There aren’t many authors whose names are big enough to go before the title of a film. John Grisham, Tom Clancey, and Stephen King are among the few. So is Dean Koontz, whose horror books sell in the zillions. But I have yet to see a really great Dean Koontz horror movie, and “Phantoms” is no exception. Like so much of Koontz’s screen work, the story starts out with a fascinating premise and then dissolves into a routine monster flick.
Still, there are some good frights along the way and some especially chilling atmospheric effects, mostly in the first half. Indeed, the initial forty-five minutes of the film are well above average for the genre. It’s the last fifty minutes that seemed to have sapped the creativity of screenwriter Koontz, from his own novel, and director Joe Chappelle.
As the picture opens, sisters Jenny and Lisa Pailey (Joanna Going and Rose McGowan) arrive in the small mountain town where Jenny lives. Jenny thinks a vacation in the country will do her more ungoverned younger sister some good. As they drive through the streets on their way to Jenny’s house, they notice the town is unusually silent and uninhabited. When they get to the house, they find the housekeeper dead. In fact, everyone in the town appears to have been murdered in some grisly way or another. It’s actually pretty scary stuff. Then Sheriff Bryce Hammond (Ben Affleck) shows up with two deputies, one of whom, Deputy Stu Wargle, is played by the ever twitchy Liev Schrieber (you remember him from the “Scream” films).
The policemen are skeptical about what’s happening at first, but when one of the deputies is murdered before their eyes, they get the picture. They soon find out that nothing in the town any longer works, no phones, not even automobiles will operate, so they are more or less stranded. So far, so good, but then things go downhill, plot-wise.
Somehow, the FBI get on the case and send out a team of experts, including a reluctant tabloid writer, Dr. Timothy Flyte (Peter O’Toole), to investigate. O’Toole, we are told, is the only person on the planet who understands that what they are dealing with here is some kind of demon, the “Ancient Enemy” he calls it, maybe the devil. Only it isn’t the devil. It’s only a monster in the sewer. Seldom has an actor of O’Toole’s caliber been called upon to do so little since E. Murray Abraham’s throwaway role in “Mimic.” Well, at least O’Toole gets to save the day. And, incidentally, O’Toole hasn’t looked this good physically in years. He has been so gaunt of late he was beginning to look like a phantom himself. Bo Hopkins has a thirty-second cameo as an FBI agent. That’s a kick.
The film’s production values are excellent. The acting is fine, the special effects are good, and the pace is smart. The story just doesn’t go very far. Stephen King once wrote that he often got his inspiration by asking himself “What if?” Like what if you were shopping in your local supermarket and all of a sudden a giant pterodactyl flew down the aisle? The art, of course, is making this “what if” a reality that people will believe in, creating a situation and a world that will cause people to suspend their disbelief, if only for a few minutes, and go with the idea, no matter how far-fetched. Koontz just can’t make “Phantoms” sustain that “what if.”
Buena Vista serve up a DVD image that is clean and clear, if not always so colorfully vibrant as it could be. Since most of the film’s action takes place at night or indoors, however, it serves the mood well enough.
The sound is equally good, with superior separation in the five channels for those viewers with Dolby Digital audio capability. Dynamic range and deepest bass are a little restricted, but, otherwise, the sound is probably the best part of the proceedings.
Again BV give us little in the way of extras, though. The film is in 1.85:1 widescreen, which is appropriate, but there are basically no bonus items. With a film as good as, say, their DVD of “Scream 2,” one doesn’t miss the bonus materials so much. But with a fairly average film like “Phantoms,” a few extras might have made the disc more enticing.
“Phantoms” could have been a lot better than it is, but don’t get me wrong: It’s not a really dreadful, middle-of-the-night, straight-to-cable, grade Z stinker. The dedicated horror movie fan will find much to enjoy in its setting and tone. One can plainly see that thought and effort went into the project. But I wish as much thought and effort had gone into its resolution and climax as went into its opening half build up.