first things first. Let's start this review with a statement that
will allow you to either read the rest of this review or click
elsewhere in disgust:
have been way too hard on this movie.
those of you that are still with me: I've read a fair number of
Dean Koontz novels. "Fair number" in this case means
that, like Stephen King, I read his work until I got sick of him.
Both men share a similar approach to characterization and plot
that eventually leads to a feeling, however unfounded, that what
you're reading is a retread of earlier works in the author's pantheon.
Both men are good, prolific writers, and I may yet find a time
that I pick up another of their novels and genuinely enjoy reading
my first Koontz novel was Phantoms, which I found at a
used paperback store, and proceeded to devour in one night. That
is a good, satisfying feeling, finding a novel that you do not
want to put down, that makes things like eating and sleeping seem
petty annoyances. I don't remember many of those coming along
- The Stand (not read in one night!), The Silence
of the Lambs (but not Red Dragon or Hannibal,
both of which I found tedious), Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome
hook in the novel is fairly well-preserved, although certain aspects
of the story have been jettisoned to streamline it to movie-length.
Young doctor Jennifer Paily (Joanna Going) all but abducts her
younger sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) from Los Angeles to spend some
time with their recovering alcoholic mother at Paily's practice
in a remote Rocky Mountain ski town called Snowfield. They arrive
to find the town quiet ("Too quiet," fortunately, is
a line left unsaid), with not even cats or dogs wandering the
Paily's combination house/office, the two women find an equal
amount of silence; calling for Hilda, "the housekeeper of
the gods," they discover dinner still bubbling on the stove.
And Hilda's dead body, bruised and swollen, as if severely beaten
- but there is no blood, and no sign of a struggle.
the phone doesn't work. Neither does Jennifer's Jeep. The two
women briskly walk the four blocks to the police station, through
empty streets slowly growing darker as the sun sets. The station
holds no relief, however, only the body of a deputy, similarly
mottled and swollen. He fired his pistol three times at his attacker,
but while there are no bulletholes in the wall, there is also
no blood, anywhere. Breaking into the station's weapon locker,
Jennifer and Lisa arm themselves, then run for a nearby bakery
run by Jennifer's friends.
bodies here... it's worse. There are body parts: two severed
hands still clutch a rolling pin. And then there are those two
heads in the oven...
kind of maniac..." breathes Lisa. "One maniac can't
kill a whole town," says Jennifer. Shadowy figures lurk outside
the window. One is coming up behind them....
Haha! Oh, I'm sorry, it's the law, you see. Sheriff Bryce
Hammond (Ben Affleck) was on the phone with the deceased deputy
when whatever it was happened, and he and two more deputies
(Nicky Katt and Liev Schreiber) have arrived to investigate.
theories are bandied about concerning toxins, nerve gas and other
possibilities, all of which become quite moot when formerly disconnected
phones ring, only to deliver forth strange, buzzing liquid noises.
A hotel in town - the only place which currently has power - produces
more bewildering evidence. A windowless bathroom, locked from
the inside, holds a mirror on which the words TIMOTHY FLYTE
- THE ANCIENT ENEMY is written in lipstick. Returning to
the lobby, the group finds a severed hand clutching the lipstick...
and it wasn't there minutes before. And something keeps turning
on the radio upstairs.
to indulge in some spoilers, so those of you who want to be surprised,
turn your heads.
away? Good. Timothy Flyte (Peter O'Toole!) is a discredited paleo-biologist
whose book, The Ancient Enemy, posits that the original
primordial ooze is still around, alive, and sentient; slipping
through deep sub-strata in the earth, it largely lives on micro-organisms
and the like, but every now and then gets so powerfully peckish
that it surfaces and devours everything in the area. This is Flyte's
explanation for mass and sudden disappearances like the one at,
say, Roanoke Island. This explanation is also the reason that
the only work Flyte can currently get is writing for a Weekly
World News-type tabloid.
as in Men in Black, the Government reads tabloids, and
Flyte is whisked away by a pair of FBI agents and eventually introduced
into a team of bio-warfare trained soldiers and scientists who
roll into town in armored labs to find out what's what, much to
the (short-lived) relief of our whittled-down group of heroes.
ever-popular flatworm syndrome is trotted out again - if a flatworm
learns to negotiate a maze, and this educated flatworm is chopped
up and fed to its ignorant brethren, these cannibals suddenly
develop knowledge of the maze. What the Enemy consumes becomes
a part of its database, as it were, and not only do approximations
of dead people and animals begin to crop up, but the Enemy has
consumed so many frightened people, convinced at the moment of
death that what is flowing under doors and through crevices to
eat them is nothing less than the Devil itself --- that this self-aware
lake of slime has become delusional. It truly believes itself
to be Satan, and it has chosen the world's only believer, Timothy
Flyte, to spread its Gospel.
