Category Archives: Retro Reviews (RetViews)

RetView #10 – Eyes Without a Face

Title: Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage)

Year of Release: 1960

Director: Georges Franju

Length: 90 mins (uncut version)

Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel

Eyes without a face

Eyes Without a Face can legitimately lay claim to being one of the first gore films ever produced. In theory, at least. During production, a lot of effort was made to satisfy the strict standards of the various European censorship committees yet despite all the restraints, it still caused quite a stir in both the snotty establishment and the cinema-going public. Initial critical reaction to such an avant garde, experimental work was mixed, to say the least. Some praised the film’s bravery and innovation, while others were simply too disgusted by some particularly grisly scenes, along with the core subject matter, to delve any further and walked off in a huff.

However, as the years passed, the film gained more and more plaudits, and these days is often cited by modern filmmakers as one of the most significant movies ever made. Its influence doesn’t stop there. In 1983, almost a quarter of a century after the film was made, English punk singer Billy Idol recorded the song Eyes Without a Face in homage to the cinematic classic. When released as a single the following year, it proved to be one of his biggest ever hits. By the way, you’ll need subtitles for this one, unless you can speak fluent French.

You know you aren’t dealing with your average piece of European cinema the moment the manic funfair music kicks in over the opening credits. Nothing slow and brooding here, which is completely at odds with the slightly disturbing visuals where we see a woman driving a dead body around in a car then dumping it in a river. Even though the corpse is disguised in a raincoat and hat, you get the sense something isn’t quite right about it. Apart from it being a corpse, obviously. And so it proves when the body apparently turns out to be the recently disappeared daughter of the renowned Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), whose face had been hideously disfigured in a car crash. So severe were her injuries that only her eyes were left intact, hence the film’s title. The doctor identifies the body and has it interred in the family crypt with that of his wife, who’d died four years previously. So far, so creepy.

The ick factor increases when the doctor and his assistant Louise (the woman who had disposed of the body) return home where the real daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), is hidden. The body in the river was that of a test subject who had died after the doctor surgically removed her face in an effort to graft it onto his daughter. Problem is, her flesh keeps rejecting the new tissue, causing her shiny new features to literally rot away. Doctor Genessier promises he will eventually succeed, and until then urges his daughter to wear a mask. A precaution necessary because although all the mirrors have been removed from the house, Christiane still catches sight of her ruined face in shiny reflective surfaces from time to time and it never fails to freak her out.

True to his word, Doctor Genessier does indeed keep trying to restore his daughter’s face. He and Louise, who feels indebted to him for fixing her own face (one can only assume there were a lot of face accidents in post-World War II France) lure a young Swiss woman called Edna (Juliette Mayniel) to their lair, chloroform the shit out of her, then set about carving her face off and grafting it onto Christiane. This is the part that riled the censors so much, and for a film almost sixty years old, it’s pretty graphic stuff. Edna later escapes and when she discovers what they’ve done to her, throws herself out of a window, leaving the doctor and his assistant with another unsavoury mess to clean up. Meanwhile, an understandably traumatized Christiane keeps calling her fiancé, who thinks she’s dead, and a friend of Edna’s reports her disappearance to the police who see a pattern emerging. Soon, the net begins to close and as matters come to a head (or a face?) it becomes clear that Doctor Genessier isn’t the only one who can come up with dastardly plots.

Based on the novel of the same name by Jean Redon This was director Georges Franju’s (1912 – 87) first legitimate feature film. Until then he had primarily been a documentary film maker, the Nazi occupation of Paris and Industrialization featuring heavily in his subject matter. Perhaps his most controversial work was Blood of the Beasts, an unflinching look inside a French slaughterhouse. Eyes Without a Face works on many levels. Scratch beneath the surface (sic) and far from being a simple horror flick, you’ll find it rife with symbolism, offering a systematic study on the effects of guilt, remorse, unconditional love, isolation, and the misguided importance society places on superficial beauty. Unique, divisive, harrowing, and utterly brilliant.

