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'Phantoms': Scared Silly

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 1998

  Movie Critic


Phantoms
Rose McGowan (left), Ben Affleck and Joanna Going wonder what's going on in "Phantoms." (Dimension Films)

Director:
Joe Chappelle
Cast:
Ben Affleck;
Rose McGowan;
Liev Schreiber;
Joanna Going;
Nicky Katt;
Peter O'Toole
Running Time:
1 hour, 31 minutes
R
For extreme gore
The warning signs come early in "Phantoms." When Dr. Jennifer Pailey (Joanna Going) brings her teenage sister, Lisa (Rose McGowan), into little ol' Snowfield, a mountain resort community in Colorado, the place is deathly silent. Discovering garish corpses and people's cold, personal effects-such as pacemakers and jewelry-they realize the town's inhabitants are either dead, missing or both. Hooking up with Sheriff Bryce Hammond (Ben Affleck), his odd deputy (Liev Schrieber) and a professor (Peter O'Toole), they try to investigate this enigmatic menace and why it's letting them live.

There are other early warning signs in "Phantoms," but they've got nothing to do with the story. Seeing Peter O'Toole in the opening credits should be considered the first of these. (The same credits-alert applies to Brad Dourif, Donald Sutherland and his son Kiefer.)

O'Toole's shameless, inspired overacting can be fabulous in the right context, usually when people are wearing funny costumes. But as Timothy Flyte, a professor with expertise in ancient epidemics (try getting funding for that sometime), he's rendered into a stuffy, British-accented goon who yammers and stammers about missing Mayans and a force somewhere below us.

As for the menace he's talking about? Well, Whatever It Is takes an awfully long time to reveal itself-another warning sign. Obviously the budget didn't have the bones and clams for real state-of-the-art effects. (These days, we've become accustomed to megabudget movies in which the monster shows up in living, oozy, pulsating virtual reality.) But the force-which seems to come from drains, outside the window and about anywhere we can't get a good look at it-takes so long to show, you start wondering if this movie's ever going to deliver. Alas, even when the filmmakers (led by director Bob Chappelle and screenwriter Dean Koontz, who adapted his own novel) finally put on the show, they come up-well-cheap: It's really hard to be deeply affected by a movie in which a pair of severed hands and a couple of severed heads resemble something you'd pick up for the kids the night before Halloween.

Sometimes in horror movies, bad acting is effective, its very woodenness contributing to the sense of robotic horror. That ain't happening here. These guys are just bad actors. When Going-attempting to show fear in her character-touches her hair and the side of her face with a shaky hand, she's doing shtick that a junior high school drama teacher would flunk. The most promising acting business comes from Schrieber as Stu, Hammond's very strange deputy. But his creepy factor, again, is rendered wasteful by the unconvincing movie around him.

Then there there are the stupid things that happen in nearly every horror movie. Let me ask you: If you suspected some kind of relentless, possibly satanic, evil lurking in a bathroom stall, would you approach it and then tear the door open? No, you'd run screaming. This is not the case in "Phantoms." One other quick question: Why do evil presences always linger on the phone, waiting for the heroine to pick up? Don't they have enough to do? You're not going to make any progress in world domination if you hang on the phone. At least, this is what I tell my son, but he doesn't listen either

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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