Phantoms (1998)

JANUARY 29, 2014


I could have sworn I reviewed Phantoms a few years back, but if so, it disappeared just like the residents of Snowfield. I know I had only seen the movie twice; once when it first came out on VHS (!) and again when I bought it years later, which in my head I saw as a "For HMAD!" move, but after an exhaustive search (I typed "Phantoms" in the search and didn't see it) I have to just accept that I have never put my thoughts down on this, which will likely be the only legit horror movie my boy Ben Affleck ever makes unless you want to count his bit role in Buffy.

Therefore, unless you've read my running commentary review of Armageddon (or my Twitter, particularly on last year's Oscars) you're probably unaware of how much I love the dude, who not only co-starred in my 2nd favorite movie but also came from Boston (like me!) and managed to become a much in-demand filmmaker and actor after a few years where it seemed like I was the only one in his corner (2003-2006 or so... man, those were some dark times). It actually wasn't until I watched Project Greenlight that I realized what a genuinely smart and passionate guy he was, not to mention funny - even ignoring the Boston thing (there isn't exactly a surplus of Boston-based filmmakers in this generation), dude's a pretty good role model. His only flaw, far as I'm concerned, is that he seemingly has no interest in the horror genre, as his one and only trip to it is now a punchline in a career that has plenty of them. Speaking of which, I am truly baffled by the enduring popularity of that idiotic "bomb" joke from Jay and Bob Strike Back, and question the intelligence of anyone who still quotes it, even if ironically. I cannot for the life of me think of a hackier thing to say, and feel nothing but sadness and contempt for those who do.

Then again, maybe if this was a bigger creative or commercial hit, he'd be coaxed back for something (I mean, he's played Daredevil and now he'll be Batman - it's not like he's opposed to the sort of thing he'll get Oscar nominations for). If Phantoms was the only horror movie I ever saw, I probably wouldn't start watching them every day of my life. That said, it's actually not that bad as these things go (by things I mean pretty much every Dimension horror movie post-Scream). The first 40 minutes or so, until the military shows up, are actually quite solid - a pair of sisters (Joanna Going and Rose McGowan) arrive in their hometown and discover that every resident has seemingly vanished. Ironically I wish Affleck didn't show up as soon as he did, because the REALLY good stuff is when it's just the two girls looking around, getting freaked out... when Affleck (as the sheriff) and two fellow officers arrive, some of that eerie tension is deflated (plus, it's hardly one of his best performances, though I quite like Liev Schreiber's turn as a twitchy/creepy deputy character). But it's still a solid chiller for a while after that; I particularly like the bit where they find a pile of watches and jewelry... and gold teeth and pacemakers. Joe Chapelle keeps up the balance between answering questions and providing reasonably exciting scare scenes (including a surprisingly early kill for one of the cast), and there's a refreshing lack of the irony that permeated most horror films of the period - it's just a good ol' fashioned monster movie.

But then Peter O'Toole (RIP) and the military enter the picture, and it starts to falter. The occasional (practical!) smaller monsters are replaced with a giant CGI thing of no interest, and our protagonists are sidelined in favor of a bunch of anonymous guys in hazmat suits or military gear, clearly fodder. And O'Toole is largely wasted; reduced to rattling off exposition and the occasional witty line to liven things up (you can be assured that they don't know what to do with him when he's introduced sipping tea and tapping at an ancient typewriter - because that's what all old British guys do, right?). By the time Affleck and Going finally snap back into action (McGowan's role throughout the entire movie is simply to stand slightly behind the other characters and ask questions or offer "hilarious" reactions), that solid first half is little more than a memory, and you're left with watching a slightly above-Syfy level monster movie.

Of course, this IS a Dimension production, so we can assume that it was more interesting when shot and just got edited down to a hollow shell later. The monster's "backstory" is actually quite fascinating, but they whittle it down to almost nothing so they can get back to random CGI-heavy kills. Reshoots aren't hard to spot since Affleck had his teeth fixed in between, but since the movie was not part of a major series like Halloween, nor a success in any way (it's actually one of his lowest grossing films - even Gigli places a bit higher), there hasn't been the slightest bit of movement to get the original cut released. I doubt it'd ever be a masterpiece, but if the strength of the first half had carried over to the second, it'd actually be one of the better late 90s horror films (that it was one of the few that wasn't a slasher automatically makes it a bit more interesting - even if it has two Scream cast members on the poster).

If I programmed double features, I'd probably have it as the B-movie to The Mist, which also came from Dimension (but is good the whole way through - yes, I am a fan of the ending). Both deal with confined characters battling an ancient evil that takes many forms (including moth-type things), and offer a much better group of actors than their B-monster movie plots would attract otherwise - I think it'd be fun to watch them back to back. They're both sort of anomalies in the Dimension canon (these two plus Mimic are pretty much the ONLY true monster movies they've produced in the past 20 years; they otherwise stuck to slashers and traditional villains like vampires and werewolves), and are both underrated - not on the same level, obviously. But The Mist certainly should have been a huge hit and Phantoms deserves better than being a go-to punchline for the embarrassingly lazy.

What say you?


  1. I think this movie is like a C- at BEST. It's not terrible, but it's just sort of eh. I do think more time is needed, the cops showing up deflate the movie big time. And even the opening stuff, which should be AWESOME since I love that stuff, doesn't quite work. A great or even very good director could have really made those scenes of the two women trying to figure stuff out really tense and mysterious and also had the scares work...but Chappelle is not a great or very good director, so it comes off fairly bland and standard. It's too bad, this movie had a TON of potential...and I agree, the premise for what the creature is, is excellent. I bet the book is really good, I like how Koontz gives a lot of room for least in the books I've read of his. But this one is pretty forgotten and deservedly so.

    I agree with you on Affleck in Greenlight...that's when I became a fan. He was great in that show, and it was fun seeing him be so passionate and funny.

  2. Ha ha, I saw this one in the theater, I remember! But I can barely remember a thing about it - what was the monster again? Some kind of Lovecraftian horror from the very b*wels of the earth? Maybe a cousin to the sea monster of Deep Rising, ha ha!

  3. Not a horribly bad movie, but not particularly exciting either. I read the book first a long time ago, and if I remember the book fairly, the film suffers for following the book a little too closely: the first half was pretty eerie cosmic horror, which was then undermined by a second half that shifts into a fairly clinical sci-fi action story meets police procedural. It seems like it should get some credit for originality on that point, but I think I would have preferred straight cosmic horror in the end. In any case, I would agree, now that the reviewer mentions it: seems like a great B-side to "The Mist", with perhaps "Graveyard Shift" as a third and last movie to round out a long night of flawed cosmic horror movies in roughly the same spirit.


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