Starring: Ben Affleck, Joanna Going, Rose McGowan, Peter O'Toole, Live Schrieber
Rated R for Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language
The trouble with making a scary movie is that once you get started, you have to keep it up. "Phantoms," the 1998 thriller based on the novel by Dean Koontz (arguably the most famous horror author after Stephen King), starts off great. It's when it gets around to explaining what's going on that things fall apart.
Jennifer (Going) is taking her sister Lisa (McGowan) from LA to the small Colorado town of Snowfield to get her away from the evils of the big city ("I like pollution. I like gunfire," Lisa whines). When they get there, they find the town completely deserted save for a few weird looking corpses (I liked how Lisa asked if there was a nuclear power plant or a military base nearby). Now they, the local sheriff (Affleck) and his two deputies (Schrieber and Nicky Katt) have to survive the night. Meanwhile, an Oxford scholar turned tabloid journalist named Timothy Flyte (O'Toole) is being whisked there by the government for reasons yet unknown.
The first half of the movie is effectively creepy. Wandering through a deserted town not knowing what you'd find is a great way to send your nerves through the shredder, and director Joe Chappelle effectively captures this. It's not masterful or especially innovative, but it gets the job done.
Unfortunately, the film has to show its cards, and that's when the spell is broken. It's not that things are too ridiculous (although they approach that level), but the screenplay isn't strong enough to support the conclusion. Sure, editing seams are occasionally glaring, but the dialogue is too weak to make us accept what is going on. Any premise is acceptable as long as it's given a good foundation (just look at "Star Wars"). That doesn't happen here.
The performances are adequate, but not especially memorable. Ben Affleck is miscast; he's in the film mainly to sport his good looks (I never thought he was that good looking, but that's just me). As a gun-toting sheriff complete with a cowboy hat, he's a little out of his element. At least he gives it a game try, and the result is a performance that's much better than "Gigli." Rose McGowan is a good wild girl and Live Schrieber makes for a truly creepy weirdo. Both actors starred in "Scream," which was released two years earlier, but they shared no scenes together.
The standouts are Joanna Going and Peter O'Toole. Going provides warmth and sensitivity to the proceedings, but unfortunately she's let down by the script. The color (what little there is) is provided by the late acting legend Peter O'Toole. O'Toole is in "take the money and run" mode, but nevertheless he adds a dose of class to the proceedings. And you can't beat his line about the dinosaurs.
There's a lot to like about "Phantoms," especially in its first half. But in the end it's too problematic for me to recommend. Still, if you're bored and looking for some cheap thrills, you could do worse.