1998, R, 91 min. Directed by Joe Chappelle. Starring Peter O'Toole, Rose Mcgowan, Joanna Going, Liev Schreiber, Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt, Clifton Powell, Rick Otto, Rachel Shane, Adam Nelson.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 30, 1998

Ballyhoo abounds regarding the improbable fact that for once, author Dean Koontz is getting behind a film adaptation of one of his novels. I suppose after the hideous string of Watchers knockoffs a few years back, anything not featuring Corey Haim would come as a relief, and frankly, Phantoms holds up pretty well as a sci-fi monster movie. Up to a point, that is. With such a first-rate cast (refugees from both Scream and Scream 2 among them) you'd think Phantoms was a no-brainer, and it is, just not in the way you had hoped. When small-town physician Jennifer Pailey returns to her Colorado township with younger sister Lisa (McGowan) in tow, they find the place virtually abandoned with the gruesome exception of a few severed heads and bloated corpses. Everyone else (animals included) has mysteriously vanished, and as if that weren't enough, the pair's car suddenly won't start. Signs of life appear unexpectedly in the form of Sheriff Bryce Hammond (Affleck) and Deputy Stu (Schreiber) who have arrived in town to find out what happened to the local constabulary. It turns out everyone was devoured by an ancient life form from beneath the topsoil, the oddly-monikered “Ancient Enemy,” a blobby, pseudopod-wrigglin' critter that gains the intellect of everything it eats, and as such, has convinced itself that it's a god among flatworms. And who better to slay wayward demigods than crusty old Peter O'Toole, who promptly jets in with the military and bandies about scientific and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo while lesser actors are dismembered. Director Chappelle (Thieves Quarter) lays on the spook factor heavy in the first 30 minutes or so, but the film quickly devolves into a simplistic slash 'n' bash shoot-'em-up which goes nowhere fast. It's immensely unsatisfying given the caliber of actors involved, and although KNB effects house coughs up some wonderfully disgusting work, the whole enterprise seems rushed and oddly incomplete. Affleck is miscast as the mountain-man sheriff, and McGowan seems inured to all the horror around her, barely raising a shriek whenever anything gooey happens (this may be due in part to her offscreen relationship with Marilyn Manson, which would probably render anyone's shriek mechanism a tad rusty). Koontz's source material (he also penned the screenplay) is by far and away one of his best thrillers, which makes it doubly disappointing that the film version is so unengaging. Still, it's a great leap forward from Chappelle's lousy entry into the Halloween series some years back. Not that that's much consolation.

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Phantoms, Joe Chappelle, Peter O'Toole, Rose Mcgowan, Joanna Going, Liev Schreiber, Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt, Clifton Powell, Rick Otto, Rachel Shane, Adam Nelson

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