I'm finished with the spoilers. You can look back now.
major problem with Phantoms - both the movie and the novel
- is that being enmired in the mystery is so much more fun than
discovering its solution - a frequent problem with the
genre, to be sure. Once the culprit behind the disappearance
of the entire town is revealed, the movie shifts into science-fiction
thriller mode, and we hear the gears grinding in protest during
the shift. The time compression forced onto the story by its transfer
to a 90 minute movie serves to magnify the novel's faults rather
than gloss over them.
compression also calls for a paring down of the cast of characters
- the human antagonist in Koontz's novel, an escaped murderer,
is gone; in his place is the deputy played by Schreiber, who is
undergoing some sort of mental breakdown, and whose twisted desires
and line delivery is appropriated by the Enemy. This concession
does not damage the proceedings, but does rather serve to point
up the fact that anybody not possessing the ability or opportunity
to deliver one-liners might as well be wearing red shirts - they're
going to be eaten by Slime Daddy, and you know it.
there's one thing that severely handicaps Phantoms, and
has probably led to its critical downfall, is the lowering of
its characters ages to a suspiciously youthful median. Koontz's
characters tend to be defined by a major trauma lurking in their
past - a trauma which, by dealing with the events that form the
arc of the story, the characters finally overcome (or at least
begin the healing process). Affleck and Going both seem far too
young to occupy their current professional positions, Affleck
especially as he is supposed to be a former FBI agent who
accidentally killed a boy in a raid; the actor seems hardly old
enough to have finished college, much less the stringent training
of a Federal agent and had time enough in the field to
have screwed up so mightily and gotten elected Sheriff
in the aftermath.
youthening was no doubt at the behest of the marketing ninjas
under the command of the almighty bean counters, who were hoping
to catch the Scream lightning in a bottle. This is abundantly
clear in their advertising materials, which slavishly ape the
layout of the Scream ads. The top-billed but undeniably
geriatric Peter O'Toole is conspicuous by his absence from this
youthful, eye-candy line-up.
this is the final turn of the screw in Phantoms' coffin:
it is not populated by hip teenagers making self-aware, ironic
comments on the fact that they are trapped in a B-movie. It is,
instead, an attempt to make a serious horror movie. Anyone
approaching this movie expecting another Scream, I Know What
You Did Last Summer, or even Urban Legend was going
to be severely disappointed, victims of misleading advertising,
finding themselves locked in a room with a collection of horror
movie clichés unleavened by hipster post-modernism or deconstructionism.
is, of course, what I like about the movie. If it goes
rather astray in a couple of instances - many of the Enemy's attacks
are far too reminiscent of the Carpenter/Bottin Thing,
and the rewriting of the novel's end to provide Affleck with an
improbable face-to-face confrontation with the Enemy - it is still
an attempt do right by Koontz's novel without pandering to the
latest (and in many cases, unfortunate) trend. There are parts
that genuinely irk me: once, when Affleck transfers equipment
between the two labs (why aren't the labs similarly equipped?),
he moves sloooooowly and carefully so as to milk as much tension
out of the scene as possible. He is also acting so suspiciously
that any entity - no matter how self-aggrandizing and confident
- would kill him just to stop the annoyance. And the movie is
wrapped up with yet another thrice-damned, oh-wait-it's-not-over-yet-set-up-a-sequel
ending, a conceit that stopped being clever five seconds after
the first time it was used, probably somewhere back in the 50's.
if we were afraid of clichés, we wouldn't be here, would
we? I suspect that having read the novel prior to seeing the movie
added to my pleasure in watching it; there were a couple of sequences
I was sure would be absolutely dismal, yet pleasantly surprised
me. The first (in a section of the novel I found merely laughable),
is a moment where our heroes, barricaded inside the police station,
are set upon by one of the Enemy's phantoms (a piece of itself
separated from the main mass and working on its own). In the book,
it is described as a gigantic death's-head moth. In the movie,
it becomes something more primordial, half-seen and frightening.
The second is when the Enemy finally reveals itself in all its
glory for the film's climax.
a great movie, but far better than I had had been led to anticipate.
If you don't expect either the occasional terror or humor of Scream,
nor presume a lifeless exposition of clichés like Bats,
you might even be entertained. Hey, I was.