Phantoms is directed by Joe Chappelle. Joe Chappelle made his genre debut with the unpromising Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers (1995) and has since gone onto the unexceptional likes of Takedown (2000), Vlad the Impaler/Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (2000) and The Skulls II (2002). Chappelles work clearly hovers around genre territory but Phantoms has been the sole opportunity where it has amounted to anything of note. Phantoms certainly shows that Joe Chappelle is capable of making something worth paying attention to when given a decent budget and a good script. Subsequently though, Chapelle appears to have abandoned the (film) directors chair and these days is a consulting producer and occasionally director for tvs CSI: Miami (2002-12), The Wire (2002-8) and Fringe (2008-13).
The first 30 minutes of the film maintain a gripping atmosphere with the two sisters arriving back in town, finding it deserted with pots left boiling and increasingly bizarre things such as finding people have vanished from inside locked rooms or little piles of all the metal parts from the human body. At the same time, things sneak up from the periphery of vision, there are mysterious phone calls and Nicky Katt is snatched by something that leaves nothing but his gun spinning on the ground when people come running a moment later. All this building atmosphere finally explodes with startling results in the initial attack of the subliminally glimpsed thing in the dark.
Right throughout, Joe Chappelle maintains a superbly haunted atmosphere out of what might hide behind a toilet cubicle door or even as something as little as a tap dripping. The scene where Ben Affleck must walk between the two vans guarded only by a dog sitting in the middle of the street to get the serum maintains a level of suspense that is almost unbearable. When Chappelle lets it pay off, the results are incredible. There is an utterly unearthly scene with the possessed dog where the creature animates the soldiers body to talk directly to Peter OToole through the soldiers hollow mouth, during the midst of which it pulls a sharp of broken glass out of its mouth and coughs up a live lizard. There is a wild climax with the creature finally appearing and Liev Schreiber manifesting tentacles where his legs should be as he pursues the others.
Dean R. Koontz plays with some fascinating ideas about a shape-changing gestalt creature and the interesting idea that it merely thinks it is The Devil because it has absorbed the knowledge of people who believed it was. (Koontz does bolster the idea up with reference to the experiment where earthworms that had traversed a maze, were ground up and fed to other earthworms, which then supposedly absorbed the knowledge of how to navigate the maze, an experiment whose claims have since been discredited). Phantoms however is a superior horror film and due far greater recognition than it received at the time it came out.
(Nominee for Best Makeup Effects at this sites Best of 1998 Awards).