Every now and then a movie is so bad that it’s enjoyable. Sometimes a combination of bad acting, cheesy special effects and sloppy direction can lead to a perfect storm of popcorn munching, soda guzzling fun. That is not the case with Phantoms, a horror movie from 1998 based on the 1983 Dean Koontz novel of the same name. Despite a talented cast and a director that would go on to be an Executive Producer on HBO’s the Wire, Phantoms misses on almost every note and leaves you exhausted, confused and just plain bored.
The movie begins with Dr. Jennifer Paige (Joanna Going) bringing her younger sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) to the resort town of Snowfield, Colorado for a break from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Once there, the sisters find the town to be deserted except for several citizens who have been murdered. Jennifer manages to reach out to police officers from the town next door (Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt and Liev Schreiber). Once there, the group begins getting hunted down by a mysterious “Ancient Evil”. They attempt to stick together and fight off the imposing threat while unraveling the mystery of what happened to the sleepy little town.
I will say (to start on a positive note) that the movie has a few solid scares. When the monsters that are hunting the main characters actually attack, it is quick and exciting and pretty ferocious. There are a few instances in the beginning where quick cuts and odd angles make the action difficult to comprehend, but by the second act, everything is right out in the open and is pretty brutal. One scene in particular featuring a sinister Golden Retriever was especially memorable. However, by the third act, the action involving the “Ancient Evil” is almost incomprehensible.
The most surprising thing about this movie is awful, awful acting. I have personally seen almost every actor in this movie give fine performances in other films and television shows but here they are all stilted and almost unemotional. Affleck, McGowan and Going seem to be phoning it in and it comes across as cheesy and over the top. Given that, no one is as over the top in this movie as Liev Schreiber. Playing a character that is essentially the movie’s “Bad Guy”, Schreiber takes any opportunity he can to chew the scenery. At a certain point you are just waiting for him to die and not because his character is inexplicably AWFUL but because Schreiber gives such an annoying performance. Were it not for serviceable performances from Peter O’Toole and veteran character actor Robert Knepper, the acting as a whole would be the worst part of this movie.
Joe Chapelle, the director of this subpar adaptation, was coming off of two horror movies (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers and Hellraiser: Bloodline) when this movie came out. While I have not seen Bloodline, I can say with certainty that Curse of Michael Myers was one of the worst to come out of that franchise. However, since it made three times its own budget at the box office, I understand why he continued to get work and luckily for him, none of these movies seemed to follow him over the years. A lot of this movie’s failings can be placed squarely on the shoddy camera work and poor special effects. Some of the monsters are so hard to see that it’s hard to be sure what you’re even scared of. It is, for lack of a better word, sloppy.
As far as the story goes, some of the characters are set up in a stereotypical manner that is never elaborated on. Rose McGowan’s character is played up to be a renegade who is prepared for anything and the reason given is “Because LA”. You know, everyone who lives in Los Angeles can easily load a shotgun. Liev Schreiber is presented as some weird mix of a**hole and sexual predatory who for some reason is an active police officer despite wearing these character traits on his sleeve anytime that he’s on screen. Ben Affleck is a sheriff and former FBI agent (despite being 26 and looking like he’s 24) who is the only character given any kind of character development and even that moment is far too reminiscent of Sgt. Al Powell from Die Hard. All of this along with an “Ancient Evil” that is fairly convoluted and you are left with no characters that are of real note or importance.
I really went in to Phantoms wanting to enjoy it. While it did hold my attention, it left me feeling empty and tired. There was a bit of anticipation on my part for the movie to take a sudden turn and pull the rug out from under me, revealing a whole new sense to the film that I didn’t see before but alas, that moment never came. After everything, all I can say (for the Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back fans out there) is that, “Affleck was not the bomb in Phantoms, Yo.”
VERDICT: Skip It.