Phantoms: an exercise in spooky crap

Chances are, either you’ve already seen Phantoms or you’re not going to anytime soon. That’s understandable. A fairly low-profile horror movie, Phantoms has gotten relatively little publicity. That is too bad, because this movie deserves at least some attention.

Despite the fact that the movie, by the very end, is an exercise in crap, for much of its running time it’s very entertaining and spooky crap. Based on a novel by Dean Koontz and directed by Joe Chappelle, Phantoms has two really strong elements in its favor: its outstanding first half, and actor Liev Schreiber, both of which make the movie worth seeing. This film won’t win any Oscars but it will probably entertain you for ninety minutes.

As Phantoms begins we see two sisters driving into the small Colorado town of Snowfield, where one of them, played by Joanna Going (Inventing the Abbots) is a local doctor. Her sister, Rose McGowan (the blonde best friend in Scream) is younger and more vulnerable, as a girl in a horror movie must be. As they arrive in the town, they realize that everyone is either dead or missing, hundreds of people gone faster than you can say “Twilight Zone.” What is worse is that whatever it was that killed everyone seems to still be around, playing with them.

The beautiful and frightened girls meet up with some handsome and slightly less frightened men, mainly the Sheriff, played with dull seriousness by Ben Affleck (Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting), and his not-quite-all-there deputy, Liev Schreiber (Scream 2). It’s never really explained why these fellows are still around; they’re just lucky, I guess.

Our intrepid group wanders around town, trying to figure out what’s going on. This is where the movie works best, with the audience as clueless as the characters, and all kinds of really well-done spooky stuff happening. This is good, meaty, horror movie material, including shadowy figures and mysterious songs and gory corpses and even a giant killer butterfly.

At the same time that this lovely stuff is going on, deputy Schreiber is posing a different kind of threat; he doesn’t deal as well with the situation as the others do. It is so much fun to watch as he develops into a creepier, crazier character. It is almost sad when his characterization comes to an abrupt halt, after his brains have been eaten.

The movie starts to go astray when the characters suddenly come up with the bright idea to use a radio and call for help. The movie then has to waste time with army guys and official business and introducing a few new characters who essentially have exactly the same experiences that we’ve just been seeing for the last hour.

Perhaps most disappointing is the character played by seven-time Oscar nominee Peter O’Toole, who plays an expert on mass disappearances and a tabloid reporter. It is a bit of a shock when you think that this is the same actor who starred in Lawrence of Arabia, but then you remember that he also had a leading role in King Ralph. He does what is required for the part, but it is not exactly an inspired performance. Here, O’Toole plays the standard part of the scientist who figures everything out. It is quite amazing because he figures out exactly what has been causing all the problems and how to fix everything in about five minutes.

Given how wonderfully scary and ominous the first half of the movie is, when things start getting explained and solved it’s a bit of a let-down. It turns out that all this time, for millions of years, there’s been a sort of goo-like monster living underground and occasionally popping up to eat people, or in extreme cases, the dinosaurs (all of them). Over time, this thing has been getting smarter and more ambitious, and now wants to take over the world. It sounds a bit silly, and at this point in the movie you realize that it’s really nothing more than the Blob, although a Blob with quickness and an ego problem.

There is still some good stuff in the second half of the movie, once all the army guys have been disposed of and we’re back down to our core of frightened girls, heroic young man, and clever old man. One scene in which a Golden Retriever is made to appear sinister almost manages to work. It is kind of scary to watch the dog (as a disguised part of the Blob) sitting and staring at the characters like a vulture…until you see how friendly and well-trained the dog must be. Maybe a more frightening breed, like a Rottweiler or a Shar-pei would have worked better.

The movie builds up to something of an anticlimax as our heroes manage to kill the Blob…or do they? Thankfully, however, we are spared a romance between lovely Joanna Going and handsome Ben Affleck, a clich‚ which the movie flirts with but then wisely skips past.

As a whole, the movie’s setup is terrific and its resolution is awful. That is probably the fault of writer Dean Koontz, whose material wants to say something about historical disappearances and demons, but just can’t do it. However, the director manages to overcome the plot’s problems for quite a while, and comes up with a good number of creepy situations and images.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars