Dean Koontz’s Phantoms

By Ezra Stead

Dean Koontz’s Phantoms, USA, 1998

Directed by Joe Chappelle

Phantoms is a by-the-numbers bad horror movie with a compelling performance by Liev Schreiber. At the suggestion of a couple of fictional gentlemen by the names of Jay and Robert, as well as one close, non-fictional friend (hint: we co-wrote this movie together, but he did not act in this one) who recently reminded me of their recommendation, I decided to finally check out “Affleck [being] the bomb in Phantoms.” I can only assume all three parties were being highly sarcastic; after all, one of them was played by Kevin Smith, a longtime friend of Mr. Affleck, but not necessarily someone known for his unadulterated sincerity, Jersey Girl (2004) and the jail cell speech in the third act of Clerks II (2006) excluded.

Dean Koontz’s Phantoms is awful, in that special way in which films like Lawrence Kasdan’s 2003 Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher are awful. Author and screenwriter Dean Koontz is often considered the poor man’s King (Koontz fans, please note: I have not actually read any of his books, I am merely recording the popular consensus as I understand it), so it is fitting that Phantoms should have so much in common with that unintentionally hilarious travesty of cinema. Unfortunately, Phantoms lacks the over-the-top craziness of Kasdan’s film, and is therefore substantially less entertaining, albeit mercifully shorter. This is not to say there is no unintentional comedy to be found, as there certainly is, but overall the film is more of a by-the-numbers bad horror movie that lacks the overreaching ambition of the amazingly insane Dreamcatcher. It also borrows heavily from far better films such as Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing, which only serves to remind the viewer how truly low-rent this already mediocre film is in comparison to those classics.

Phantoms begins with two sisters, Lisa (Rose McGowan) and Jennifer Pailey (Joanna Going), on a trip to a small resort town in Colorado. When they arrive, they are surprised to find the town apparently deserted, until they begin to find various severed body parts lying around, leading them to surmise that the population has not deserted the town, but rather been messily murdered in some mysterious way. Despite rather uninspiring acting from the two leads, especially McGowan, the film is off to a pretty good start with the grisly mystery. Sheriff Bryce Hammond (Ben Affleck) soon shows up with his two deputies, Steve Shanning (Nicky Katt) and Stu Wargle (Liev Schreiber) to investigate what may have happened. After Shanning is killed in a flash of light and Wargle is attacked and apparently killed by a cheesy-looking bat-like flying creature that sucks all the flesh off his face, including his eyes and brain, in a matter of seconds, the remaining three find a note scrawled on a mirror that reads: “Dr. Timothy Flyte / The Ancient Enemy.”

Flyte turns out to be Peter O’Toole, clearly slumming for the money in a phoned-in performance as a professor turned tabloid writer who, ironically, is doing the latter because he needs the money. Layers upon layers. Anyway, Flyte provides the requisite scientific knowledge needed in order for the good guys to triumph over evil; we know he’s an expert because, when asked what exactly the amorphous monster that devoured this entire town is, he replies, “Chaos. Chaos in the flesh.” Now that’s good science! Lisa also gets a chance to opine on the nature of the monstrous threat facing them, in what must be the film’s single most unintentionally hilarious line of dialogue: “Well, it’s the devil, don’t you think, come up from hell tonight? I think he wants to dance with us.” Even in writing, that overwrought stinker makes me chuckle, but when delivered in McGowan’s flat, bored monotone, it transcends into comedic gold.

There is nothing remotely scary going on in Phantoms, unless you’ve never seen a horror film and are therefore liable to be taken in by its many cheap “gotcha” moments, all of which can be seen coming a mile away by any actual horror fan. Most of the film’s action sequences are cobbled together with annoyingly fast cuts, presumably to disguise the cheapness of its visual effects, and when we do finally get a really good glimpse of the monster, it is pretty underwhelming, to say the least. Perhaps the only real bright spot in the entire film is Schreiber’s performance as the slimy, squirmy Deputy Wargle, who we glimpse early on fondling the leg of a female corpse. He’s not particularly scary, even after being possessed by the evil “phantoms,” but it’s an effectively creepy performance, and Schreiber seems to be the only one really having any fun. It’s not infectious enough to spread to the audience, but at least someone had a reasonably good time along the way.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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