(Directed by Joe Chappelle)
(Written by Dean R. Koontz)
(Starring Ben Affleck, Joanna Going and Peter O’Toole)
Plot: Dr. Jennifer Pailey (Joanna Going) drags her sister (Rose McGowan) back home with her, which is a small and isolated town. But when they arrive, everyone appears to be missing! When they discover some corpses, they realize something horrible happened to the town. They team up with the local Sheriff (Ben Affleck) and his deputies, who are away when all of this happened, in order to survive.
I remember when “Phantoms” first came out back in 1998. I was really excited to see it, although I was too young to watch it on the big screen. Why did it look cool? I think it was primarily due to its connection with “Scream” and “Scream 2”, although in retrospect that is kind of silly. All of these films shared some of the same cast members (Rose McGowan, Liev Schreiber), were produced by the same studio and even the posters were eerily similar. Back in the late 90’s/2000’s, it seemed like everyone was imitating the poster for “Scream”, which wasn’t particularly inspired to begin with. As a kid who adored these films, all of this was enough to wet my whistle. I also happened to be a fan of novelist Dean R. Koontz (yes, I like to read. The “Watchers” book was my favorite), although strangely, I don’t believe I read this one. Finally, it was released on VHS and I immediately rented it. I put the video in my VCR and sat in attention…and the following two hours were promptly erased from my mind. Seriously, I remember REALLY looking forward to this one. I remember watching it. But before revisiting the feature on 9/2/2013, I couldn’t really remember anything about it…other than Liev Schreiber molesting some dead chick…the one thing I wouldn’t want to remember. I couldn’t even recall my feelings regarding “Phantoms”, although logic would lead me to deduce that I was not impressed. So now that I’ve given “Phantoms” a second viewing, what did I think? “Phantoms” makes mediocrity an art form. It only stands out when it’s doing something poorly or when it’s being weird, but usually it’s just kind of dull.
Here is an interesting bit of trivia about this review: I wrote it twice. Other than the above paragraph and maybe a subsequent segment, I decided to scrap what I initially had written because I sounded oddly positive. I was focusing on what I liked about it, even if I was liking it for all of the wrong reasons. Yet “Phantoms” was not entertaining and that contrasted with how I was making it sound like a lark. If you’re interested in what I had originally written, I will include the original version at the bottom and hope you enjoy it. So…where do I begin? I will give “Phantoms” credit for jumping into the action almost immediately. You have about five minutes of screen-time focusing on the sisters and then WHAM! They find the first body. People have complained that they didn’t spend enough time fleshing out these characters, but I don’t mind because “Phantoms” is not a good movie. The dialogue tries too hard to be quotable, the only character development (the Sheriff) is laughable and the acting isn’t very good. This is especially apparent early on, which is strange because “Phantoms” did snag a pretty impressive cast. Ben Affleck, Rose McGowan and Liev Schreiber would go on to have respectable careers, but their performances seem to lack direction. Of course, I have no idea what went on behind the scenes, but the actors look incredibly uncomfortable in front of the camera. So for those who complain about the lack of character development, do you really want more scenes which would require these people to “act”? I’d much rather contend with the action, horror, and the musics desperate attempts at building suspense. Yeah, this is ‘scary music’ at its most forced. Maybe it’s not as glaring as the score from “When a Stranger Calls (2006)”, but it was definitely trying too hard to be scary. It also kept drowning out the dialogue, making it difficult to understand what everyone was saying. Seriously, the sound design for this movie sucked. Maybe the filmmakers realized how wooden the acting was, so tried to distract us from it? Or maybe it wasn’t the films fault at all and my TV’s speakers are dying…I hope it was just the movie…
Now we’re going to start entering some strange territory as even though I’ve criticized the acting, it’s not as if it’s awful. It’s just kind of off, but it’s only especially apparent during the 1st act. Liev Schreiber (Stu) stole the show for me because he’s just so freaking strange. The characterization is just odd. He almost seemed suspicious, as if maybe he wasn’t really human at times. He obviously has a psychotic edge about him too. My interpretation? His character was a disturbed individual who fancied himself as the hero. He’s probably been waiting for something like this to happen, like how certain assholes want a zombie apocalypse to actually occur, just so he can be awesome. This would explain why he’s trying to act so cool and controlled before…facing…a giant moth…It would also explain why he’s so threatened by Ben Affleck. Maybe I’m looking too deep into it, but at least he was interesting and Schreiber’s eccentric performance entertained me, even if it wasn’t really good. I’d take that over Ben Affleck being depressed over shooting a kid with a toy gun. When Schreiber dies, the film just becomes that much lamer. Everyone else is just too boring. Affleck is playing the cliched hero and this was back when he was being more of a ‘star’ than an ‘actor’. The girls are even more yawn inducing because they don’t even have any kind of characterization. One is a doctor and the other one sometimes goes into shock. Yawn! Peter O’Toole is a lot of fun though. He knows he’s in a crappy movie and is just being as hammy as he could be. It’s not one of his finer performances, but once again, he was entertaining me.