Trivia Corner:

During its screening at the 1960 Edinburgh Film Festival, seven audience members reportedly fainted prompting director Franju to remark, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.”

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RetView #9 – The Evil Dead

Title: The Evil Dead

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Sam Raimi

Length: 85 mins

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich

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I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was in my early teens, and my folks had one on holiday leaving me home alone. I scared myself so much that I stayed awake the entire night with every light in the house switched on. Apart from an early encounter with An American Werewolf in London, that was my first experience of being absolutely shit scared by a film. During subsequent viewings, I learned to appreciate the crude humour as well as other aspects like the kick-ass script and innovative cinematography. But that first time, it was all about pure, unadulterated fear. I was absolutely terrified, and traumatised for weeks afterwards. It was brilliant. If I had to pin down the single most frightening aspect of the whole movie, it would be the trapdoor leading to the cellar. It still gives me chills thinking about it now. I’d love to live off the grid in a secluded log cabin in the woods. But if it has a trap door leading to the cellar, you can fucking keep it.

Wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a little. If you haven’t seen Evil Dead (why?), it goes something like this…

Five college students go on vacation to a secluded log cabin in the woods which, as I mentioned, has a trapdoor leading to the cellar. You could probably attach any kind of metaphor to this. It could represent hell (the underworld), our subconscious mind, or any number of other things. But for the sake of argument, let’s just call it what it is. Obviously, the college students go exploring, and find some audio tapes made by a researcher who talks about something called the Book of the Dead, a book of spells and incantations bound in human flesh and written in human blood. The tapes summon demonic entities which, one by one, possess the students. The next thing you know, people are speaking in tongues and getting raped by trees left right and centre. The scene where Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) initially falls under the influence, levitates, and stabs her friend through the ankle with a pencil before being locked in the cellar is utterly horrifying. She keeps pushing her hands through the gap in the trapdoor and making gurgling noises. Ew. As you can probably imagine, things deteriorate drastically from that point on and pretty soon Ash (Bruce Campbell) is locked in a nightmarish battle for survival. Things don’t improve much when he realises the only defence against his possessed ex-friends is dismemberment with a chainsaw. Needless to say, it gets messy. Real messy.

The only thing letting the side down is the quality of the special effects, which though innovative for the time, sometimes come across as cheap and tacky. But you have to remember The Evil Dead was made almost forty years ago and cost around $350,000. Finances were such an issue that the crew consisted almost entirely of Raimi and Campbell’s family and friends. Largely as a result of an appearance at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (where it was seen, and later emphatically endorsed by one Stephen King) the movie did manage to generate around $2.6 m, small potatoes in comparison with the $212 m raked in by that year’s biggest hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Germany, it was released in theatres and on video at the same time, and dominated the charts only to be banned shortly after. A heavily-censored version was released in the nineties but the ban on the original wasn’t lifted until 2016. This version is still preferable to the 2013 big-budget re-boot, largely because of the unpolished, rough and ready approach. It’s no surprise, either, that none of the original cast with the exception of Campbell went on to have much of an impact on Hollywood.

Trivia Corner:

At the end of filming, the crew put together a time capsule and left it inside the cabin’s fireplace. The cabin was later destroyed (Sam Raimi has claimed to have set it on fire himself, but he might have been joking) but the time capsule was discovered by a couple of Evil Dead fans. Hooray!

 


RetView #8 – Demons

Title: Demons (aka Demoni)

Year of Release: 1985

Director: Lamberto Bava

Length: 88 mins

Starring: Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey

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This film is 1985 to the bone. You can tell the moment the awful tinkly synth pop soundtrack kicks in over the opening credits. You don’t even need the long, lingering shots of shoulder padded, pink-haired punks riding the Berlin subway but you get that anyway, just in case you were in any doubt. Cheryl, a pretty college student (Hovey), disembarks the train, and is pursued down the platform by a mysterious masked man. Not really what you want. But when Strange Dude catches up with her, instead of assaulting her he gives her free tickets to a film showing that evening at a local cinema. Crisis avoided. You would think. Cheryl then meets her friend Cathy, persuades her to cut class, and off they go to the cinema together. Little do they know they are setting themselves up for a whole lot of freakish, bloodthirsty fun and games.

