October 8, 2014

Movie Review: Phantoms (1998)

After watching the latest film from David Fincher, the fantastic Gone Girl, I decided to step into Ben Affleck's past and revisit one of his horror entries. That movie is none other than Phantoms, a favorite whipping boy of the horror elite. At this stage of the game, it has largely been forgotten, or, at most, relegated to the infamous bit in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, when the duo meet Ben Affleck (playing himself) and saying "You the bomb in Phantoms, yo!". To be honest, I was really rather curious to see if it remained as terrible as I remembered it, or if time had been kind enough to let it be revealed as something more, something worthy of our time rather than a perpetual Affleck career speed bump.

I am somewhat pleased to say that I do not find it nearly as distasteful as I did back in the day. Perhaps I have grown a little more perspective having attempted to become more deeply entrenched in horror filmdom. That is not to say it is a good movie, it is not, but it does have some things to appreciate. If you look past the surface, you will see something of interest bubbling beneath struggling to break free. The question is where did they go wrong? I suspect there was a desire to create something to cash in the post-Scream horror landscape of 1998. Affleck was a hot up and comer, Rose McGowan was emerging as a scream queen, and you had Peter O'Toole to bring it some legitimacy, not to mention the source material.

The movie was based on the novel of the same name by Dean Koontz, an author I never really read much of, but seemed to enter the conversation alongside the likes of King and Barker. Although, it does seem like his candle burned out quicker. In any case, he wrote the screenplay (but I suspect there were other hands in the mix) and it was directed by Joe Chappelle (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers). The end result did create some atmosphere, but collapsed under the weight of mediocre to poor acting, general silliness, and a third act that brought to mind the far superior John Carpenter film, The Thing, from sixteen years earlier.

The movie begins with sisters Jennifer and Lisa, played by Joanna Going and Rose McGowan, returning to Jennifer’s home in a small Colorado town. The opening credits play over their journey much like the opening of The Shining. They arrive to find the place deserted. As they arrive at their destination, they find the housekeeper dead. Her body appeared to have been severely beaten, but with some indication of a possible infection. They go on to find the phones do not work and, not surprisingly, their jeep no longer starts either.

They walk around the town, finding more dead, some having had limbs cut off (sometimes only finding the remaining parts). This leads to them bumping into Sheriff Bryce Hammond (Affleck), and a couple of his fellow officers (Liev Schreiber and Nicky Katt). No one seems to have any idea what is going on or where everybody is (those who aren't dead, anyway). They eventually find a way to communicate with the outside and call for help.

Help arrives where protective spacesuits and with Dr. Timothy Flyte (Peter O'Toole) in tow. They begin to do discover the reason for all this stuff, it is an ancient oil creature thing that can take over bodies just as easily as it can destroy them. It lured Flyte there, so that he can write about it. Apparently, the thing absorbs the thoughts and memories of the things and people it ingests, but takes them literally. So, when the victims thought they were being eaten by the devil, lithe thing thinks it is. It has bought into its own hype, thinking itself all powerful, it wants the word of its existence and deeds be spread to the world.

It really is an interesting idea, it is too bad they got caught up in WB-style casting and a studio more interested in opening weekend box office than making a good movie. The concept is sound and could have been turned into a scary, existential terror. Instead we have a movie that just goes without really digging into much of anything. We do get to watch baby-Affleck try to be authoritative while Peter O’Toole brings gravitas to some awful dialogue.

Besides the really good underlying idea, there is actually other positives around this perfectly mediocre to poor piece of mainstream horror. The sound design is first rate, it really brings something to the table that gives it an unearthly feel. Just listen to doors creak, phones ring, pretty much anything has this reverb effect that makes it feel off. I love that. I also feel they do a good job at building atmosphere, even when it comes crashing down around the characters ankles, it still has that creepy feel.

Phantoms will never be considered great, nor even remembered with any great level of fondness, but it does have a nostalgic mix of solid atmosphere and sheer silliness that does entertain, on a certain level. It is not as bad as I remembered, but that is small consolation for what still amounts to a poor film.

Not Recommended.

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