More than special effects or even the Big Idea science fiction, fantasy and horror movies depend on one thing: casting. A good cast can help make mediocre material convincing while a mediocre cast can turn even the best production into Mansquito 2. Phantoms, based on the Dean Koontz novel, is an uneven but often mesmerizing mix of science fiction and horror, and it owes a lot to a solid cast that includes Peter O'Toole, Ben Affleck, Rose McGowan, Liev Schreiber and Joanna Going.
Really, Phantoms isn't so much SF or horror as it is a classic WTF movie. In a WTF movie the characters, and consequently the audience, spend the entire first act running around with no idea what the hell is going on or why. If it's done well WTF plotting can be a fun ride and Phantoms does it very well.
I'll try to explain the movie without giving too much away so please bear with me while things simultaneously get more specific and more vague.
Phantoms opens with Dr. Jennifer Paige (Joanna Going) driving her little sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) to Snowfield, a picturesque little Colorado town where she hopes Lisa can settle down and keep out of big city trouble. Unfortunately, when they get to Snowfield they find it deserted except for what appear to be a few diseased bodies, plus a couple of decapitated heads and hacked-off hands. The town's power flashes on and off. Sirens scream. Strange voices wail from phones and kitchen drains. One of the town deputies disappears. Another is killed by an impossible something. When Jennifer and Lisa, along with the local sheriff (Ben Affleck) and a paleobiologist (Peter O'Toole) finally figure out what's happening they have to face down something much deeper, darker and weirder than any plague or small town chainsaw killer.
This is where Joe Chappelle's solid directing and the actors' performances hold the movie together. Chappelle, who's currently an executive producer on Fringe, isn't afraid of digging deep into the strangeness, which is good because Phantoms isn't just a WTF movie. What's behind the horror isn't anything easy like zombies or aliens, but something that requires a couple of rounds of explanation. You need convincing actors to pull that off and you can't ask for anyone better than Peter O'Toole to walk you through the Valley of Insane Shit. In fact, O'Toole's brief solo confrontation with an entity called the Ancient Enemy might be the highlight of the movie. He stands alone in an empty street while a light snow falls around him. With his green coat and red scarf, if you turned off the sound, you might think you were watching a Lifetime channel Christmas movie.
Instead, O'Toole is taunting the Ancient Enemy in a voice that carries all the weight and seriousness of a Shakespearean soliloquy. It's a beautiful moment of quiet calm between the stretches of thundering craziness.
Phantoms is far from perfect, but it takes chances and that's more than you can say for a lot of recent horror and SF. Plus you get to see Ben Affleck not doing his charming movie star schtick and Liev Schreiber playing a cop who comes off less like Serpico and more like a guy whose dream date is to spend a night in a morgue with a fistful of roofies and a bottle of Viagra.