Insubstantial 'Phantoms' Review: Film's frights are all too familiar, and Peter O'Toole deserves better.

January 23, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

You don't need brains or guns or manpower to defeat evil. Just question its manhood.

Thus says "Phantoms," a new horror flick from the pen of Dean Koontz that would have been an OK film five years ago, but now just seems silly and way too labyrinthine for its own good.

Two sisters (Joanna Going and Rose McGowan) drive into the little town of Snowfield, Colo. Little Sis (McGowan) has been having a tough time of it in L.A., and Big Sis (Going) figures some time in a small town is just what she needs to right herself.

Bad call. For it turns out that everyone in Snowfield is outta here, either disappeared or, in the case of a few pockmarked corpses, quite dead. "Phantoms" is at its best in setting the initial mood of the unknown, as the sisters wander through town trying to figure out what happened. All they find are uneaten dinners, drained car batteries and the occasional phone call from some guy who sounds like Vito Corleone shot full of novocaine. Director Joe Chappelle has a lot of fun looking down holes and around corners and finding nothing, all the time building suspense.

But then the cavalry arrives, in the form of a trio of law-enforcement officers who luckily were out of town when whatever happened happened. They are led by Sheriff Hammond (Ben Affleck, "Chasing Amy") and include Deputy Wargle (Liev Schreiber, the unjustly accused murderer in "Scream"). They want to get to the bottom of all this, but all they really do is kick off a succession of scare-movie staples: The Young Girl Who Knows More Than You Think, The Would-Be Savior Who's Really a Dangerous Jerk, The Woman Protecting Her Young-Uns, The Stand-Up Guy Trying to Escape His Shameful Past.

Before their radios go dead, the Good Guys manage to get word to the outside about what's going on, and in a flash, the FBI is hauling its big guns (and even bigger mobile crime lab) into town. They also dredge up Timothy Flyte (Peter O'Toole, far too classy for this stuff), an Oxford-trained scholar whose rantings about the "Ancient Enemy," a sort of underground boogie man that's been devouring people for centuries, have relegated him to the tabloids.

In three shakes of a devil's tail, all becomes clear: The Enemy is here in Snowfield, and it wants Flyte to tell the world all about it -- and for the world to believe him. Why? Apparently the Enemy has an ego the size of Manhattan and longs to prove to humanity just how bad it really is.

Flyte quickly realizes that ego may be its only weakness.

"Phantoms" really does start off well and features some good special effects and nice touches, including a lovable mutt as the Enemy's most threatening manifestation. But even the creepiest atmosphere can't overcome its reliance on standard horror-movie conventions -- audiences in the post-"Scream" era demand a lot more. Plus, Koontz's script has the Good Guys figuring things out way too quickly; he sets up an Evil that only an Oxford scholar could understand, then has everybody understand it anyway.

As if that isn't bad enough, the sight of Peter O'Toole extricating himself from the primordial ooze is enough to make one cry; doesn't one of the world's finest actors deserve better than this?

'Phantoms'

Starring Peter O'Toole, Joanna Going and Ben Affleck

Directed by Joe Chappelle

Released by Dimension Films

Rated R (language, gore)

Sun score:**

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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