Saturday, July 5, 2014

Book Learnin' #5: Dean Koontz' Phantoms

When I started this Book Learnin’ series largely by accident, I hadn’t fully considered just how many movies there were based on the works of Stephen King. I’ve already talked about two of them (It and The Shining), and going forward I plan to dole them out in every even numbered installment. The odds will usually be more random, but this time around, I went out of my way to focus on the author that, even more so than Clive Barker, has been considered by many readers to be the next best thing to King, or at least his dimestore equivalent, Dean Koontz. And because I have it on good authority that Ben Affleck is the bomb in the movie, I thought I would start with perhaps his most famous work, Phantoms.

I had almost no history, and thus no preconceived notions surrounding this book or this movie going into it. I’d never read the novel, and while I had seen the film once, back when it first came out, I discovered upon second viewing that I had virtually no recollection of it whatsoever. Its rare that a movie can have so little effect on me, one way or the other, that I would just completely forget it, making me wonder if I was even paying attention the first time, or if I maybe just had it on in the background and thought I had actually seen the movie all this time, when I really hadn’t. In any case, I’ve now seen the thing properly at least once, with the benefit of the original source material for comparison, and in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t bothered.

This is the first Book Learnin’ where I picked a book/film combination somewhat arbitrarily, without any particular passion, positive or negative, for either one, and while I will almost certainly do it again as I begin to explore books and movies I am completely unfamiliar with, the results this time almost derailed the project completely. This is not the first attempt at a comparison review of this story, but rather only the latest of many drafts where a blank page with nothing to say forced me to start over, even though I technically hadn’t even written anything yet. You may have already noticed that I’m already three paragraphs in and haven’t actually talked about the book or the movie yet, and that’s because I’m still dreading the prospect of doing so.

It’s not even that either version of Phantoms is necessarily bad, but then if either of them were particularly bad, I might have something to talk about. The premise is interesting enough, a town obliterated by a preternatural creature able to assume the form and knowledge of anything it eats, terrorizing the people who discover the aftermath under the assumed belief that it is the Devil all of its victims thought it was as it was eating them. The problem is, that’s really all it has going for it, a cool monster. Say what you will about the often crushing self-indulgence of King, at least he knows that the monster itself should always be secondary to the human characters facing off against it. You can have the creepiest evil imaginable, but if you don’t care about the people its creeping out, it doesn’t really matter.

Most of this fault lies with the book, which presents its characters less like real people and more like cyphers for the author’s need to get as much exposition out as possible through dialogue instead of some more interesting or organic way. We get perfunctory backstories, a son in a coma, unresolved issues with the female protagonist’s mother, but really, all these people are here to do is observe the supernatural stuff after the fact and present theories as to what it might be, eventually cobbling together an idea of what it actually is, whether or not these specific characters should or would posit these particular notions based on what little you know about them.

The easiest solution, it seems to me, would have been to tell this story, or at least the parts of it where information about the creature was revealed, from the point of view of the creature itself. It has a voice, and given its religious view of itself this might have been a fascinating psyche to explore, but instead we get two sisters, a British guy, and a bunch of rube sheriffs stumbling around trying to figure it all out with deductive reasoning. The creature eventually settles on one character to write his gospel anyway, so why not have half the book be that, straight from the demon’s mouth? Or better yet, leave something up to mystery and don’t bother to explain it so much at all, instead of having characters puke out midichlorians at every opportunity.

This wouldn’t be so lame if the effects of the creature weren’t so all over the place. Some victims are disappeared completely, reduced to water and piles of indigestible matter, while others are left as purple, semi rotten corpses. But then others are decapitated or left presented as if to scare the people who find them, like this creature who thinks he’s the Devil assumes that means he’s the curator of a town-wide haunted hootchie. Even the titular phantoms, appearances of the creature shapeshifted into the dead things it has eaten, aren’t really used all that often or to that great effect. Setting up a mystery like this with clues the reader is meant to solve along with the characters only works if those clues come together in the end and make sense, but in this case, they are merely forced together, only making sense after the explanation is hammered into your head.

By contrast, the movie is actually considerably better, though not by enough to really justify the adaptation, and not enough to look back on it as a classic in its own right. Surprisingly, Dean Koontz is credited with the screenplay as well, and considering how many of the changes and omissions improve upon the story, either this means he understood what didn’t work in his book in time to write the film version, or his credit masks a number of re-writes by uncredited screenwriters. The exposition is streamlined to only what is absolutely necessary, which means there’s not as much clunky dialogue, and as a result the characters feel a lot more relatable. Entire subplots are removed without any overall effect on the story, most notably a serial killer teaming up with a Satan worshiping biker, which in the novel feels pointless as its happening and only insults you with its pointlessness by the end of it.

And you simply can’t argue with the cast. Rose McGowan aside, you couldn’t ask for a better group of people to elevate these otherwise shallow characters. Peter O’Toole is of course the highlight, a man who I don’t believe understood the concept of phoning it in for a paycheck. He does everything he can to bring class to this hollow mess, and with the help of an incredibly young looking Affleck and the always intriguingly menacing Liev Schreiber in an early villainous role, its largely a successful effort. Affleck might have been, or at least might have looked a bit too young for the role of a sheriff implied to be somewhat older and more grizzled in the book, but his natural Armageddon era charisma shines through, and Schreiber’s creepy rednecky monster deserves a spin-off of his own.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is that despite the fact that it was made in 1998 during that period where CGI was just starting to be seriously exploited, but before it was really ready to be, the special effects actually hold up pretty well. Its actually a mix of practical effects and CGI, and there was nothing that in hindsight looks particularly dated on a technical level, except those moments that feel like deliberate nods to 80’s movies, most obviously John Carpenter’s The Thing. A scene with a mutated dog (naturally), and a climactic attack by Schreiber using his own intestines as tentacle-like weapons are clear homages, and you get the sense that adapting this book might just have been an excuse to do a thematic sequel, imagining what might happen if the Thing had reached land.

Its not quite good enough to live up to that legacy, but it's entertaining enough that I might suggest giving it a re-watch, but only if you have nothing better to do that day. As for the book, I don’t know enough about Koontz’ other writing to speculate about whether or not this stilted, expository style is common for him, though it only makes me more curious to read Odd Thomas, which was recently adapted into a movie and seems like a story that would be absolutely ruined by this kind of robotic characterization. Then again, I don’t know if I could actually bring myself to spend the time it would take actually reading another Koontz novel to find out. Maybe this one is the exception and the majority of them are much better, good enough to justify the success he has had, but if I didn’t have a blog to write, I doubt I would have any reason to find out.

(Note: It should also be mentioned that, at least according to Wikipedia, the movie version was one of the primary inspirations for the setting of the classic survival horror video game series Silent Hill, which sort of makes sense, and kind of makes me want to break out my old PS1 to catch all the similarities. But then, I suppose that would require me to start a whole new comparison series, and after eleven paragraphs of this, I don’t know if I have the strength.)

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