Rated R - Running time: 1:35 - Released 1/23/98

Ben Affleck showed us his skill not only with acting but screenwriting in the recent feel-good hit, Good Will Hunting. Unfortunately he didn't have his friend Matt Damon to work with in Phantoms. He did have Peter O'Toole, however. Thank goodness.

This science fiction/horror opus by Dean Koontz, directed by Joe Chappelle, has scenes that bring back memories of old greats like The Andromeda Strain and The Birds. Scenes which, while they are effective by themselves, tend to underscore the fact that this film isn't really in the same league with those. It is a rather silly concept, drawn out to terribly silly lengths, with so many horror-movie clichés that the good devices are drowned out by the schlock. But it does offer some interesting images and plenty of chills if you are willing to use a block and tackle to suspend your disbelief.

It is about a small town (Snowfield, Colorado) whose residents spookily disappear or show up dead all on one winter afternoon. When two sisters, Jenny (Joanna Going) and Lisa (Rose McGowan), go there for a mini-vacation, they find nothing but bloated bodies with terrible varicose vein problems. What a tragedy — if they'd only used support hose. The girls would like to leave, but their car is as dead as the people, so they are forced to prowl around looking for more bodies, seeking out the darkest and most eerie spaces in town. Just when they (and we) are getting tired of sudden, loud noises, the town's sheriff (Affleck) jumps out at them. (No one ever just walks into a room in this movie.)

After more loud noises and more deaths, help finally arrives: a veritable fortress on wheels with a fully accoutered chemical laboratory inside, and Timothy Flyte (O'Toole), who is a scientist/tabloid writer summoned by the mysterious killer by way of a cryptic message scrawled on a mirror. (The armored minivan is supplied by some branch of the government, which was apparently able to design and build the thing in a matter of minutes.) It seems the killer wants Flyte to write a story about it for his National Enquirer-style rag. Guess it didn't feel like it would get a prominent page in Time or Newsweek.

After more deaths and more jumping out, Flyte is able to figure out that his suspicions are correct: this is some kind of organic entity that lives deep in the earth and occasionally pops out for a snack, such as the entire population of a small town. This is what happened, he postulates, to the disappeared residents of Croatoa off North Carolina, to a small Chinese army that vanished several hundred years ago, and to countless other missing people over the ages. He has written about this "ancient enemy" before, but never seen it until now.

O'Toole's performance is engaging, but it doesn't save the film from being a second-rate thriller. Affleck is able to deliver lines realistically, but there is little depth to his Sheriff Hammond, and that huge cowboy hat makes him look like a kid at Disneyland. The two women mainly just walk around looking good and being scared. The only actor besides O'Toole who has bothered to create a character for this movie is Liev Schreiber (Scream 2), who plays Hammond's insubordinate deputy. His monster-possessed alter ego will be the star of the sequel, and no doubt it will again utter his oft-repeated catch phrase, "Wanna see somethin?" ***

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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