There are likely two predictable reactions to any mention of 1998's Phantoms, a campy, Ben Affleck-led sci-fi/epidemic thriller that came out in theaters 20 years ago this month: either complete befuddlement because the movie's been lost to the ether, or something resembling "Hmm, I think I picked that up from Blockbuster at some point, but I don't remember much about it."
Both reactions are understandable. Phantoms, based on a Dean Koontz novel of the same name, barely made a splash at the box office, pulling in just north of $3 million on its opening weekend. One might point to the fact that Titanic, Good Will Hunting, and As Good As It Gets were still dominating the cinemas as reasons for its paltry showing, but that'd ignore the fact that Phantoms probably got exactly what it deserved. The formless sludge of Phantoms — both the mysterious evil creatures and the film itself — couldn't compete with the joyous meta masterpiece that is Spice World, never mind topple a juggernaut like Titanic.
With all that said, though, there's still plenty of reason to revisit (or introduce yourself to) Phantoms on its 20th anniversary. Sure, the editing is a mess and the story is as flimsy as that old box filled with VHS tapes that you just can't seem to get rid of, but it's also a film that deserves a certain amount of reclaiming. It deserves to be enshrined as a campy classic that populates the occasional midnight screening at your local cinema right around Halloween. From the performances and the special effects to the sheer ludicrousness of certain scenes, Phantoms boasts some serious B-movie bona fides.
If you need more convincing, here are a few reasons why Phantoms deserves your time 20 years after its disastrous box-office performance.
Ben Affleck proves himself as a leading man
Yes, Affleck had already been in plenty of films — Dazed and Confused, two Kevin Smith films, and the critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, which walloped Phantoms at the box office on its opening weekend despite having been out for more than a month — but Phantoms showed us a different Affleck.
Removed from the Kevin Smith formula and the down-to-earth drama of Good Will Hunting, Affleck proved to be a formidable leading man for an action thriller. With gruff charm and an understated command of the screen, Affleck perfectly played the straight man who adapts to the ridiculous situation he finds himself in. Just a few months later he'd bring a similar presence to Armageddon, but Phantoms is where it all began.
Before the plot goes off the rails, it's an effective, scaled-down plague film
Phantoms is somehow both a small-scale epidemic story and ludicrous "end of humanity" drama. In fact, the film is practically split right in half, with the first 40 minutes or so playing out like a creepy small-town plague film where everybody is dead except for two visitors (Rose McGowan and Joanna Going) and some cops, while the final 40 minutes jumps head first into theories about an Ancient Enemy that has ravaged mankind for millennia. The shift in scope is jarring, and that means the latter half of the movie loses a lot of momentum, but it also serves to highlight just how effective the first half is.
When sisters Lisa and Jennifer (McGowan and Going, respectively) travel into the small mountain town of Snowfield, they find, well, nothing. The wind whispers through the empty streets, and screen doors clatter against their wooden frames. It's haunting stuff, establishing a frightening atmosphere that the rest of the film just can't live up to. For that first half, the atmosphere is astonishingly effective.
Eventually the sisters meet up with three lawmen (Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt, and Liev Schreiber), and the film crafts remarkable tension out of watching all of them slink through the town, anxiously looking behind closed doors for any sign of life.
Everybody in the cast is SUPER committed
I mean, Peter O'Toole — yes, that Peter O'Toole, the Shakespearian actor and Mr. Lawrence of Arabia himself — plays a professor who's been shamed out of academia because of his insistence that the Ancient Enemy exists, so you know that Phantoms has at least something to offer its actors.
Like any good B-movie, the joy comes in watching them fully commit to the ridiculousness of their roles. Peter O'Toole brings a wonderful gravitas to something that's incredibly silly, Affleck gets to be the MacGyver of the group, and Going and McGowan play their part in taking down the Ancient Enemy that threatens the human race. It's a ragtag group, but it works.
Liev Schreiber is the campy standout
Then there's Liev Schreiber. His role is rather simple, an entire arc summed up easily: he's a creepy deputy who turns into a spirit-infected bad guy who eventually dies when a giant moth eats his face. That arc alone, played by Schreiber with a presence that boasts all the hallmarks of a misogynistic creep, is worth giving Phantoms a second look, but [spoilers for a 20-year-old movie follow] Schreiber really hits another level when he comes back as one of the Ancient Enemy's phantoms.
Eventually he ends up as just a head on a set of tentacles, slithering around the police station while screaming "how low can you go?" as he limbos under one obstacle after another. It's the best.
Gore for days
Any B-movie worth its salt knows that in order to make up for shoddy plotting you have to indulge in excess gore. Phantoms is certainly tame by today's standards, but that doesn't mean it's devoid of any blood-soaked delights. There's the aforementioned moth scene; "it ate through his face, consumed the eyes, most of the soft tissue, and the entire brain" says a terrified and grossed out Jennifer. That scene comes after the sisters, searching a restaurant for any survivors, find severed hands still gripping a dough roller, and a head in the pizza oven.
The film's most important scene hinges on Ben Affleck acting across from a dog
I'm not kidding. After everything the group goes through to survive, it turns out the only way to defeat the Ancient Enemy slime monster thing is to inject it with a genetically engineered bacteria that's used to break up oil spills (don't ask). Affleck's Sheriff Bryce Hammond must traverse the 15 feet between two mobile labs to retrieve vials and a delivery device; he glances around at the empty streets, knowing all too well that the danger is still lurking.
Then, just as he reaches the door to the mobile lab, a dog growls behind him. What follows is a patently absurd climax, where Affleck retrieves the vials and then slowly walks back to the other lab, all while quietly staring down a potentially phantom-filled dog. The best part? Nothing happens. There's no jump scare, and no moment of reckoning. Just Affleck and his furry scene partner slowly moving through the space. It's a scene that perfectly encapsulates the weird appeal of Phantoms, with Affleck doing everything he can to seem like he's terrified of an adorable golden retriever.
Essentially, Phantoms is the best kind of camp. It's gory, the performances are strong, and there's the sense that despite the seriousness of the cast, the film knows it's meant to be playful. So why not give Phantoms a watch as it turns 20? Lord knows nobody else will.