A few years ago Jeremy Kirk gave a listen to the first Phantasm’s commentary, but we never returned to Don Coscarelli’s nightmarish world again with this column until now. The unfortunate passing of Angus Scrimm – aka The Tall Man – this past week has encouraged me to revisit the franchise with the second film in the series. It’s also the only entry I caught in theaters – I was too young for the first one, and the subsequent sequels have gone direct to DVD.
Scream Factory released a fantastically packed Collector’s Edition of Phantasm II in 2013 featuring a commentary track with Coscarelli, Scrimm, and Reggie Bannister. (Just ignore that the option screen to select the commentary spells Scrimm’s name as “Scrumm.”) The director is such a calm, friendly, informative speaker, and his two guests follow suit making for a fun, anecdote-filled track.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the Phantasm II commentary.
Phantasm II (1988)
Commentators: Don Coscarelli (writer/director), Reggie Bannister (actor), Angus Scrimm (actor)
1. This may be one of the only commentary tracks to open with the actors in character and committing to the bit for more than a few seconds. Bannister complains about this creepy guy following him everywhere, and Scrimm decides to leave saying “things are backed up at the cemetery.”
2. The house in the opening was available thanks to the efforts of CalTran which had bought up entire neighborhoods with plans of laying track and was selling the homes for $500 each. “But you had to take them off the property,” says Coscarelli. Still a great deal though.
3. Coscarelli’s “gotten criticism” for the scene where Reggie lays down the guitar by the fireplace to go check on Mike because later when they return to the living room the instrument is no longer there. “One of the dwarves took it,” suggests Scrimm.
4. Bannister still has the scars from putting out those gas burner flames with his fingers. He also pulled a muscle while scaling the laundry chute.
5. All three have favorite James Le Gros films. Coscarelli chooses Drugstore Cowboy, Scrimm says Living in Oblivion, and Bannister goes with Point Break. No one asked, but I’d go with a tie between The Last Winter and Scotland, PA.
6. Scrimm recalls a rumor he heard – but never believed – that Bannister and Le Gros had a photo of him they used as a dart board. “Would we do that to you?” asks Bannister in a highly unconvincing manner.
7. The opening explosion, meant to be from years earlier, is the same one used in the present day as Mike and Reggie drive up to the house only to see it blow up. Multiple cameras and precise timing were used to capture it from different angles with the different actors.
8. They had three 1971 Plymouth Barracudas for the film. A pretty one, a stunt one, and one that was wreck-ready.
9. Bannister actually worked at Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach, CA. “They always have a skeleton crew,” he says, before explaining how he did a handful of different jobs there.
10. Roger Avery (Rules of Attraction) told Coscarelli that this film’s shopping spree in the hardware store served as an inspiration for one of Bruce Willis’ scenes in Pulp Fiction. “He may have been pulling my leg.”
11. Sam Raimi visited the set while they were filming the scene where Mike and Reggie head into the compound armed with their flame-thrower and quadruple-barreled shotgun.
12. Cinematographer Daryn Okada got his start on the first Phantasm where he worked as a “low-end grip” and has since gone on to DP films as diverse as Cradle 2 the Grave and Mean Girls.
13. The guys ignore the naked lady in the room for a few minutes and focus their chatter on cinematography, but just as Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) disappears they shift gears to discuss her career. Scrimm shows a particularly detailed knowledge of her Showtime series, Hot Springs Hotel, while Coscarelli recalls her infamous spread in Penthouse Magazine.
14. The motel room Mike and Reggie stay in with the gorgeous view of some rolling, wooded hills is actually just a three-walled set built in the parking lot of a national forest.
15. Coscarelli still wants to know “who left the friggin’ trunk open” in the scene we see through the window of Mike and Reggie getting into the car and driving away. Bannister chuckles about it, so yeah, my money’s on him.
16. Bannister asks if that yellowish goo that the Tall Man drips onto his tongue tasted good, and Scrimm replies “It’s the first time the Tall Man has had a bite to eat in any of these movies!” The shot took several attempts, and they eventually had to change up the recipe and not make it out of milk.
17. Coscarelli had resisted doing a sequel for years despite offers of funding because he wasn’treally sure where to go with it. That changed once he realized the sequel should pick up immediately at the moment where the first film stopped.
18. This is Coscarelli’s favorite in the franchise, but he recalls almost every review trashing it in comparison to the original. “I remember thinking maybe we’re onto something here,” he says. “We’re gonna take one on the chin for Phantasm II, but we’ve now elevated the original to classic status.”
