Day 12: monsters with low self-esteem
The following was originally published on Flick Attack, 21 June 2012.
If there’s one cinematic behemoth I’ve ever truly felt sorry for, it’s The Ancient Enemy. Most monsters don’t get much in the way of inner conflict or psychological depth. Phantoms (1998), however, provides an in-depth study of the God complex, here in the guise of an intelligent oil slick with visions of personal deification that suffers from some serious inferiority issues.
It just wants you to remember it. I feel rather bad for the poor ol’ goop.
And it tries so hard to be one of the greats. It replicates humans, just like the spores in Invasion of the Body Snatchers! It haunts the sewers, like The Blob! It manifests itself as the creepiest dog this side of The Thing.
But wait, there’s more! The Ancient Enemy employs giant moths to suck out brains in seconds! It wipes out entire townships in less than an afternoon! It gives birth to a Lovecraftian hybrid of a land squid and Liev Schreiber! What more do you want in a monster?
But for all its efforts, The Ancient Enemy just can’t seal the deal. All it takes to defeat this escapee from the Exxon Valdez is a few vials of biologically engineered virus, Ben Affleck, and the late, oh-so-great Peter O’Toole (about as far from the award-winning likes of Lawrence of Arabia as possible). His endearing performance as a disgraced English academic working for a weekly rag is of the sort only older English actors can pull off: equal parts gravitas and ham, replete with droll line readings that completely obliterate everyone else onscreen, including the capable likes of Joanna Going (Wyatt Earp) and Rose McGowan (Planet Terror).
Phantoms is hardly perfect, often barely more than good, which is par for the course for anything novelist Dean Koontz has ever touched (the man’s oeuvre positively reeks of adequacy). But director Joe Chappelle (Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers) understands how to create atmosphere, even if he doesn’t always succeed. He plays with silence and long takes, yet knows when to go for the gusto, makes the most of a low budget, keeps the cheap CGI to a bare minimum, and succeeds with a few of the more chilling moments I’ve seen in film. (That dog! Never has a docile golden lab seemed so, well, evil.)
All told, Phantoms is an effective creature feature that has quickly become a personal late-night staple, a cinematic snack to gobble down with cheap liquor and chips.
Bonus points for the genius second act; the military and scientists arrive to survey the situation—a scenario which would normally result in an epic end battle of guns, mortars and tanks à la Godzilla—and The Ancient Enemy wipes them out in five minutes. Five!