The Crude and Oily Cult of Phantoms (1998)

*contains spoilers

Phantoms (1998) is based on the Dean Koontz (1945-) novel which he also adapted to the screen. It remains his only true cinematic screenplay which is a shame because it’s a very good one.

Phantoms (1997) Trailer

It begins with Dr Jennifer Pailey (Joanna Going 1963-) taking her sister Lisa (Rose McGowan 1973-) to her small-town home of Snowfield, Colorado where she practices medicine. There she promises apple pie at the end of a long journey.

However, any idea of happy homespun small-town Americana is immediately turned on its head with the discovery of Jennifer’s housekeeper found dead – and it’s obviously not natural causes!

Further bodies are found decapitated at a local eatery and what is first thought to be a disease (well, no) is then suspected to be either the military or radiation. But that doesn’t quite fit either!

Then local Sheriff Bryce (Ben Affleck 1973-) turns up in what looks like a ten-gallon hat with his deputies, including “Stu” (Liev Schreiber (1967-). They are early roles for two extremely talented actors.

As the small group first gathers in the street they are alarmed, literally, when every alarm in town goes off at once. Something is definitely not quite right! And this isolated small-town beginning is atmospheric and excellent. It continues…

We learn that Affleck’s character is suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for accidentally shooting a child on duty in the past, while “Stu” giggles and likes to touch corpses with his bare hands.

They search the town. In one room they find scrawled in lipstick on a bathroom mirror by someone who had a copy of World Wide magazine beside their bed: “Timothy Flyte – The Ancient Enemy”.

Also found on a bed is a mound, like droppings, of human remains, but not the type you think. They are gold teeth and jewelry – even a pacemaker! Left behind as a character remarks: “Like Nazis”.

Nothing is quite right and furthermore there’s something gurgling and crackling at the end of the phone line!

The police try and report their findings to the army… send anybody and everybody! But they don’t know if their message has been heard let alone responded to.

Cut to top-billed Peter O’Toole (1932-2013 cancer) as the aforementioned Timothy Flyte, who writes about The Ancient Enemy in World Wide magazine, a rag which details conspiracies and alien kidnappings.

“I need the money,” Flyte says to secret agents who turn up at his office about his new career choice. He’s been discredited as an academic for his views about The Ancient Enemy which is linked to entire populations disappearing overnight.

I don’t know how much O’Toole was paid for the role (it maybe an in-joke) but he is perfect in this late career role as he was in the under-praised Creator (1985). That was directed by Ivan Passer (1933-) who did the excellent Cutter’s Way (1981) starring John Heard (1946-2017 cardiac arrest) and Jeff Bridges (1949-).

Creator (1985) Trailer

O’Toole’s later career renaissance kicked off with Richard Rush’s (1929-) multi-layered The Stunt Man (1980). Rush, who has made few films, also did the psychedelic Psych-Out (1968) with Jack Nicholson and the rather obvious but semi-cultish Color of Night (1994) which was famous for Bruce Willis showing his knob. I mention it because the script was written by Billy Ray (1971-) who also scripted Nazi zombie movie Overlord.

The agents take Flyte to the military who obviously know about the goings-on in Snowfield and at the military rendezvous, he tells an army officer about all the disappearances over the years. He finishes with the flourish and exclamation that it is: “Chaos! Chaos in the flesh!!” It’s a deliberately campy line undersold by O’Toole.

The Stunt Man (1980) Trailer. Credit

The army arrives in Snowfield wearing bio-suits and find a giant dump of “undigested remains” and a dead priest in the local Catholic church. This creature has no respect! But don’t worry as even the local Satanist has been killed as well! Whatever it is, it doesn’t discriminate!

The monster, as we now know, appears as some sort of shape-shifter like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which can appear human but in its natural state is something akin to an oily, dark sludge.

Like in the film The Stuff, it oozes from underground like oil, but this stuff DEVOURS humans before returning home hidden underground.

This results in a cumulative but malevolent intelligence, absorbing the knowledge with the flesh.

It absorbs everything from facts to dreams and movies – even the Bible. As a result, it knows Timothy Flyte and his theories about The Ancient Enemy from World Wide magazine. Flyte is right!

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) Trailer

This idea of cumulative intelligence was used back in the 50s in Roger Corman’s (1926-) sci-fi horror Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957 b/w) which was based on an original screenplay by Charles B, Griffith (1930-2007 undisclosed). Griffith wrote over 30 screenplays including Corman’s cheap It Conquered the World (1956 b/w) which in turn was remade as the even cheaper Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966) by Larry Buchanan (1923-2004 undisclosed) who was a law-unto-himself in terms of low-budgeted so-bad-they’re-good cult movies. Griffith also scripted the original Little Shop of Horrors (1960 b/w). Quentin Tarantino dedicated Death Proof (2007) to him.

Zontar the Thing from Venus (1966) Artwork

The military is massacred and the cast of survivors hide in a mobile lab where a demonic voice booms across the internet, lines such as: “I am Belial!” It seems to want to destroy the human population. No surprise there! It also thinks rather arrogantly, because of its incredible intelligence, that it is a God like Satan!

But thank the real God that Ben Affleck is there to slap this bitch down!! He says it’s just an animal with an oversized ego – and can be killed.

Analysis in the lab shows it to be a hydrocarbon almost exactly like crude oil, although this one isn’t just poisonous… It’s up to Flyte and Affleck and the girls to destroy The Ancient Enemy.

Koontz’s original novel was apparently full of references to writer HP Lovecraft (1890-1937 intestinal cancer) and the Cthulhu Mythos and the “Great Old Ones”. Koontz pared down the references in the movie to “The Ancient Enemy”. I enjoyed Lovecraft’s short stories but his novels were a bit too heavy for me. A tragic and troubled figure.

Phantoms was directed by Joe Chappelle whose film career never quite soared as a result of the failure at the box office of this movie. He had previously directed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) and eventually found work in television.

The film’s box office failure at the time can be put down to the long-running success of box office hits Titanic (1997) and Good Will Hunting (1997). The latter, ironically, another Affleck movie.

In Kevin Smith’s (1970-) Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), Jason Mewes (1974-) high fives Affleck in a scene when they discuss which is the cooler movie – Phantoms or Good Will Hunting!

Smith’s Mallrats (1995), which also features Jay and Silent Bob, has good-natured Stan Lee (1922-2018 pneumonia) appearing as himself long before the Marvel Universe’s meteoric rise. And Lee, in his last cameo, in Captain Marvel (2019) is seen on public transport learning lines from a script of Mallrats, which hints at his bank balance at the time.

I love this movie and first saw it when I came home completely smashed on red wine after midnight and shoved on a VHS tape. I didn’t fall asleep in front of the television or fall flat on the floor – it was that good! And it has been a firm favorite since.

A film which uses Patsy Cline’s (1932-63 plane crash) I Fall to Pieces, the song cuts both ways, can’t be all bad.

Patsy Cline, Fall to Pieces

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