But these are mere pleasant cogs in an otherwise bland machine. When I noticed that Joe Chappelle (“Hellraiser 4: Bloodlines“, “Halloweeen 6: The Curse of Michael Myers) was the director, I was hoping that “Phantoms” would at least be interesting on a visual level. His other films might’ve not been very good, but I thought the imagery was pretty effective. He does occasionally provide a pretty cool shot, like when shadows descend on the city. Hell, there are even a few scenes which were kind of creepy. But the rest is just standard and uninspired. For the first act, he’s trying to create a claustrophobic tension as the sisters realize the town is empty. But I felt he needed to have more wide shots, emphasizing the feeling of isolation. Instead, he uses medium shots, which diminished the impact. The director also provides some of the most HILARIOUS jump scares I have ever seen. Just wait until you see the ‘dropping heads’ gag. It wasn’t supposed to be funny, you say? Well, I’m laughing anyway. The characters discover bodies too quickly and eventually the formula morphs into a survival horror flick. This would be fine, except it becomes redundant and you actually wish it showed less of the monsters. I shit you not, the first time you see one, it’s a freaking giant moth. That’s silly, but not scary. How many times do we need to hear those strange phone calls, search rooms, argue about who is in charge or show ominous shots of the…BATHROOM SINK! What was with all of those drain shots anyway? At first, I was presuming that the ‘enemy’ was using them to travel, but it’s really inconsistent. Sometimes, the villain can just vanish and re-appear without the use of any drain. Speaking of which, was it just me or were they making things up as they went along when regarding the monster? At one point it is said that the creature can’t hear them if the electricity is turned off, but was there any foreshadowing to this? Plus, they say this thing has been around for at least thousands of years, so how did it function before the age of electricity? The finale relies a bit too much on bad CGI, although to be fair, this was during the early days of Computer Generated Imagery so it’s going to look crude in retrospect. The final confrontation between Ben Affleck and the enemy felt like it belonged in a bad action movie and the bit between Stu and the sisters was more amusing than intense. Seriously, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve witnessed monster Liev Schreiber doing the limbo. You read that correctly. His bottom half is blown off, but he bends backwards under some sort of rod and yells “how low can you go!”. It’s awesomely stupid.
Ugh, I’m doing it again! I’m primarily focusing on the bad and the so bad-it’s good parts because they are the only attributes of “Phantoms” which stand out. Everything else is just competent enough to keep it from being terrible, but not to the point where it starts to become good. This is why I could not remember “Phantoms“. Even now, I can slowly feel the experience being siphoned from my mind, because it’s just so damn forgettable. Perhaps this is magnified due to its attempts at imitating other movies, although I guess it could’ve been intended as homage. The costume designs resembled “Alien“, the dog monster felt like it was lifted from “The Thing“, the premise itself could be argued as a recycled version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers“. If you remind me too much of other, better films then that’s going to compromise the identity of your movie. While watching “Phantoms“, I should only be thinking of “Phantoms”. Let me end this by saying “Phantoms” is not as bad as I’m making it out to be. I’d say 50-60% of the movie is just average. Watchable, but bland. 5-10% is pretty impressive and the remainder ranges from bad to hilariously bad. It’s really sad though when the best moments SHOULD be its worst. But at least that was something.