In one of those cool film-within-a-film sequences, the film they are watching is revealed to be a gross-out horror about a group of teens who go in search of the tomb of Nostradamus and end up turning into demons and butchering each other. As we find out the teenagers fate, the cinema is revealed to contain a cast of colourful characters including two guys who hit on Cheryl and her friend (one of them being George, played by Barberini, who turns out to be the star of the show), an elderly couple, a blind man, and a pimp with some prostitutes. One of the prostitutes tries on a mask in the cinema lobby and scratches her face, mirroring what happens in the movie they are all watching. A short while later she breaks into full-on demon mode and bursts through the cinema screen sparking a stampede for the exit as the cinema-goers begin to realise that somewhere along the way, the movie has morphed into reality.

*shudder*

To make matters worse, when they try to flee the cinema they find the exits blocked, meaning that the punters are all trapped inside with the demon, which goes around ripping off faces, slashing throats, and infecting them with the demon-virus.

That would perhaps explain why the tickets were free.

Those infected with the demon-virus also turn into bloodthirsty thugs, and pretty soon George and Cheryl find themselves locked in a mortal battle for survival as all hell breaks loose around them. A perfect first date this isn’t. As the demons run amok, the face melting, scalping, and flesh-chewing is relentless, subsiding only long enough to cut to a bunch of muscle-vested Latino punks at irregular intervals who are driving around Berlin off their tits on coke (which they hilariously snort out of a Coke can) and listening to Go West. Really. At one point they drop their stash and then have to painstakingly pick it all up again. Luckily enough, some of it falls over the girl of the gang’s exposed breasts. She even gets some inside her knickers, apparently. Bizarre. Predictably enough, the horny, drug-addled punks eventually come to a suitably sticky end. Keep your eye open for the reappearance of the masked man from the subway station, tying things up nicely. But the final shock is kept for the last few frames. I bet you didn’t see that one coming. And that’s AFTER a massive helicopter crashes through the roof.

Overlooking the Go West abomination, elsewhere Demons benefits from a thumping metal-oriented soundtrack featuring choice cuts from Motley Crue, Saxon, Billy Idol and Accept. It is a rare English/Italian production, spawned no less than seven sequels (though few have any relation to the original, sharing the same name only as a tediously transparent marketing strategy) and is widely regarded as horror writer/producer extraordinaire Dario Argento’s tour de force. However, 30-plus years on, the sad truth is it hasn’t aged very well. The writing still holds up, just, and the cinematography should be applauded. There are also some inventive and gore-tastic kills, as you would expect from one of the masters of horror. Let’s not forget this is the guy who will always be remembered for THAT scene in Zombi 2 where he has a woman’s eyeball slowly impaled on a thick wooden splinter. Ouch. But by the mid-way point of Demons the camp, OTT acting gets a bit tiresome and it is further let down by some truly awful special effects. Given that the budget was a measly $1.8 million (compared to the $28 million shelled out on Rocky IV, which came out the same year) that’s understandable I guess. It would be interesting to see what a large American studio with some hefty backing would be able to do with this. If any movie deserves a remake, it’s Demons.

Trivia Corner:

Between leaving his job at a newspaper and making his name in the horror biz, Argento worked with Sergio Leone as a scriptwriter on the classic spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West (1969).


