Director – Joe Chappelle
Cast – Ben Affleck, Joanna Going, Rose McGowan, Liev Schreiber, Peter O’Toole, Nicky Katt, Clifton Powell
Release Year – 1998
Reviewed by John of the Dead
I came across Phantoms a while back while searching for creature horror films and immediately added it to my queue, hoping that despite its A-list cast it would provide good horror. Based on the novel of the same name by famed thriller novelist Dean Koontz, this marks (to my knowledge) the first film adaptation of one of his novels that I have seen, and despite the inevitable Hollywood cheese I found this to be an enjoyable one. The horror strikes early on and comes in a fairly original form, and with good direction from Joe Chappelle I found Phantoms to be an enjoyable ride with a few forgivable faults.
When sisters Jennifer(Joanna Going) and Lisa(Rose McGowan) travel to a small Colorado town for a skiing trip they arrive to what seems to be a ghost town…then they find the bodies. Thankfully the sisters are not alone and join local sheriff Bryce Hammond(Ben Affleck) and his deputy Stuart ‘Stu” Wargle(Liev Schrieber) in uncovering what left 150 dead and 300 missing in this small town, and soon learn the culprit is not from this earth.
I love a story that takes off right away, and within minutes of the opening credits we are thrown into the horror Jennifer and Lisa face when they arrive at their Colorado estate only to find the town deserted and their housekeeper dead on the floor, grimaced face and all. Soon enough they run into the sheriff and a few deputies, and from then on out they come face to face with a seemingly unseen force that just eradicated the town and has them in its sights. What is the force? Well, at first we are left to wonder that for the majority of the film, but it does show as a few different awesome creatures, eventually proving to be a substance very similar to crude oil. Now I know that sound silly, but think of The Blob and you know that the idea can be used very well, and that was mostly the case with this film. I have a personal affection for films that pit their protagonists in a nowhere-to-run scenario, and we are given that in this story that left our protagonists always on the run yet with nowhere to run outside of the town. While I would have enjoyed the film if it consisted merely of our main characters bunkering themselves and fighting off the invaders I was glad to see that a military force was called in to fight the menace, adding to the already enjoyable action we were given. Character-wise the story was worthwhile, giving us some likable and unlikable characters to endure, and gladly the ones that I expected to like were the likable ones. While the protagonists mentioned in the plot summary were used fairly well, I really enjoyed the character of Dr. Timothy Flyte, portrayed by Peter O’Toole, a man who was called upon to aid the armed forces in eradicating the invaders after his name was found scribbled in a restroom within the Colorado town. Flyte is the usual intellectual with much knowledge on unknown powers the world fails to see, and what he sees is a form of Armageddon. Plenty of action is written into the film, awesomely blending horror and action into a well-paced experience that kept me engaged throughout.
Director Joe Chappelle did well with this piece, showing favorable execution much better than that of his previous horror film, Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers. From the get-go we are thrown into a pretty horrific experience early on thanks to direction that gave us some very up-close scares and continued to do so throughout the rest of the film. I marveled at the SFX used during the creature attack scenes, scenes that had our protagonists thrown across rooms and without horrible CGI despite this being a 90s film. Chappelle’s usage of the creatures was great and I was surprised at the intensity they provided despite not really being “solid’ creatures, but as I’ve said before, “good direction saves all”. Of course, Chappelle’s direction is not without its faults, and most of them lie in the cheese provided by the actors. The performances could have been better and the actors were used in very cliché fashion, especially (a personal favorite actor of mine) Liev Schreiber as the eventual antagonist. Nonetheless their performances did not detriment from the film or ruin the experience for me, but I knew to expect such things from a 90s flick with A-list celebs.
Overall, Phantoms is a cool horror flick based on the Dean Koontz story that gives us unique creature action in a sub-genre often convoluted with the same old cliches. Chappelle’s direction is good and makes for most of the enjoyment provided in this piece, a film that forgiving creature film lovers should enjoy.