Yes, Ben Affleck Really Was The Bomb in ‘Phantoms’

Horror fans of a certain age may have never even heard of Phantoms. After all, the mostly ridiculous creature feature is just over a quarter century old at this point. The so-called slacker generation of the 90s probably wouldn’t be aware of it either if it wasn’t for Kevin Smith. The View Askewniverse that Smith created with Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy eventually led to the meta road trip movie Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that effectively made Phantoms a small but notable stitch in the pop culture fabric.

For those needing a refresher, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back follows Smith and his steadfast sidekick Jay (Jason Mewes) as they try to stop Hollywood from making a film version of their hit indie comic book Bluntman and Chronic written by their old buddy Holden (Ben Affleck). When Jay and Silent Bob find out that Miramax is behind the film, they’re not too pleased to learn that the stars of Good Will Hunting, Affleck and Matt Damon, will probably wind up being cast. Affleck (in the role of Holden) makes it clear that he wasn’t a big fan of Good Will Hunting, “but Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms.

Later on in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Jay shouts out to the “real” versions of Affleck and Damon while he’s being hauled away by security guards, screaming “Affleck, you da bomb in Phantoms, yo!” (I’m not saying it’s a watershed moment for cinema, but it is one of the most quoted lines in stoner movie history.)

For some context, Phantoms hit theaters in 1998 right when Good Will Hunting was becoming a sleeper hit at the box office. Affleck, Damon, and Robin Williams would all be nominated for Oscars while Phantoms was still languishing in theaters. In retrospect, Affleck’s cachet as a newly minted matinee idol wasn’t fully formed when he starred as a fresh-faced sheriff named Bryce Hammond tasked with defeating an ancient evil in Phantoms.

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The plot of Phantoms sounds like it’s more of a jumping-off point for a horror video game instead of being based on a bestselling novel by author Dean Koontz. Two sisters (Joanna Going and Scream alum Rose McGowan) find themselves in a remote ski town in Colorado where any normal signs of life are eerily missing from the otherwise idyllic setting. Everyone in the town is gone, save for Affleck’s sheriff and his trusted deputy played by Nicky Katt. Together, they try and reverse-engineer what happened to the town’s inhabitants.

They eventually find a cryptic message written on a mirror in smudged lipstick which leads them to the eccentric Dr. Timothy Flyte played by the illustrious Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia). Why is O’Toole in Phantoms? To deliver a ton of exposition in the most professional way possible. Unfortunately, even O’Toole’s legacy status can’t fully sell the outlandish theory concerning the creatures that have taken over the town. Basically, the “phantoms” are worm-like parasites that can suck out our brains and gain our knowledge. Whatever we are, they become. That idea leads to some lazy but laughable musings on human nature that give the phrase “You are what you eat” a decidedly new horror bent.

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In January of 1998, Phantoms came and went in surprising fashion. Today, it’s worth going back and watching this admittedly messy horror gem strictly because it wasn’t a success, even though it probably should have been. On paper, Phantoms was poised to ride the wave of the late ’90s horror craze that Scream and From Dusk Til Dawn helped usher in. The distributor, Dimension Films, had quickly become a name in the genre space that promised fun twists and unpredictable scares. But the setup looked like a strange mix of Tremors, The Thing, and Silent Hill (the game would premiere one year later in 1999).

For all of its faults, there are more reasons to watch Phantoms than not. For starters, the fact that every character delivers their lines like it’s Shakespeare rings a lot funnier over 25 years later. Speaking of which, Phantoms boasts one of the best teen casts of the era. In addition to Rose McGowan at the peak of her onscreen cynicism, Liev Schreiber adds another Scream alumni into the mix. Seeing Affleck and Nicky Katt together again also feels a little bit like a high school reunion for fans of Dazed and Confused. (If you remember their characters O’Bannion and Clint from Richard Linklater’s classic hangout movie, it’s not much of a stretch that they could become the cops in Phantoms.)

Peter O’Toole’s appearance also continues the longstanding horror tradition of legacy actors adding some much-needed gravitas to the genre in the twilight of their careers. O’Toole in Phantoms was essentially what Donald Pleasance was to Halloween. Instead of Michael Myers, O’Toole sadly just had weird space worms to work with.

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There are also some genuinely effective effects scenes that hold up surprisingly well. One character, in particular, has his cerebral cortex sucked out of his face, leaving a sunken shrunken husk of a body. Heaps of decomposing, gooey bodies are also wonderfully creepy. And an awkward, melodramatic scene between Affleck and a leering dog is unintentionally hilarious.

Today, Phantoms has even more camp than what was originally intended. Like other notable horror duds of the time like Urban Legend or The Fog remake, Phantoms works best when you’re watching it with a crowd. It’s too bad this cast can’t get back together in their prime to make something that would have stood the test of time in an entirely different way. For now, we still have the original Phantoms to marvel at. It’s also a great double feature with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back or The Faculty when you’re planning your next movie marathon.



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