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Review: 'Phantoms' -- A horror of a movie

Graphic January 31, 1998
Web posted at: 6:17 p.m. EDT (1817 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Remember back when you were a kid, how your Saturday afternoons were partially taken up by relentlessly awful monster movies? You know, the ones they used to show right after the "Trouble with Tribbles" Star Trek episode and right before "This Week in the NFL?"

I can remember one oft-repeated shocker in particular that consisted mainly of people incessantly stumbling upon a human skull, which stared up at them soulfully, gape-jawed and dead as a door nail. The music would suddenly rise and go "kaa-chang" every time somebody found it, and the actors would shriek and carry on like the Russians had just landed in Jersey. Even as a 9-year-old, I'd sit there wondering what they were getting so worked up about.

If you're thinking they don't make 'em as lousy as they used to, let me point you toward Exhibit "A" of 1998 -- Joe Chappelle's "Phantoms," starring Ben Affleck, Joanna Going, and Peter O'Toole, of all people. Horror movie rules have, of course, changed over the years, so I don't blame any of the characters for jumping up and down and getting poopy pants when the beast makes his elaborately icky appearances, but, man, it seems like they'd see it coming after a while. The same scene takes place so many times you start to feel like you're watching a public service announcement on the perils of monster-related deja vu. Or, as the music repeatedly points out: "kaa-chang!"

Going and her cute younger sister (played by Rose McGowan) drive to the sleepy town of Snowfield, Colorado, at the beginning of the movie only to find that, wouldn't you know it, everybody's dead! That's too sleepy, but people aren't the only things that are dying in Snowfield. The phones are kaput and motor vehicles can't rev it up, either.

Judging from the look of the bloated townspeople, a giant attack of varicose veins has struck this small Rocky Mountain community. Our heroes, Melrose-type creatures that they are, need to get out of there but quick, before they're unable to wear next summer's bathing suits.

Enter Ben Affleck as the local (and amazingly youthful) sheriff. I really can't figure Affleck out. I thought he was near-terrible in "Chasing Amy," then he turned around and delivered a modulated, heartfelt performance in "Good Will Hunting." Here, he's back in "Chasing Amy" form and worse. He delivers dialogue in the kind of thin, unconvinced voice that children use when they're caught in a lie. I've got to believe, judging from the exemplary job he did of co-writing "Good Will Hunting" with Matt Damon, that he knew going in that this was a stinker.

"Phantoms" movie trailer
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He and his deputies, along with the ladies, do little but say "Are you OK?" a lot, gasp, and walk in and out of rooms discovering discolored bodies. That is, when no one is getting his brains sucked out by a giant moth or coughing up a dissolvable lizard.

I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to explain what kind of monster we're dealing with here, but it's difficult to say since every time the thing shows up it's completely changed its form and functions under a different modus operandi. Peter O'Toole (the coolest person in the world who looks like a dried fig) is eventually enlisted by the government to try to clear things up, but he only makes the water muddier.

It turns out that the monster can turn into anything that its victims have ever seen or thought of, although it's never made clear which of them had the time to dream up a long, black slime log that shoots out of kitchen drains and attaches itself to unsuspecting scientists ("kaa-chang!"). Probably a plumber who ate a salami sandwich before going to bed at night. There's also some pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo about the monster expecting O'Toole to write its gospel in a tabloid newspaper.

Don't ask me; I just work here.

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Every time I review a movie that's based on a novel and don't point out that the screenplay is an adaptation of pre-existing material, some blathering fan of the author manages to write a letter to CNN trumpeting my supposed illiteracy. Well, let me make it clear that the screenplay AND BOOK upon which "Phantoms" is based were both written by Dean Koontz, and, Master of Modern Terror Horror Omigod Shockeroo or not, this is a miserable, inexcusable piece of work. It's like a tape loop, Chinese monster movie torture. There's absolutely no attempt at character development, and, frankly, the story doesn't make a lick of sense.

All in all, the most horrifying thing about "Phantoms" is realizing that supposedly talented people get paid to write stuff like this. Stephen King would be looking over his shoulder if only he could see past all those piles of money.

"Phantoms" is likely to scare your grandmother or your Chihuahua, but that's about it. Icky and gooey. There's some bad language. It's awful. Rated R. 91 minutes.


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