19. Scrimm says Leonard Maltin doesn’t actually write all of his own reviews and instead has numerous assistants who assist. He read one of the Phantasm ones recently that said at the end, “bad acting.” He disagrees with that assistant.
20. Scrimm and Bannister have both been told on many occasions by fans that they became embalmers after being inspired by the Phantasm films. Coscarelli adds that he had a fan tell him that three other students in her mortuary school joined because of this film. Scrimm then ups the ante by sharing that his local coroner’s office invited him down for a tour whenever he wanted.
21. They cut a line between Father Meyers and the Tall Man where the former calls the latter a devil. “A poor relation,” the Tall Man originally said. “We never talk about that side of the family.”
22. Fishing line is a fantastic tool for in-camera, pre-digital special effects, but “you just don’t want to back-light it.”
23. They referred to the gold sphere as “the Rambo sphere.”
24. The scene where the priest has his ear lopped off by a flying sphere was done with the actor (Kenneth Tigar) actually lying on a table and simply dropping the ball past his head. The prosthetic ear was just yanked off as it passed. The same trick was used for the shot of the ball flying through a hole in the door.
25. Both actors comment on the minimal amount of blood spewing in the scene with the priest having his head drilled, and it prompts Coscarelli to discuss their dealings with the MPAA. He and a producer met with the group – “we actually met some of these parents that are members, although it was all very anonymous, we don’t know as they told us their names” – and discovered that their main beef was with this scene. Coscarelli made concessions because it allowed him leeway on other scenes of bloodletting in the film.
26. Le Gros was no fan of the scene where Mike and Liz discover their psychic connection because it required him to act with his head in an awkward position. “His neck was destroyed after ten takes of this.”
27. Reggie’s sex scene with Alchemy required multiple breaks in shooting so more makeup could be added to Bannister’s head. “She was slapping it so hard,” says Coscarelli. “It was bright red.”
28. Coscarelli feels compelled to explain the scene where Mike and Reggie come downstairs to find their window trap has been triggered. “What had happened is a cat had come in through the window, and now we’re looking the remnants of the cat on the wall, and I’m not sure the audience ever got it.”
29. Coscarelli’s not happy with the big car stunt and blames the driver for not hitting the pipe ramp at a high-enough speed. He recommends viewers check out Phantasm III to see a pipe ramp stunt done beautifully.
30. Sam Raimi had wanted a small role in the film, but they couldn’t really find one for him so instead they simply put his name on the bag of remains at the 1:11:40 mark. “Who knew he was going to go on to become one of the greatest directors in movie history,” says Coscarelli.
31. The scene where the sphere chases Mike and Liz through multiple doors was accomplished with balsa wood doors that they actually rammed through with a puff of smoke and a battering ram.
32. The scene where Reggie shoots the four dwarves simultaneously was meant to be preceded by him saying “Come to papa,” but they wisely decided against it.
33. Coscarelli recalls a Universal executive admitting to him that they “had sacrificed Phantasm II to the movie gods of the summer” because they attempted to counter-program against more typical blockbuster fare. It opened opposite Short Circuit 2, Arthur 2: On the Rocks, and Clint Eastwood’s The Dead Pool.
34. Scrimm hates when Mike says “Suck on this” and tosses the sphere at him. “So disrespectful. I wanted him to say, ‘Let’s play ball!’”
35. The Tall Man’s messy demise was filmed over a few days, required hours in the makeup chair each day, and involved chicken skin.
36. The burning mausoleum in the background as they escape in the hearse is actually a twelve-foot tall model.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
- Coscarelli: “This was an idea we had, to have Reggie have it out with a crew of dwarves.”
- Coscarelli: “I had always seen the original Phantasm as a one-off.”
- Bannister: “In the first few days of shooting, when you’ve just been introduced to this hot babe, all of a sudden you’re laying in bed next to her.”
- Coscarelli: “It takes balls for a movie critic to give a movie with a Roman numeral two on it a good review.”
- Coscarelli: “Now we took a few liberties in actually how the human body is involved here. I don’t know if anyone noticed or not.”
- Coscarelli: “I just saw a movie called Crash. They have this exact same scene in it!”
The clearest takeaway from this commentary track is just how much Scrimm truly enjoyed portraying this character. Whether it was just the joy of acting or the fact that it brought him a healthy career on the horror convention circuit, he truly seems to love embodying the ghoulishly delightful Tall Man. Coscarelli and Bannister are both just as thrilled with their time on this film and franchise, and that enthusiasm comes through in their anecdotes and laughter.