When's the last time a horror film, that octogenarian genre, really creeped you out? The good old days of terror are usually back in adolescence, whenever that might have been: from the '30s (The Mummy) through the '60s (Night of the Living Dead) and so on to Scream (1 and 2). But true horror fans keep their inner youngster alive, always on the lookout for that "it's only a movie" feeling.
Now, two years before the millennium, horror seems to be experiencing a resurgence. Joe Chappelle, director of Phantoms, fills his contribution to the fright tradition with credible forebodings of apocalypse &emdash; in a word, with dread.
Based on the novel by Dean Koontz (who also wrote the screenplay), Phantoms begins with a car on a country road driven by two attractive young ladies "getting away from it all" (try to count how many times you've seen that one). But Chappelle-Koontz quickly get down to business. Despite echoes from The Exorcist, The Shining, Evil Dead and more, they succeed in making things go eek! in the night. In fact, the tension meter rises to impressive levels as all kinds of inexplicable mayhem and body violation fill the screen.
Richard Clabaugh's photography gives the small town interiors a dank sepia look (combined with by now obligatory Seven darkness) that does a lot toward making Koontz seem positively fright-masterful. Rose McGowan (as a displaced city girl) and Liev Schreiber (as a sheriff's deputy) stand out in a cast that also includes Ben Affleck, Joanna Going and, believe it or not, Peter O'Toole.
A long way from Lawrence of Arabia, O'Toole gives a broad wink of a performance as an ostracized scientist writing for a sleazy tabloid. Proving that fiction is stranger than truth, his articles turn out to be oracles. Imagine Elvis and JFK having a peanut butter orgy on the moon; that's how probable his explanation of the mayhem turns out to be. But, hey, it all adds up to a good scare.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at email@example.com.