[Screen It]


(1998) (Ben Affleck, Joanna Going) (R)

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Smoking Tense Family
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Horror: A small group of people try to survive the attacks of an intelligent, but deadly subterranean being that can take on any shape and has already killed several hundred people in an isolated town.
Snowfield, Colorado is a small tourist town that in the off season has a population of several hundred people. That's why Dr. Jennifer Pailey (JOANNA GOING) is bringing her teenage sister, Lisa (ROSE MCGOWAN), there to get away from the bad influence of Los Angeles. Arriving in Snowfield, they find that no one's around and then discover why: Everyone in town is dead. Encountering an out of town sheriff, Bryce Hammond (BEN AFFLECK) and his deputies including, Stu Wargle (LIEV SCHREIBER), they figure out that something's been eating most of the townspeople. Learning that they can't leave, they can only manage to get out garbled messages to the outside world.

Meanwhile, the Feds pick up Timothy Flyte (PETER O'TOOLE) a former Oxford scholar and now a tabloid feature writer for "Wide World News." It seems that he has an intimate knowledge of something called "The Ancient Enemy," a prehistoric being responsible for mass disappearances throughout history. Arriving in Snowfield with a heavily armed military accompaniment, Flyte works with the initial survivors to discover what's really going on. After their military protection is wiped out, though, they must do what they can to stay alive and figure out how to stop this intelligent, but deadly being.

Preteens probably won't, but teens who are fans of novelist Dean Koontz, horror movies in general, or anyone in the cast, might just want to see it.
For sci-fi violence/gore and language.
Beyond some cursing, the characters don't do much other than try to stay alive, so at best they come across as average role models.


OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Based on popular suspense novelist Dean Koontz's 1983 work, "Phantoms," this adaption is a mediocre mix of often terrifying moments combined with some laughable "B" movie elements. Having never read the original novel, I can't say how fans of it will react to this big screen treatment, but the film should partially please some fans of the horror/sci-fi genre. Although several of his novels have been made into movies, Koontz reportedly hasn't been happy with some of those adaptions, including 1995's "Hideaway." Thus, this time he's taken it upon himself to adapt his own work into screenplay form, and presumably hasn't strayed too far from his original work.

Playing very much like an elongated "Twilight Zone" episode, the film doesn't waste any time getting right into the middle of something horrible that's already occurred. After the obligatory, but very quick opening sequence where we learn the bare essentials about the two sisters, we (and they) are plopped right into the middle of a world gone wrong. Looking as if a local gold vein had recently been discovered or if the skiing was the best ever in the surrounding mountains, the the town is deserted when the women arrive. It's a good, spooky beginning, and while it has been done many times before, it's still highly effective.

Then they find some bodies. Some dead, milky-eyed, vein bulging bodies -- and body parts. So far so good -- we know we're into something weird, and the setup is working just fine as some truly spooky moments follow. Unfortunately, these women have come from the town of Spofihf (Stupid People Only Found In Horror Films) and their actions start to betray and lessen the impact of the scenes. While their stupid actions ("Gee, let's walk around the back of this building and through the darkened alley to get inside, instead of going through the front door") do generate some suspense, much of it comes at the expense of the movie as a whole.

Why the women don't take off down the streets and out of town by foot is never explained, but is certainly expected once they (and we) realize that everyone in town -- except them -- is dead. There's no compelling reason for them to stay (beyond the cars not starting -- and of course to keep the movie going). A simple pending snow storm, an explanation that it's a hundred miles to the next town, a pack of hungry wolves, or anything would have worked instead of the quizzical stupidity they exude.

While I can marginally accept this route that most other horror/suspense films also take, the film finds itself facing an upcoming and even bigger challenge. Just like the somewhat similarly plotted Stephen King novel, "It," (where some creepy stuff travels through the plumbing), this film backs itself up into a creative corner. It's delivered an intriguing premise and setup, and a progression of events where some genuinely scary stuff occurs. Compared with the benign material in the recently popular "Scream" movies, this stuff is grade A spooky stuff, especially when the group hears a chorus of otherworldly voices emanating from the telephone and other places.

The problem comes, however, when the film eventually has to get around to explaining what's behind these weird events. While I can tell you that it's not giant "spiders" as in the Stephen King story, what follows quickly transports the movie into definite "B" movie status. While I won't give away all of the particular details, the events that materialize quickly deflate what had been built up. Granted, there are a few scary moments to follow, but we're mostly left with more gross out material than the "good" stuff that populated the film's first half.

