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A Real Man of Worms

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 1998

  Movie Critic

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

Joe Chappelle
Ben Affleck;
Rose McGowan;
Liev Schreiber;
Joanna Going;
Nicky Katt;
Peter O'Toole
Running Time:
1 hour, 31 minutes
For extreme gore
"Phantoms" has one sight that may be worth the price of admission: Peter O'Toole in a spacesuit.

Really – the august and revered classical actor, who's been Lawrence of Arabia, Henry II, Lord Jim, the Lion in Winter, and on and on: Yes, that's him, behind a Plexiglas bubble helmet, encapsulated in a thick white rubber suit, a throat mike strapped, fighter-pilotlike, to the great bobbing Adam's apple. Look ye mighty and despair, this Irish Ozymandias might well be thinking from the ruins of a once-great career now collapsed to Grade Z Yank schlock. This is the one that should be called "Fallen."

To be fair, O'Toole is professional to the nines, or even the tens, bringing that acerbic intelligence and eerie regret to the role of one Dr. Timothy Flyte, ex-Oxford paleobiologist and current crackpot columnist for the National Event, where he covers the end of the world, which, according to him, is next weekend. This particular time he may be right, which is why the FBI recruits him to join a team investigating a Western town where everybody has either been swallowed whole or turned to mottled corpses.

I suppose that means O'Toole is wearing an Earthsuit, not a spacesuit. But if I'd said Earthsuit, would you have known what I meant? In any event, the legendary thespian is at one point required to stand terrified amid a squad of similarly attired men while giant tentacles lash out all about him, penetrating their bubbles and eating their faces. His own mug does register true horror, but I suspect the beast that has him so frightened doesn't have suckers so much as pages: It's the script.

Based on a novel by Dean Koontz and adapted by Koontz himself (and directed by Joe Chappelle, as in "Who the hell is Joe Chappelle?"), the story postulates that some giant carnivorous worm has lurked underground for thousands of years, rising occasionally to feed. These occasions are the great mysterious disappearances of history – the Mayans, a Chinese battalion at Nanking, the original colony on Roanoke Island. As worms will, by ingesting human prey over the generations, this worm has somehow absorbed human intelligence and vanity and now believes it's a god. Great – next it'll want an agent!

It falls to the 65-year-old O'Toole and several handsome young people – whom the worm has spared on the sound theory that all horror movies need chicks – to destroy the creature. Hmmm, what should that be in the Army trailer but just the right bacteria for the job!

The effects are murky and the giant worm looks more like a smear on the lens than anything else. Most of the intensity is generated by sudden sound effects like ringing phones, alarm clocks or oven timers. But I have a bumper sticker that reads "No fear of oven timers," so this didn't work for me.

As for the other actors in the cast, Ben Affleck is standard as the sheriff of the town and Joanna Going is stalwart as its beautiful young doctor. Liev Schreiber, a weirdly tuned actor, has a nice turn as a screwball deputy in the only performance worth noting. "Phantoms" itself is hardly worth noting. Let's hope that Peter O'Toole isn't turning into Vincent Price. That would be a horror movie!

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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