers are similar but clearly not identical. Both have no real print damage to speak of and of the several scenes I compared, both seemed to be similar in regards to sharpness and detail. There were some scenes where the Universal disc seemed a bit sharper, but on the other hand there were other scenes where the Anchor Bay disc looked a bit sharper. I think detail is mostly a wash between the two. Where the Universal disc wins hands down is the colors, which are more vibrant and seem more natural than the UK disc. It's enough of a difference that when I go to watch this movie again in the future, it will be the Universal disc that I watch. I guess the only thing that's left to ask is: Where's the blu-ray, Universal?
I took a few comparison shots that you can reference below. Keep in mind that screenshots on a computer never look identical to what you see, so don't analyze them too, too much. I didn't touch up any of these shots like I do for the other shots in the review.
Anchor Bay takes the cake here with their DTS track, which has a lot more LFE and surround activity over Universal's 2.0 track. The 2.0 track is probably a better representation of the theatrical experience, but I'm not much of a stickler on that. Rev it up! The DTS track does just that. Having said that, there's really no issues with the 2.0 track. It just lacks the punch of the DTS track.
Here we arrive to the most disappointing aspect to this release, especially when you look at the extras on the UK disc. Universal has given us a theatrical trailer as a supplement; nothing else. Missing from the UK disc is the commentary track with director Don Coscarelli and actors Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister, a 10-minute video from a Fangoria convention, along with TV spots, a photo gallery, and biographies. Very disappointing.
I would love to say that the Anchor Bay disc is all you need as it has the most extras. Sadly that just isn't the case. I'm torn with Universal as I'm kind of pissed they didn't include the Anchor Bay extras. Having said that, their disc has the better transfer, which is more important than extras. I own a few of the same movies on both DVD and laserdisc, so it only makes sense that most of us probably own various titles on important and domestic DVD. Whether it's a better transfer or more extras, it's just a fact of life. For casual fans, this Universal disc is the way to go. For die hards, you're going to want both releases - Universal for the transfer, Anchor Bay import for the supplements.
For those that have yet to see it, be sure to give Phantasm II a try. Even if the original wasn't your cup of tea, you may just find yourself enjoying the sequel.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B+
Supplements - D
Great review, but I actually don't agree about video presentation being the most import thing on a DVD. For me the extras are much more important, as long as the movie is in decent shape I'm happy with it. That's why I decided to not switch to Blu-ray right away. So I'll be happy keeping my UK version of Phantasm II.
Well something like that is definitely opinion and will vary from one person to another.
I look at it like this: I want extras because I love the movie. But I would rather have the best experience with the movie over extras. Now don't get me wrong - I want both, and that's why I'm going to own both the UK and US disc. But if I had to choose, for me, it's always a/v first.
Say a company were to ask the fans if they wanted them to spend "extra" money on restoration (which would equal a better transfer) or on supplements. I would always vote for restoration, without a doubt.
I'm with Dave - a/v first. Whatever gets me closest to theater-like quality. But that's just me.
I also agree with Dave. Quality over quantity.
I also agree with Dave, A/V over extras any day. Sure I'd love to always have extras, but if a DVD has a poor transfer then what's the point?
AB UK disc is still a very good transfer; US disc is just better.
The saddest thing is that both DVDs do not include the extra gore footage that can be found in the workprint on some of the German DVDs. The workprint has poor quality but the extra gore footage is great! Why aren't they included on the Anchor Bay or Universal discs?
"Why aren't they included on the Anchor Bay or Universal discs?"
Not sure but Don Coscarelli said he would like to release the director's cut of PII someday in the last issue of Rue Morgue magazine.
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