That's because -- as in any well constructed scary tale -- our imaginations had to work overtime during the setup. We didn't know what was going on, and that will always make any movie more frightening. Once we're told the details, though, our minds shut down and simply react to what follows. Although that often provides for a different form of suspense, in this case it takes away most of the "fun." Any time the laughs start erupting from the audience (not from nervousness or humor, but sheer ludicrousness), you know that the film's taken a giant misstep. Speaking of intentional laughs, that's also what's missing. This sort of story needs humor to cut through the horror and gore, but all we get is a scene where a body dissolves away, leaving nothing but the bio-suit that's name tag reads "Copperfield" (ie. After the famous magician).

Of course none of this comes as a surprise once you learn that director Joe Chappelle's only previous credited work was helming 1995's "Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers." While I'm not knocking his ability to direct a film, the fact stands that when that title is the only one on your resume, you haven't had a chance to do your best. With this film Chappelle's certainly upped his ante, but with the weakened second half, there was only so much he could do.

While Koontz's novels are very popular amongst his fans, I'm sure this is the type of film that actor Ben Affleck wishes could be a "take back." After appearing in the witty "Chasing Amy" and then the fabulous "Good Will Hunting," this is the type of film that can be a resume/career killer if great efforts aren't immediately taken to overcome it. To his credit, this movie has been on the shelf for a while and originally should have come out before "Good Will." Nevertheless, the public usually sees things in a linear fashion and as the saying goes, you're only as good as your last piece of work.

For actresses Joanna Going ("Inventing the Abbotts") and Rose McGowan ("Scream" "Going All the Way") they're not given much to do other than look scared like characters in any other horror movie. With little initial character buildup and certainly no development to follow, there's not much for these ladies to do. Spooky character actor Liev Schreiber (of the "Scream" movies) fares a little better as gives yet another creepy performance.

And poor Peter O'Toole. While he appears game at playing his tabloid writing character, and does a decent job with what he's given, one must feel sorry for this seven-time Oscar nominated actor ("Lawrence of Arabia," "The Stunt Man" and others). Of course he also appeared in "Supergirl" and "Club Paradise" in the 1980's, so this isn't his first stint at appearing in subpar quality flicks. Thus, this experience shouldn't leave too bad a taste in his mouth (especially compared with those other films), but it's a shame that "Hollywood" often forgets those it so treasured in the past. Let's get this man some better work!

Unfortunately for these actors and the characters they inhabit, the stupidity factor completely engulfs them. Not only do the women not leave town as mentioned before, they don't appear too nervous about some sort of airborne disease being the culprit (although the doctor does briefly discount radiation poisoning). They also almost never reload their weapons immediately after firing them (not wise considering what they know they're up against), and keep trying to start cars that never start (which in and by itself, is never explained). They also discuss how to kill the creature/being within "earshot" of it (right after "talking" to it), and of course -- as in any standard horror film -- they have to explore things instead of running away.

When Lisa hears a toilet flush in the ladies room that's just been checked out to be empty, she doesn't go to get help or reinforcement, but instead goes to the closed stall door and opens it herself. While it works for building tension, it only helps to lower the film's credibility factor. And of course, there's the sheriff who carries around the dog-eared picture of the kid he accidentally shot years ago, that we then know for certain will show up near the end of the film. Any time a character shows someone a picture of another person, you know that either they themselves will get killed (a character in a foxhole: "Hey Frank, did I show you a picture of my girl? We're getting married after the war...." BOOM!) or if it's this type of film, that the person in the photo will make an appearance (end of short film lesson).

While it may sound like I'm really letting this film have it (and perhaps I am), it's only because the film makers squandered away a decent setup that contained some truly scary moments. It's rare nowadays to find a film that isn't just another slasher ripoff -- but actually tries to use your imagination to scare you, instead of something jumping out to momentarily startle you. The film also misses a wide-open opportunity when we (and the characters) learn that the being could take the form of anything that had been in the memories or imaginations of those it consumed. The possibilities are endless, but all we get are a mangy mutt and some dead people.

For us, the first third to half of the movie gets a high rating and offers some truly scary moments. The latter half, however, simply propels this feature into "B" class status and undermines the decent setup. Had it not been for that decline, this would have been a first-rate horror film. As it stands, however, and averaging out the two halves, we give "Phantoms" a 5 out of 10.

With enough frightening, gory, and spooky material for several movies, this is definitely nightmare inducing stuff for impressionable minds. Although the movie eventually degrades into silly "B" movie status, there are many suspenseful and/or scary moments before that happens, and younger kids will probably be scared silly by the material. Additionally, there are many glimpses of dead bodies and body parts, many of which are bloody or gory looking. Some viewers may also not like the demonic/devil implications that occur during the film (the creature believes that it's a demon itself due to the thoughts it has assimilated from those it's digested). Beyond that, profanity is heavy with 8 "f" words and an assortment of others. Since some teens will probably want to see this film, we strongly suggest that you look through the content before allowing the younger or more timid of them to head off to the theaters.