RetView #7 – Severance

Title: Severance

Year of Release: 2006

Director: Christopher Smith

Length: 95 mins

Starring: Danny Dyer, Laura Harris, Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens

To non-British readers this might be one of the more obscure entries in the ongoing RetView series, but its inclusion is entirely justified. Severance mixes humour, bravado, and some of the most brutal body horror this side of the Saw franchise to great effect, making it one of the stand-out Brit Horror films of the past two decades. It’s actually a British/German/Hungarian collaboration, but is quintessentially mainly due to the casting. Danny Dyer, perhaps best known for roles in Human Traffic, the Football Factory, The Business and, er, Eastenders, is a bit like Marmite. You either love him or hate him. Me, I think he’s a fackin’ legend. By his own admission, he’s banged out more than a few stinkers in his time. But as he says, he has to get paid somehow. He isn’t perfect, and has suffered from typecasting in the past, but he’s a criminally underrated actor. Severance, while probably being the best of his horror films, isn’t the only one. He also starred in Devil’s Playground, Basement, Dead Cert and Doghouse, none of which were quite as well received as this often-overlooked little gem.

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The plot revolves around a group of office staff from a weapon manufacturing company who are sent to Hungary on a team building exercise. As you would find in any office, there is an eclectic and varied cast of characters, all living up to certain long-held stereotypes. True to form, Danny Dyer plays everyman Steve, in a kind of reprisal of his role in Human Traffic (1999) who sees the weekend getaway as the perfect opportunity to get off his tits. He’s munching magic mushrooms and puffing on a spliff in the coach toilet before they even arrive (“Have I pissed meself?”). A spanner is thrown into the works when they find their route blocked and their driver fucks off with the bus, leaving the team meandering through a remote bear-infested forest. When they finally find the lodge they are supposed to be staying at, which offers very little in the way of home comforts, they discover it may or may not have been a lunatic asylum for war criminals and the ‘welcome pie’ has a human tooth in it. Then follows a wince-inducing scene with Gordon (Andy Nyman) and a bear trap, which is made all the more harrowing by the use of an actual amputee as a stunt double, and just when they think things can’t get any worse, the hapless office team start falling one-by-one to a progressively brutal spate of vicious attacks. But who is doing the attacking? And why? Surely those stories can’t be true…

If it hadn’t been for the presence of Dyer who positively excels, Tim McInnerny (perhaps best loved for his roles in Blackadder) would have stolen the show as insufferable jobsworth manager Richard. Shades of David Brent in The Office here (“I can’t spell ‘success’ without ‘u’). In fact, Severance is a kind of mash-up between that and Hostel. The humour is as black as you can imagine, and the gore comes by the bucket load. The ingenious tagline ‘Another bloody office outing’ sums things up pretty well. Suffice to say, not many of the office workers show up for work the following Monday.

Written and directed by Christopher Smith (Creep, Triangle, Black Death) and filmed largely on location in Hungary, Severance was met with generally favourable reviews across the board. Except high-brow whingers the Guardian where Peter Bradshaw gave it only two stars, bemoaning “the basic implausibility of the setup, (and) that weird, niggling wrongness for which there are not enough compensatory laugh-lines.” Ho-hum. This treatment could be partly attributed to the divisive nature of Dyer himself who has never been the broadsheet’s favourite son. The fact that we never find out what the killer’s motivations were also became a point of contention. Never-the-less, in 2012 Total Film named Severance the 36th best independent horror film of all time, and stands as one of the best British comedy survival horror films you are ever likely to see.

Trivia Corner:

Media interest in Severance was revived in 2008 when one of the kill scenes was (allegedly) recreated in the real-life murder of 17-year old student Simon Everitt, who was tied to a tree and forced to drink petrol before being set on fire. Lovely.

 


RetView #6 – Dog Soldiers

Title: Dog Soldiers

Year of Release: 2002

Director: Neil Marshall

Length: 105 mins

Starring: Sean Pertwee, Emma Cleasby, Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham

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“It puts things into perspective when you have to scoop your mate up with a shovel and put him in a bag.”

