The Bad Movie Report

Dean Koontz' Phantoms

Well, 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:

People have been way too hard on this movie.

For 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 it.

But 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 October.

These women want their Starbuck's,  dammit!The 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 silent streets.

In 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.

And 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.

An early, unsuccessful logo for AllstateNo 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...

"Some 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....

Boo! 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.

When pursued by ancient evil, it is still important to remember to underline book titlesUseless 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.

Time to indulge in some spoilers, so those of you who want to be surprised, turn your heads.

Looking 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.

"I promised to do WHAT kind of movie?"Just 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.

The 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.

Okay, I'm finished with the spoilers. You can look back now.

The 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 theAffleck is still a little touchy about Armageddon 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.

This 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.

If 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.

Anybody seeing double here?Anybody seeing double here?This 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.

And 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.

"Hold still, you've got something in your eye..."Which 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.

But 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 "Somebody here call for Cthulhu?"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.

Not 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.


Some missteps, but a decent enough horror movie.

- October 27, 2000