SPECIAL NOTE: There are several instances where bright flashing (strobe-like) lighting effects occur that may impact those who are prone to seizures.

  • Some people in a bar drink beer.
  • Throughout the film we see many people whose faces and bodies are all bloody, gooey and/or melted looking.
  • Lisa and Jennifer find a body (with bulging, exposed veins) on the floor.
  • We see another dead body that has wide-open, milky looking eyes.
  • We see the gooey, bloody face of another victim.
  • The women find two cut off hands (with bloody stumps) still holding onto a rolling pin.
  • Some blood drips down inside an oven right before two severed heads fall down into it.
  • We see a cut off hand (with a bloody stump) on a table.
  • A scalpel cuts into a body and blood pours out.
  • A man is killed and blood fills up inside his helmet.
  • Obviously, the creature (or being) has both as it kills and feeds on the townspeople and believes itself to be omnipotent (since it's not really portrayed as a person, but more like an animal, it doesn't rate as highly in this category)
  • Some viewers may not like the demonic aspect of the film where the creature believes itself to be a demon or demons. Additionally, we see some devil worship material and pictures in one teen's room.
  • Stu makes some disparaging, lewd comments about Jennifer and Lisa.
  • The movie is full of many scary and suspenseful scenes with some of the "highlights" being:
  • Jennifer and Lisa arrive in town and find the place deserted. They then slowly make their way from building to building and have several spooky/scary encounters with dead people as well as strange sounds and visions.
  • The women slowly approach a baker's oven after the alarm has gone off and reach out to open it, fearing what's inside.
  • We see some darkened figures coming up behind the women.
  • There are several instances where the characters hear strange, spooky sounding voices or screaming on the phone, over a radio, and out on the streets.
  • Hammond and his men, along with the women, slowly make their way through a hotel, going into each room, in a long, tense scene.
  • Hammond sees a startling vision of a boy he accidentally killed.
  • A strange, but huge, dragonfly-like creature attacks the group. They fire their guns at it, but it eventually grabs Stu and pins him to the wall.
  • Lisa has a scary moment in the ladies room as a toilet flushes and she approaches a closed stall.
  • Several characters hear a boy's singing coming from a sink drain and try to get a closer look.
  • A dead body disappears from a bed and when the person turns around, it's standing in the shadows and comes after him.
  • A dog's body rips open and long tentacles race out and grab several people, killing them.
  • There are several instances where we (and the characters) see dead people coming toward them.
  • Hammond must slowly maneuver around a dog and a man who are both part of the deadly creature.
  • The ending is a long suspense sequence where Hammond must deal with the creature, while the women must deal with a dead body that keeps coming after them (and changes into a half octopus like creature).
  • Handguns/Shotguns/Machine guns: Used by the group (or the soldiers) to shoot at various forms of the creature that come after them.
  • Phrases: "Dorky," "Screw" (nonsexual), "Shut up," "Pissed off," and "Bastard."
  • Several jumps occur from sudden sounds disrupting quiet or tense scenes, and/or people or creatures suddenly showing up behind other people.
  • Two falling, severed heads scare the women.
  • The movie is filled with ample amounts of horror movie type music.
  • None.
  • At least 8 "f" words, 3 "s" words, 7 hells, 1 ass, 1 S.O.B., 1 crap, and 3 uses of "Jesus," 2 uses each of "G-damn," "God," "Oh God," "Oh my God," and "Jesus Christ" and 1 use of "Oh Jesus" as exclamations.
  • None.
  • Lisa puts a cigarette in her mouth, but Jennifer takes it away before it's lit.
  • None.
  • The existence (or not) of such creatures.
  • Several hundred people have already been killed and/or mutilated (and we see some of the bodies and/or body parts).
  • Hammond grabs Stu by the throat to stop him from making disparaging remarks about the women.
  • A strange, but huge, dragonfly-like creature attacks the group. They fire their guns at it, but it eventually grabs a man pinning him to the wall and kills him.
  • The creature(s) kill more people.
  • A dog's body rips open and long tentacles race out and grab several people, killing them.
  • A soldier shoots the dead bodies of several people, who've just been eaten, with his machine gun. He's then killed and his body catches on fire.
  • The women riddle a dead body -- that's coming after them -- with gunfire.
  • The creature thrashes a man around inside a sewer system.

  • Reviewed January 20, 1998

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