Adapted by Dean Koontz from his own novel of the same name, “Phantoms” is directed by Joe Chappell, who was rumored (wink wink) to have a hand in directing the troubled “Hellraiser: Bloodline”. The film stars the lovely Joanna Going as Jennifer, a Doctor living in a small town who is returning home with her sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) in tow. The sisters find the town empty and bodies scattered about. Later that night, Sheriff Bryce Hammond (Ben Affleck) returns to town with two deputies, Steve and Stu (Liev Schreiber), and the fivesome discovers that their town has been taken over by evil forces.
“Phantoms” is essentially a Last Stand in a Haunted House movie, with the five survivors taking up residence in various locales against the town’s possessed citizenry. They must do battle with a supernatural force called the Ancient Enemy that has been around for centuries feeding on humanity. The Ancient Enemy has the ability to absorb its prey’s memories, and has conformed itself into a Godlike figure, intent on playing games with the survivors and achieving a state of Godhood in the eyes of the world. To this end, the Ancient Enemy has lured tabloid writer Timothy Flyte (Peter O’Toole) to town in order to spread the word about its existence.
The screenplay by Dean Koontz, who hasn’t had much luck with movie adaptations of his own works, is very tight and the movie moves well. But this also gives the movie its biggest (albeit not shocking) flaw — the characters are barely introduced when the action hits, so we know very little about them as a result. Only Affleck’s Hammond is given any sense of characterization, as we learn that he’s an ex-FBI agent who had to leave the Bureau after a bad shooting. As for Jennifer and sister Lisa, we only know that Jennifer feels responsible for looking after Lisa because of an alcoholic mother, but not much else.
Liev Schreiber, last seen looking freaky in “Scream 2”, looks freaky here as Deputy Stu, a man who radiates “psycho” in the very first frame we see him in. There is a very fine line between personality and irritation, and Schreiber’s character crosses that line about the second time we see him doing his “Look, ma! I’m playing a psycho!” act. Then again, since most of the cast doesn’t really offer up much by way of personality, maybe Schreiber was on the right track by going over the top.
“Phantoms” is a fast mover, and although it’s not anywhere near as scary as it should have been (in fact, it wasn’t very scary at all), the movie handles its creepy elements well. Of note is a scene where Peter O’Toole’s character is standing in the street challenging the Ancient Enemy to show itself, when suddenly — by way of creative camera movement under director Joe Chappelle — we see that the possessed townspeople have filled up the streets. The quiet, understated scene gave me goosebumps.
“Phantoms” is a genre film, and it’s a surprise it made it into theaters in the first place in 1998. Ben Affleck (“Daredevil”) has never come across as an effective leading man to me, and his low-key acting style is simply underwhelming here. Joanna Going’s doctor has glimmers of hope, but like Rose McGowan (“Scream”), the women are basically damsels in distress. Veteran Peter O’Toole, on the other hand, really shines as the fallen scholar forced to write about bigfoot and Elvis for a tabloid newspaper.
There’s nothing in “Phantoms” for people who go out of their way to see “high art”. The movie is a genre picture with a neat premise, but not much else for anyone who demands more. But for fans of Last Stand in a Haunted House movies such as myself, “Phantoms” is a good addition with fine execution by all involved.
Joe Chappelle (director) / Dean R. Koontz (screenplay)
CAST: Ben Affleck …. Bryce
Peter O’Toole …. Timothy Flyte
Rose McGowan …. Lisa
Joanna Going …. Jennifer
Liev Schreiber …. Stu