Phantoms (1998)

I have been told by several people — whom I’ve never met but I’m sure are perfectly good people when not trolling around the internet — that Dean Koontz’s 1983 novel Phantoms is really good and that the film doesn’t at all do it justice. This is comforting news, considering the film isn’t terribly good, but I have to wonder why the author would want to butcher his own work. Koontz wrote the screenplay for this film adaptation of his work, but I’ve been told several key scenes were missing, and that the film has a completely different feel from the book. Weird, isn’t it?

Having not read the novel, I’m going based only on my experience with the film. If you want a good experience, you’re better off reading the novel, and I feel confident saying that without having read it. It’s not so much that Phantoms is terrible, as it is a worse version of a few other films. The Thing and The Blob are both better than this film, and because they exist, you have no reason to see it. This is a movie that feels lifeless and without purpose, like everyone involved — potentially including Koontz — knew that it shouldn’t even exist.

It all takes place in the small, isolated town of Snowfield, Colorado, population of maybe 400, as it’s the Winter and nobody wants to live there in the winter, I guess. We enter with two sisters, Jennifer (Joanna Going), a doctor, and Lisa (Rose McGowan), who has no defining features but lives in Los Angeles. They share an alcoholic mother, although Lisa is the only one still living at home. This is supposed to be a vacation and a bonding time for the two of them. Little do they know that when they reach town, everything will have been ruined.

Nobody is in the town, for one. Any bodies they two find are dead, while the majority of the population seems to have just disappeared. Phones aren’t working, and neither are the cars. The only people still alive are from the police force, who came into town around the same time the sisters were. There’s the Sheriff/Ex-FBI man, Bryce Hammond (Ben Affleck, too young for the role), and two Deputies, Stu (Liev Schrieber, so over-the-top that it makes no sense) and Steve (Nicky Katt).

Phantoms begins to seem scary. Jump scares could pop out at any moment, there’s a mystery to solve against an unknown force, and Stu laughs for no reason at the worst moments, signaling that he’s either crazy or behind it all. For the first half hour or so, this is an effective movie. Still not a great one, but thrilling enough to be worthwhile. I was pleasantly surprised by what it had to offer. Then, it all went downhill.

I’m not sure how many movies become worse once a character played by Peter O’Toole appears, but this is one of the few, if not the only one. He plays a professor working for a skeptic newspaper, contacted by the FBI because they think he’ll be able to figure out what’s going on. “How did you get involved?” one character asks him. “Reluctantly,” he responds, and I assume no acting was required on O’Toole’s part for that response. Why is he here? What is an actor of his caliber doing in a film like this?

Phantoms degenerates at this point into a monster movie that tries to bring up philosophical points but mostly skirts over them in favor of cheap scares — which aren’t very scary in context — bad special effects, and lousy acting. It loses any involvement of the audience once people even begin to come close to guessing the identity of the creature, and by the end of it, I was just tired. I’ve seen The Thing; I don’t need to see this through to the end. Presumably, neither do you.

I think it was the banal dialogue that got to me first. It started to wear me down even when the film as a whole was still intriguing. I swear that one character asks another “Are you okay?” a dozen times throughout the movie. The answer is rarely, if ever, “no.” That might allow us to actually learn something about that person’s psyche. No, the character avoids the question with a non-answer, killing a few more seconds off the running time and a few more brain cells off everyone involved both in the production or the watching of the film.

Peter O’Toole at least gets through the film without cracking a smile, and given some of the lines he’s given, it goes to show the type of professional he is. Going and McGowan do nothing much in their roles, and the same can be said of Affleck and Katt. Only Schreiber makes an impression, if only because it seemed like he was doing his own thing while everyone else was actually working on the film. He just shows up and laughs a lot while asking everyone “Do you want to see something?” I have an answer: yes. A better film.

Phantoms is good at the beginning, but having a solid yet unspectacular opening third and a dull and not scary final two-thirds doesn’t amount to a worthwhile viewing experience. You can see better versions of this movie, as it’s basically another monster copying the Thing or the Blob, except with philosophical questions raised and then forgotten about. If the premise interests you, go read Dean Koontz novel and forget about the film. I’m kind of hoping he forgot about the film as soon as he penned the screenplay.

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