Fright Fest 2019: Phantoms (1998)
Directed By: Joanna Going (Kingdom, Keys to Tulsa), Rose McGowan (Scream, Planet Terror), Ben Affleck (The Accountant, Gone Girl), Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Nicky Katt (Suburbia, Dazed and Confused), and Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion in Winter)
Starring: Joe Chappelle (Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula)
Written By: Dean R. Koontz (Odd Thomas, Watchers)
Release Year: 1998
Review By: Andy Taylor
I’ve never been good at letting certain inaccuracies go when it comes to cinema. I say certain because it seems to be entirely arbitrary whether an inaccuracy is going to bother me or if I’ll be able to let it go. I couldn’t care less how comic book accurate the costumes were in any superhero movie despite being into comic books since I was a child, but when the elephants don’t end up trampling the town at the end of the Disney movie The Jungle Book, a movie made for children, I’m bothered. The thousand and one scientific inaccuracies of any Star Trek show don’t pose any problem for me, but when the Klingons say “Qapla”, which easily translates to victory, and the universal translator doesn’t do the job it does for nearly every other Klingon word, I’m bothered. I’ve watched Braveheart multiple times with no problems whatsoever despite it being as historically accurate as Marvel 1602, but when American Horror Story started with the whole Roanoke thing, I seethed inside.
Why am I bringing up such a ridiculous problem? Because sometimes, it’s best to just let all that stuff go lest it kill your enjoyment of a fun movie like Phantoms, and while this film’s inaccuracies didn’t ruin the whole thing for me, they still bothered me more than they probably should have. I’m giving you a little bit of a warning that, yes, there is going to be some complaints about stuff that totally doesn’t matter, but I promise to keep it brief. Now, on with the review.
Snowfield, Colorado is the kind of place you see on greeting cards, a beautiful mountain town with a population not even reaching 500 people. That’s why Snowfield town doctor Jennifer Pailey wants her sister Lisa to leave Los Angeles and come live with her, but upon the pair’s return to Snowfield, it’s apparent that something is wrong. Snowfield has become a town without people. Cars are running, dinners are cooking, and shops look open for business, everything one would expect from a populated town is on display, but the population itself is missing, or most of them at least. As the sisters investigate the strange disappearances, an occasional body, or piece of one, appears in their path as if put there for them to find. By the time dusk begins to settle over the town, the pair are no closer to answers and the strange events have only worsened, so when three cops from the town over, Sheriff Bryce Howard and Deputies Stu Wargle and Steve Shanning, show up, the sisters are all too happy to see them. Instead of being able to leave town together like Jennifer and Lisa had hoped, a series of increasingly extraordinary events plague the group and force the cops to investigate.
Body parts and metallic objects materialize out of nowhere, garbled phone calls are only understandable when the caller starts screaming, and impossible messages are found where none should be. The small group aren’t sure if they’re dealing with a natural phenomenon or something straight from hell, but one man may have the answers they’re seeking, an author by the name of Timothy Flyte. Mr. Flyte has been writing about something he calls the “Ancient Enemy”, but what he doesn’t realize is that his ancient enemy knows all about him, and if Flyte can’t solve the mystery enveloping the town, Snowfield won’t be the last to suffer.
I need to get one thing out of the way before I continue to the review proper, I have no idea how Phantoms the movie compares to Phantoms the book. Despite having seen this film around a dozen times, I didn’t know there was a book until I was looking up some info for the review. Sure, it says it in the opening credits, which I caught this time, but if I’m not reviewing a movie and the very beginning is just credits interspersed with occasional snippets of conversation, I usually fast forward. I have the attention span of that lovable dog from Up, and if it’s not interesting, I’m not watching. Occasionally, that attitude comes back to haunt me, and this is one of those times because I would have liked to read the book before sitting down to write this. Not just because it would have given me the ability to compare the two, but from what I read online, the book goes into some details that got completely cut from the film, details like if a certain enemy of the ancients is Lovecraft alumni Nyarlathotep.
There’s a few things in the movie that had me wondering like A.E.’s many-tentacled design, it being called chaos incarnate and Nyarlathotep being called the Crawling Chaos, and some disturbing drawings found in a victim’s room, but it feels like I could be stretching. I also wondered if a character that was killed off and named Copperfield was named Copperfield because he disappears when he dies, so not all my wonderings mean much. Book version A.E. is hinted at being the Lovecraftian nightmare that is Nyarlathotep according to Wikipedia, but movie version doesn’t seem cut from the same cloth. I think it’s possible to conclude that A.E. and Lovecraft’s invention are one and the same without it changing anything in the movie, but for me, it just didn’t seem like that’s what the filmmakers had in mind. That doesn’t mean I didn’t still love Phantoms though, and one of the things I loved most was how quickly everything begins.
