Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Phantoms (1998)

Dr Jennifer Pailey (Joanna Going) has left her small town practice in Snowfield, Colorado just long enough to whisk her younger sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) away from L.A. and the influence of their alcoholic mother. When the sisters arrive back in Snowfield, they find the town curiously deserted. Closer inspection reveals many empty houses but also a lot of corpses. Some of them are in a state suggesting some kind of chemical incident or a strange infection, while others have clearly been victims of the tender mercies of someone who likes to play peek-a-boo with body parts.

Even before Jennifer and Lisa can call for help, it already arrives in form of Sheriff (and former FBI agent) Bryce Hammond (Ben Affleck) and two of his deputies (Liev Schreiber and Nicky Katt). At about the same time, things begin to turn a bit weirder in town, going from strange noises and screams coming from the drains to rather more horrifying things like a giant face-eating moth. Whatever is responsible for the circumstances in Snowfield isn't willing to let our protagonists go, but curiously, it has no problem with letting them contact the outside world for help.

Thanks to a message written on a wall in town mentioning him by name, the government response to the situation does not only consist of military personnel and scientists but also of paleobiologist turned tabloid columnist Timothy Flyte (Peter O'Toole) who has some rather peculiar theories about an organism being responsible for all kinds of historical disappearances; and now, that organism seems to want him to write its bible.

For my tastes, Joe Chappelle's Phantoms, based on a novel by the dubious Dean R. Koontz, with a script by the author, is one of the more unfairly overlooked horror movies of the 90s. People were probably not too interested in mainstream horror films that weren't all ironic at that point in time; as with most things in horror film history, I'll just blame Scream.

Phantoms is of course a supremely silly film. Its monster is after all an oil-based organism suffering from the delusion of being Satan, and the way to get rid of it turns out to be nearly hilariously convenient. However, the implausibility of a plot has never stopped me from enjoying a film when it treats its silly ideas with the proper earnestness, particularly not when the silly ideas are also cool ones, as is the case with Phantoms.

The film starts out on a rather creepy note, with Chappelle (a future director and producer on rather good TV shows like The Wire and Fringe) getting quite a bit of mileage from the isolation and confusion of the protagonists, and creating the feeling that something quite horrible must have happened in town without showing his hand too early. Once Chappelle does show his hand, we get a few imaginatively staged scenes of protoplasm-based murder of the kind I'd love to see in a Lovecraftian movie, some eerie shots of dead-yet-walking people in broken hazmat suites, a dog very threatening in its lack of threat (excellent dog acting, believe it or not), and the sudden appearance of a mass of not-people that are near archetypal. These moments and images hit that easy to miss spot where the theoretically silly becomes the practically creepy.

The film's actual climactic action is a bit of a disappointment, though, with our pretty protagonists doing a bit of perfunctory action hero stuff (and encountering the bane of all horror films, the quipping monster) before the usual kicker ending wraps things up.

Fortunately, Phantoms is a movie where the ride itself contains more than enough worthwhile moments to make up for a merely competent ending, so I didn't find the film ruined by its end (films only are in very particular circumstances). Plus, said ending does at least show Peter O'Toole sitting on an armchair while holding forth about The Ancient Enemy on TV, and that's not something I can say about the ending of many movies.

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