So says Sgt Wells (Pertwee). There haven’t been many British horror films over the past decade or three more worthy of praise than Dog Soldiers. From the opening scenes, when a couple camping in the Scottish Highlands are ripped apart by a ferocious beast, you’re left in little doubt that this is a werewolf flick. The signs are definitely there, not least the inclusion of a solid silver knife, which the couple don’t use to defend themselves. Doh. Cut to a few weeks later, and a group black-clad SAS fellas as part of a training exercise. Whilst sitting around a fire telling war stories and complaining about missing the football, a mashed-up animal carcass somehow gets chucked at them. I think it’s a deer, but it’s pretty hard to tell. While investigating this strange occurrence, they stumble across their SAS adversaries. Except they’re all dead, the only survivor being a severely traumatised Captain Ryan (Cunningham) who is full of gory tales of his company being attacked and torn apart. Luckily, they left their guns and ammo, which our boys gleefully commandeer as they were only given blanks. I sense a plot hole here. I mean, if it really was a training exercise, how come one side was given live rounds? Anyway, moving on, it soon becomes apparent that what they are up against isn’t human. At least, not all the time.

Soon after they come under attack and Sgt Wells almost gets ripped in half. (“My guts are coming out!”). He doesn’t die, though. In fact, being mortally wounded just seems to piss him off. He keeps soldiering on and swearing at everyone. A passing zoologist called Megan (Emma Cleasby) saves the day when she drives up in a Land Rover and offers them a lift. Yes, please! She takes them to an isolated farmhouse, where they hope to regroup and radio for help. Obviously, things don’t quite work out that way, and a bloody battle to the death between soldiers and werewolves ensues. Can they survive until dawn? Will it make any difference if they do? Why is the SAS bloke acting so sketchy? And perhaps most importantly, who won the footy match they were all so concerned about?

The answer to that last question is England, as the match they are referring to is believed to be the World Cup qualifier on September 1st 2001 in Munich when they thrashed Germany 5-1. The best scene is when Sam the sheepdog keeps trying to eat Sgt Wells’ guts as they spill out of his body, one of the other guys sees it, and throws up on Captain Ryan’s head. Soon after, they perform some much-needed first aid on him with the help of a bottle of whisky and some superglue.

“How’re you feeling, Sarge?”

“Absolutely fucking top bollocks!”

Despite his woes, Sgt Wells makes a splendid recovery and outlives most of the others. Must have been the whisky. Or the fact that he’s slowly turning. The cast is like a who’s who of English acting talent as we see a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Kevin McKidd teamed up with a pre-Game of Thrones Liam Cunningham and a post-ID Sean Pertwee whose character is named Sgt Harry G Wells, a clear nod to the sci-fi writer HG Wells. Throughout the film there are also references to Zulu, the Matrix, An American Werewolf in London, and Evil Dead among others, making it an anorak’s dream. Even 90’s lad show They Think It’s All Over gets a tongue-in-cheek mention. The director, Neil Marshall, went on to be involved with The Descent franchise, Doomsday, Centurion, as well as episodes of Westworld, Hannibal and Game of Thrones. If you like your horror bloody, funny, and gore-tastic, you can do a lot worse than Dog Soldiers. You’re probably never going to see another northern bloke holding a flare aloft and singing, “Come and ‘ave a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough!” to a group of rampaging lycanthropes ever again. That man, incidentally, was played by Chris Robson, and he’s a French teacher in the north of England now. Famed for it’s (very) black comedy elements, upon its release, Dog Soldiers achieved cult status in the UK, but I have no idea how it was received in the rest of the world. A much-anticipated sequel Dog Soldiers 2: Fresh Meat was supposed to have been released in 2014 but wasn’t forthcoming. More’s the pity. The world needs more movies like this.

Trivia Box:

Although set in the Scottish Highlands, apart from a few aerial shots the movie was filmed almost entirely in Luxembourg.

This is the latest installment of my RetView series. For past entries, please go here.


