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by: James Berardinelli

Snowfield, Colorado. In the summer, it has a population of 4000. In the winter, it has a population of 400. On this day, it has a population of 4. So begins Dean Koontz's Phantoms, a horror film that starts out creepy but ends up disjointed and borderline-incoherent. It's a shame that the final product isn't a little better packaged because, unlike many lame entries into the genre, this one actually contains a few interesting, philosophically titillating ideas. (For example, what does it really mean to be a god?) Sadly, they're not presented effectively. It's the same old story: a promising premise, poorly realized.

To call Phantoms dissatisfying is to oversimplify the problem. A better term is frustrating, because you have the sense that there's so much more to the story than what shows up on screen. Of course, that's often the problem with adapting a novel, even when the screenwriter and the book's author are the same. The movie has such a sketchy, rushed feel that it's almost like reading the outline of a story rather than the story itself. The plot flashes by at breakneck speed and there's little or no time for character development. What there is time for, however, are the obligatory scare tactics necessary to make the audience jump at shadows.

As Phantoms opens, Dr. Jennifer Pailey (Joanna Going) is bringing her teenage sister, Lisa (Rose McGowan) home with her to the sleepy town of Snowfield to give the younger woman a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. The Snowfield that Jennifer returns to is not the one she recently left, however. No one is around, except Sheriff Bryce Hammond (Ben Affleck) and two of his deputies. There are a few dead bodies, severed hands, and decapitated corpses, but most of the town's residents have vanished. Then, when one of Bryce's officers is killed and the other one (Liev Schreiber) appears on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the four survivors' investigations lead to a terrifying conclusion. Meanwhile, government officials, who are aware that something strange is going on in Snowfield, call on the services of Dr. Timothy Flyte (Peter O'Toole), a university professor-turned-tabloid writer with experience in paranormal matters. Flyte identifies the creature in Snowfield as "The Ancient Enemy", a creature not from outer space, but which once resided deep within the Earth's crust, and now, convinced that it is a god, it has emerged to begin its reign of terror.

While veteran actor Peter O'Toole brings an air of refinement and respectability to the role of the slightly nutty professor, this part isn't going to earn him a seventh Academy Award nomination. Ben Affleck, who was likable in Chasing Amy and solid in Good Will Hunting, is rather lifeless here. Joanna Going (Inventing the Abbotts) and Rose McGowan (Scream) are a couple of pretty faces with little else to do beyond speaking hackneyed dialogue. Only Liev Schreiber (Scream 2) gets a chance to cut loose with an uninhibited and over-the-top performance.

Working from Koontz's script, director Joe Chappelle (who survived having helmed one of the worst films of 1996, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) manages to create several eerie sequences. The early part of the film, with Jenny and Lisa wending their way through what has become a ghost town, has a claustrophobic feel to it. Eventually, however, the tension drains away as the somewhat-burdensome plot kicks into high gear and too much time is spent on exposition instead of character development and atmosphere. The second half of Phantoms, despite being reasonably fast-paced, isn't all that interesting.

Koontz aficionados assure me that the novel is great. Never having read Phantoms, I'll take their word for it. The movie, however, isn't anything special. What ends up on screen is a pastiche of monster movie clichés with few ge


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