Violence: Rated R.
Overall: I suppose “Phantoms” was sometimes enjoyable, but even then it was for all of the wrong reasons. If you see it on TV are in the mood for a comedy that’s funny than the majority of Ben Affleck’s comedies, then give a look.
ORIGINAL DISCARDED REVIEW
This is where things become sort of strange, however. The opening act is focusing on a feeling of claustrophobic isolation. Director Joe Chappelle, who had previously helmed “Hellraiser: Bloodlines” and “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers”, does provide a few cool shots like when darkness descends on the city. His previous films, for all of their problems, had much cooler visuals though. Yet the attempts at scaring us did provide a few good laughs. My favorite scene has to be the ‘dropping heads’ gag, which was sidesplitting. The ending also provides some snickering inducing moments, like how the aliens just open their mouths and a disembodied voice comes out. It looks so goofy! Hell, the entirety of the final act suggests the filmmakers were just playing a big joke on the audience. How they kill it, the ending fight between Affleck and the enemy, Liev Schreiber having no bottom half and doing the limbo…”Phantoms” isn’t much of a horror movie. But it is a wonderful comedy. Don’t even get me started on the visual effects. I did like the dog creature, primarily because it reminded me of “The Thing”, except “Phantoms” ruins it with its editing and camerawork. There is another effective scene when all of the sirens and various noises start at once, suggesting they are surrounded by the enemy, but the way it’s shot and edited converts the tension to snickering. But back to the special effects, the final monster looks pretty lame. This was back during the early days of CGI, so it’s aged badly. But there wasn’t much effort in designing it.
Honestly, the film is at its best when it’s just being bizarre. Liev Schreiber stole the show for me because he’s just so freaking strange. The characterization is just odd. He almost seemed suspicious, as if maybe he wasn’t really human at times. He obviously has a psychotic edge about him too. My interpretation? His character was a disturbed individual who fancied himself as the hero. He’s probably been waiting for something like this to happen, just so he can be awesome. This would explain why he’s trying to act so cool and controlled before…facing…a giant moth…It would also explain why he’s so threatened by Ben Affleck. Maybe I’m looking too deep into it, but at least he was interesting and Schreiber’s eccentric performance entertained me, even if it wasn’t really good. I’d take that over Ben Affleck being depressed over shooting a kid with a toy gun. When Schreiber dies, the film just becomes that much lamer until the movie decides to make him the primary villain. Peter O’Toole is also a lot of fun. He knows he’s in a crappy movie and is just being as hammy as he could be. It’s not one of his finer performances, but once again, he is entertaining me.
The second half is both an improvement and a step back at the same time. On one hand, the acting seems to get a lot better. I suspect Peter O’Toole’s presence inspired everyone to step it up. The direction also seems more refined. I have to admit that there are a few suspenseful sequences, like when the Sheriff leaves the lab and confronts the dog. The finale is purely craptastic, but what leads to it wasn’t bad. On the other hand, the horror and action is toned down and I felt like I was watching pure science fiction. I don’t mind that in theory, but this dialogue is…bad! The religious symbolism starts to become obnoxious and I was under the impression that the movie started to think it was GOOD. Now that, is kinda funny.
The problem with this review is that you might think that “Phantoms” is an enjoyable experience, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The truth is, everything I’ve mentioned about the movie probably does not take up more than 40% of its screen-time. The rest is just…meh. The direction, writing and acting is usually just lifeless and flat. There’s no energy. No sense of dread. It’s not even doing anything so incompetently that I could enjoy myself.