Within the first few minutes, Jennifer and Lisa have not only noticed that the town is abandoned, they’ve come across a corpse. Minus the film’s opening credits, there’s no unnecessary monologuing about Jennifer and Lisa’s lives or introductions to all the characters, it just goes straight into the action. For nearly fifteen minutes, the sisters wander around town noticing how strange and horrifying Snowfield has become, and it’s a damn good fifteen minutes that would have been ruined by a bunch of unnecessary setup. While I wouldn’t call the beginning the most tense I’ve ever been watching a movie, or even close to it really, there were definitely feelings of paranoia and unease as the pair searched, and at times, I felt nearly as alone as them. Those feelings didn’t end as soon as our three cops come on the scene either because things continued to progress through degrees of severity, getting worse every time the Ancient Enemy decided to mess with the group. While finding body parts was bad enough, it’s creepier when they start finding randomly appearing piles of metallic objects that seem like undigested refuse, phone calls at first consisting of strange noises become people screaming in terror, and the already disquieting silence is made worse by the occasional intrusion of ghostly voices floating from nowhere.
It makes for some amazing buildup as you find yourself wondering what’s going on in the town of Snowfield. Is it some type of sentient disease devastating the town? Is a monster making short work of the tasty humans it encounters? Or is something even stranger happening, something beyond what we can imagine? I loved it, even knowing what was going on, I still found myself feeling tense and uncomfortable during much of the team’s investigations. Phantoms has such a creepy, uncomfortable, and paranoid vibe, I’d almost call it a second-rate Thing, and when you’re talking about something as amazing as The Thing, even second rate is still great. The only thing I wish they had cut back on were the easily predictable jump scares. They did the movie no justice and worked against the paranoia the film was going for because they took you out of an apprehensive mind set with a groan, and it took a while to settle back in.
If I’m going to drop a Thing comparison like that, then there’s one thing Phantoms better do fantastically, and that’s the FX work. Thankfully, Phantoms does a great job, mostly, but where they really shine is in the dead body work. Corpses are covered in sickly, purple veins running throughout light purple skin, the eyes are opaque but with just enough color to make out what they used to look like, and best of all, there’s no crazy gore with these bodies. While I love gore as much as the next horror fan, there are times it’s not needed and works against the fear factor by turning corpses into horror movie props instead of realistic looking dead bodies. That’s not the case for Phantoms. They don’t try so hard to make the bodies gross and gory that it takes away from the creepy feeling of seeing a somewhat realistic looking dead body, and I only say somewhat because of the added work of making the veins pop more to showcase how they died. Even when they had the opportunity to go over the top with the gore after a man had his face eaten off, they kept it rooted in a more realistic looking approach. It looks ghastly for sure, but it still looks like a head with most of the facial tissue removed instead of a gory prop.
They also kept the CGI to a bare minimum which was a smart decision because while the CGI isn’t the worst you’ll see, it’s far from the best. Personally, I wish they’d used none because the practical effects are so well done, but I understand there were things they wanted to do that may not have worked otherwise, like the dog. The dog cemented my mental comparison to The Thing because it was very reminiscent of what happened to those poor huskies, and it looks fantastic. It was a mix of practical effects and CGI work, but the end result was amazing.
Also amazing were the cast with Liev Schreiber being among the most memorable. Joanna Going and Rose McGowan play Jennifer and Lisa Pailey, and while I loved Going’s performance, McGowan’s character ended up being my least favorite through no fault of McGowan’s. While Jennifer has the occasional breakdown, she’s portrayed as a smart and capable character in her own right, but Lisa is pretty much all breakdown. When she isn’t sneering at everyone for existing, she’s being a hindrance to the rest of the people trying to survive. Ben Affleck is Sheriff Bryce Hammond, and he plays it like Ben Affleck. I don’t want to sound like an Affleck hater because he definitely has an acting range he can play, but if he isn’t being challenged, he’s pretty much just Ben Affleck doing Ben Affleck. That’s not a dig, the character type works fine for Hammond, though the tragic backstory they added in never felt like it meant anything.
