Phantoms - * *

Why is it that Hollywood has such a hard time adapting the works of best-selling horror authors to the screen? Witness the countless failed atempts at adapting Stephen King’s horror novels. Not a one (excepting maybe Misery and The Shining) has been worth a dime. Enter the works of Dean Koontz. Hollywood already made a botch of his novel Hideaway. Now, the curse strikes again with Phantoms.

Dr. Jenny Pailey (Joanna Going) is returning to her small hometown of Snowfield, Colorado, bringing her sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) back from L.A. But when the two sisters arrive, they find the small town completely deserted…almost. They begin to discover bodies, but are clueless as to what might have caused such widespread fatality. Could it be disease? A chemical agent? Radiation? An amazingly efficient lunatic? Or something else . . .

The girls are not alone long. Soon, they are joined by the county sheriff, Bryce Hammond (Ben Affleck), and a couple of his deputies (including Liev Schreiber), and later by some anti-terrorism experts, and, of all things, a tabloid writer (Peter O’Toole), who may truly have an idea of what’s going on. The purpose of all these newcomers seems purely to provide the movie with more bodies to kill without having to eviscerate its leads.

The title of the film is never explicitly explained, yet there are several options to pick from: the phantoms could be of the dead inhabitants of the town (who have a mysterious knack of haunting the living), or perhaps it could apply to the ultimate source of all the death. But, luckily, the ludicrous (and grammatically incorrect) line used so prominently in the advertising campaign (“Throughout history there have been unexplained mass disappearances…scientists call this phenomenon ‘phantoms’.”) is nowhere to be found in the movie.

Of the actors that actually have a character to play, most of them do a good job. Affleck and Going are appealing, but O’Toole seems to be slumming it up a bit here. Of the recognizable characters, only Liev Schreiber hits the wrong note, aiming his performance way over the top in a role that could have been much subtler.

There are some rather effective moments in the film. The opening scenes, when the girls begin to explore the apparently deserted town, unsure of what is going on. Unfortunately the mystery is dispelled all too quickly, and we’re left with only one unknown for the film to solve: who will die before the end credits roll. However, with the constant influx of new generic characters, rest assured that it will be no one worth caring for. Some cleverer writing could have cured this problem, enhancing both the mystery and the overall film.

Another noteworthy sequence involves Affleck and a dog that may or may not be what it seems. By this point, the movie has lost most of its plausiblity, but it goes to show that a good setup and proper pacing can create suspense out of thin air.

However, ultimately the movie fails. The majority of its action seems to be of the “generic character does something stupid and dies” variety. The ultimate source of the mystery in the film, when it finally is revealed, is disappointing…as is the unneccessary hook for a sequel.

There was a spark of an idea in Phantoms, but that spark fizzles early, leaving a movie as vacant and abandoned as the town of Snowfield, Colorado.

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