Year of Release: 1998
Director: Joe Chappelle
Length: 91 mins
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Rose McGowan, Ben Affleck, Liev Schreiber
Dean Koontz film adaptations generally fair slightly better than those of Stephen King. Not commercially, of course. In that department King will always have the upper hand. This is why even his weakest short stories are deemed suitable for the Hollywood treatment. Dean Koontz adaptations usually have a bit more substance, possibly because the name alone won’t sell. They don’t come around so often, either. This is only the second adaptation in 13 years (the other being 2013’s quite brilliant Odd Thomas). The exact circumstances surrounding Koontz’s acrimonious departure from Martin Scorcese’s made-for-TV Frankenstein project in 2004 are shrouded with mystery, but evidently left scars.
Anyway, onward and upward.
The basic plot of Phantoms involves Dr Jennifer Pailey (Joanna Going) who, in the aftermath of some indiscretion, takes her younger, more precocious sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) to the small ski resort of Snowfield, where she works. When they arrive they find the town deserted, and matters come to a head (when you see the film you’ll get the reference) when they find a grisly collection of body parts in an oven. And other places. Along with mysterious piles of watches and pacemakers. Just when you find yourself in need a bit of help and guidance, in steps a post-Good Will Hunting Ben Affleck to save the day. Or not. He certainly isn’t able to save his deputies, who **spoiler alert** are taken out by some unseen supernatural force in double quick time. Well, actually, one of them gets murdered by a giant moth-like creature with a large protruding snout which is definitely not ‘unseen,’ but you know what I mean. Thoroughly spooked, the survivors decamp to an abandoned hotel where they come across a reference to a British academic by the name of Flyte (Peter O’Toole) scrawled on a mirror in a locked room. They eventually manage to find an old radio, which they use to contact the outside world and put out a panicky SOS. The next thing you know, the FBI roll up in force, backed up by the army, some scientists, and a reluctant Flyte. Then, carnage ensues as a plethora of dark, slimy creatures, all part of a considerably bigger whole, rampage through the town in search of flesh.
Dean Koontz novels are impeccably researched, and usually contain enough hard science to at least provide the illusion of plausibility. There are government experiments, conspiracies and serial killers galore. Phantoms focuses on an ‘Ancient Enemy’ being responsible for various mass disappearances throughout history, like Roanoke, the Mayans, and a group of 3,000 Chinese soldiers who supposedly went missing in Nanjing in 1939. In Phantoms, this ancient enemy is revealed to be some kind of shape-shifting, amoeba-like life form, which dwells in the deepest recesses of the earth and comes up, presumably, to feed. It does this by absorbing huge swathes of humanity, thereby explaining the mysterious mass disappearances. One of it’s favourite tricks is to mimic past victims to procure new ones, and when it absorbs people it also absorbs their knowledge. This is an interesting concept, linked to the theory of the collective unconscious. In the film a discussion takes place about the famed experiments in the 1950’s which found that if flat worms are taught to navigate a maze, then ground up and fed to other flat worms, the new worms would also know how to navigate a maze.
As a result of all the knowledge and information it absorbs, the ancient enemy begins to think of itself as a god, and tries to enlist Flyte as a mechanism to tell the world of its existence. Ultimately, this God complex proves its downfall. Theology (often boiled down to the good old-fashioned battle between good and evil) is a common theme in Koontz’s work. As he is a practising Catholic, that’s understandable and not entirely unexpected. The interesting thing is, as evidenced in Phantoms, he often approaches the topic from an angle, instead of ramming the same old fundamental shit down your throat. Ultimately, even though the Ancient Enemy is beaten by the ingenuity of man, it does achieve its objective as when Flyte leaves Snowfield the first thing he does is write a book about the episode, thereby telling the world about the Ancient Enemy.
I really like this film. It is atmospheric, the script is tight, and there’s enough in the plot to keep things interesting right up to the suitably satisfying climax. With such a solid cast you would expect the acting to at least be serviceable, and it is. The MVP award, perhaps surprisingly, goes to Liev Schreiber (of the Scream franchise) who plays Deputy Stu Wargle with a convincing dash of psycho. The special effects are also worth a mention, as they are born of an age (just) before CGI, and call to mind the classic creature features of the 1950’s and 60’s. It’s a pity I seem to be the only person who likes it, because it only scores a 13% rating on Totten Tomatoes and the critic Roger Ebert gave it one star (out of four) stating, “If only we could learn to think more kindly of those who digest us, this movie could have ended happily.”
I fail to see how, but there ya go.
According to IMBD, This film has a helluva lot of continuity errors and general fuck-up’s, which may be one reason why it isn’t very highly thought of.