Nicky Katt, who will always be the alcoholic from Suburbia to me, plays one of Hammond’s deputies, and I wish he’d had a slightly larger part because his character was so tense that it added to the tension I already felt. Peter O’Toole, yes you read that right, T.E. Lawrence himself is in this, was a fantastic addition as fringe author Dr. Timothy Flyte. Flyte is invited to the town by the thing terrorizing it, and is annoyed, frightened, and ecstatic to be there. He goes back and forth between these feelings with precision and it added a little lighthearted comedy to the otherwise humorless film. Lastly, we have Liev Schreiber as Deputy Stu Wargle. He’s disgusting, awkward, disturbing, and absolutely full of himself, making him the perfect addition to a horror film. All in all, they did a wonderful job with the cast they found.
Okay, so you know the drill. I talked about the good, now it’s time to go into the bad. I think the biggest problems for most people are going to be the predictable jump scares and Lisa’s character, but those weren’t the biggest problems for me, and warning, there be SPOILERS ahead. I had two big problems, one of which had me wanting to chuck the control at my tv, how the thing gained sentience and Flyte’s monologue about disappearing cultures. Yep, the beginning warning is coming to pass. To explain why the method of sentience bothered me, I need to briefly explain what it is.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON END…
Basically, what’s eating the town is an oil monster that thinks it’s Satan. Oil monster is very simplified, but essentially correct. It comes out every once in a great while to feed and then goes back to sleep, but this time it happened to eat someone who thought it was Satan and now thinks it’s Satan. I have no problem with it suddenly thinking it’s Satan, what I have a problem with is it gaining the idea only now. Earlier in the film, Flyte references several “historical” disappearances that Oil Satan is responsible for, so why didn’t it think it was Satan earlier? It supposedly ate the Roanoke colonists, one of them assuredly thought it was Satan, and going back further, it ate most of the Mayans. I’m sure one of them thought it was Cizin, one of the Mayan gods of death, or any number of other Mayan deities, so why didn’t it think it was Cizin? Why did it wait until 1998 to suddenly gain the idea? It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Problem two is probably my problem alone, but I had to shut the movie off and walk away for a minute lest the veins in my head explode, and yes, I do it every time I watch this movie because I’m ridiculous like that. This problem deals with the historical disappearances, and it’s what I was talking about in the opening paragraph. I understand it’s just a movie, and I’m reading way too much into it, especially when some of them are myths that stick around in popular culture even today, but I’m sure they could have just made up some if they were going to go that route. There are three main instances stated, the Mayan collapse, Roanoke, and the Nanking Soldiers in 1939, and all are stated to be the result of the Ancient Enemy. I won’t bore you with a paper on exactly what happened in those three cases (or didn’t happen at all in the Nanking Soldiers’ case), especially since I already did that and this review jumped to over nine thousand words before I deleted it all, but suffice it to say, none of those are complete mysteries.
The Mayans didn’t suddenly disappear (which would be really weird considering there are still people of Mayan descent alive today), Roanoke is a relatively recent mystery since most people already knew what happened (hint, it’s in that whole Croatoan thing and some letters discussing very European looking Native Americans), and the Nanking one most likely never happened. Roanoke especially is a huge pet peeve of mine (you can only image how much seething went on during the one season of American Horror Story), so it bothers me every time it comes up, but admittedly, this is probably mainly just me. Still, I include it for that one other person out there that these would bother (let’s do lunch sometimes hypothetical person so we can sneer at the plebs understanding of history together while everyone has much, much better times than us).
All in all, I really like Phantoms. Yes, there are some problems that pop up here and there, especially if you’re a pedantic jerk that overthinks everything, but it’s otherwise an enjoyable and fun movie that features a good story, a great cast, and amazing makeup work.
Andrew Willis Taylor lives in St. Louis, MO with his wonderful girlfriend who doesn’t mind his lengthy diatribes on why Benjamin Sisko was the greatest captain. When he isn’t writing or turning old junk into usable household items, you’ll find him exploring new areas, volunteering downtown, or plopped in front of a television watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. He also has a weird aversion to writing short bios that leaves him unable to figure out what to put down. I think he likes puppies or something too.
“From renowned master of lovecraft-style horror Brian Lumley, comes Necroscope II: Vamphyri!, the second book in the Necroscope® series…”