RetView #5 – The Night Stalker

Title: The Night Stalker

Year of Release: 1972

Director: John Llewellyn Moxey

Length: 74 mins

Starring: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Carol Lynley

Note: This article concerns the original 1972 TV movie, not the unrelated 2016 release of the same name, or the 2002 movie Nightstalker, both of which focus on the activities of serial killer Richard Ramirez.

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It’s probably fair to say that despite coming out before I was born, this made-for-TV movie, and the popular series that followed it, had more of an effect on me personally and professionally than anything else committed to celluloid. I didn’t even realise how much until relatively recently. How? Because the film married my twin obsessions with writing and the paranormal, ensuring that to my young and impressionable mind, that the two things would forever be entwined.

Shortly after I first saw it as a kid, I remember telling my parents I wanted be a journalist when I grew up. They facilitated this childhood ambition by going out and buying me a ‘reporters kit’ comprising of a notebook and pen and a magnifying glass. Obviously, I immediately went out looking for monsters, ghosts, and other supernatural entities, hoping to look at them in fine detail through the magnifying glass and write about them in the notebook, because I wanted to be just like Carl Kolchak.

Damn it, I still do.

For the uninitiated, Carl Kolchak (brilliantly portrayed by the sadly departed Darren McGavin) is a jaded Las Vegas newspaper hack under unrelenting pressure from his shouty editor Vincenzo (Oakland) to turn over a constant stream of newsworthy articles. Luckily for him, though less-so for the victims, he uncovers a spate of gruesome murders and a wide-ranging cover-up. The general feeling is that Kolchak is particularly anxious to solve this particular case out of concern for his dancer girlfriend Gail (Lynley). An investigation reveals that the murders go back centuries, and the victims invariably suffer extreme blood loss. There is a suspect by the name of Janos Skorzeny who Kolchak believes is an ageless vampire, but can he convince the authorities and his difficult editor?

Ultimately, he doesn’t need to convince anyone because during a late-night showdown Kolchak manages to destroy the suspected vampire, thereby saving the city. But his actions come at a terrible cost. He is told to leave Las Vegas immediately or face a trumped-up murder charge, and is given the devastating news that Gail has already left. The lovelorn reporter then blows his savings placing ads in the personal sections of newspapers up and down the country in an attempt to find her. He never does, and the movie ends as it begins, with Kolchak lying on a bed in a sleazy hotel room listening to a playback of his account of the crimes which he has narrated into a Dictaphone. I guess matters of the heart were a lot harder to resolve before Facebook and What’s App.

The story ark was continued in a sequel, The Night Strangler (1973), where Kolchak finds himself in Seattle and is hired once again by Vincenzo to report on another series of bizarre murders. The second movie immediately preceded the 20-episode TV series, which became a fore-runner for such shows as the X Files, Supernatural, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There was also a short-lived, and frankly pretty terrible remake which lasted for ten episodes in 2005.

When it first aired on ABC over 45 years ago, The Night Stalker set the viewing record for TV movies, winning a 33.2 rating (the percentage of all TV homes). I might be wrong, but I don’t think that figure has ever been surpassed, and in the age of Netflix and streaming, it’s unlikely to ever happen. The screenplay for The Night Stalker was written by sci-fi legend Richard Matheson (the man behind I am Legend, the Incredible Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes and many more), and adapted from an as-then unpublished novel called the Kolchak Papers by Jeff Rice. Matheson and Rice collaborated on the sequel The Night Strangler but Rice, who often felt marginalized, then faded into obscurity, dying in 2015 at the age of 71.

Trivia Corner:

Producer Chris Carter is such a fan of Kolchak that he cast Darren McGavin in the X Files. The original plan was to have him play Kolchak thirty years on, but McGavin elected not to and the role was re-written to make him Arthur Dale, ‘Father of the X Files.’

 


RetView #4 – Phantoms

Title: Phantoms

Year of Release: 1998

Director: Joe Chappelle

Length: 91 mins

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Rose McGowan, Ben Affleck, Liev Schreiber

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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.

Trivia Corner:

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.


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