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Phantoms: Phudge!

a film review by Joe Parra

Rating: 1.5 out of 4

Dimension Films’ trailer for this film says: “We were always told that the terror would come from above. What if it came from below?!” Come it does, in this filmic adaptation of one of horrormeister Dean Koontz’s earliest successful novels. The film is rather faithful to the novel, with Koontz serving as the film’s scenarist. As directed by Joe Chapelle, the story unfolds as though we (the audience) walked in on Page Two of the script, instead of on Page One.

A woman brings her wayward sister to her small home town in Colorado to help her get her life back in order. Upon arrival, they find that the town’s populace has either vanished completely without a trace or been most bizarrely murdered (having their brains and veins savagely torn and drained) by some unknown killer. Besides the woman (who is also the town doctor) and her wayward sister, the only other survivors are the town sheriff and two of his deputies. This band of survivors manage to convey their situation, via a scratchy two-way radio, and are able to enlist the aid of the military. The military, in turn, enlist the aid of a long-disgraced paleontologist, who now writes for a tabloid newspaper about something called “The Ancient Enemy.” It is the paleontologist’s claim that, at various points in history, the disappearances of various civilizations (for example, the “Lost Colony” at Roanoke) are attributable to one single, malevolent, terrestrial force - rather than an extraterrestrial one. What everyone finds is the most ancient being on the planet, which believes itself to be Satan. The task before our heroes is to write a gospel of this monster if they wish to survive. The entity makes life difficult by sending out doppelgangers of its varied and sundry victims, to make sure its wishes are being obeyed. The monster itself is rather unique - think of Jello with a mind, able to take whatever shape it desires (à la John Carpenter’s version of The Thing).

This film plays exactly the way the book reads - between blinks. To be fair, I have never been a big Dean Koontz fan. I don’t care for any of his myriad slice’n’dice tales; and his supernatural and sci-fi tales tend to be retakes of other authors’ ideas, with a few innovations thrown in. Koontz, as screenplay author, has forgotten that even though film is obviously a fairly visceral medium, he must let the audience’s imagination feel free to roam within the boundaries given. As with the novel it’s based on, one feels as though this film is some sort of poorly-entered-into sequel (even though it isn’t). Koontz’s images are dry. A prime example of this is the monster (the one thing I enjoyed about the book) being pared down to the apparent offspring of The Blob and The Thing. Koontz has also let reason fly to the wind by giving us no cause for any of the survivors (save one) being left to tell the story. One also has the feeling, from the screenplay and direction, that Koontz and Chapelle viewed John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness once too often and tried to play “flash-image” in a tale that cries out to be told in a straightforward manner.

The three main protagonists - the doctor, her wayward sister, and the paleontologist - are handled in a very pulp-fiction manner, being flip and eloquent-while-attempting-wit. The performers - (respectively) Rose McGowan, Joanna Going, and Peter O’Toole - come across like caricatures. Every once in a while, a flash of brilliance comes across their faces; but, on the whole, they appear to be mouthing their lines. Peter O’Toole gives it the old college try - after all, he has to work at playing down to the other performers’ level. Getting back to the director, Chapelle has helmed a few horror sequels, such as Halloween 6 and Hellraiser: Bloodline. Perhaps this is the problem - Chapelle has worked in “sequel-land” and has no concept of a first-time film; and, working so closely with Koontz (who writes in that same manner) Chapelle was unable to come up with something that didn’t look as though it should have been shown on television - including commercials.

The monster, supplied by Steve Johnson’s XFX, is familiar; but it’s at least well-executed. XFX manages to convey some life into the old beast. If only Koontz would have kept the strength of his convictions where the monster was concerned, perhaps the beastie could have nudged us with a wink, instead of with a shove. Perhaps this is true of all Koontz’s work; for, as is evident here, he is all talk - he has something interesting to say but bores us with garbage in the telling. The title of the film refers to the unreal doubles the monster sends forth; unfortunately it also refers to the finished work: Phantoms. So-so enjoyment.

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