The Phantoms episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? was Written by Emilie Black, Narrated by Adam Walton, Edited by Jaime Vazquez, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.
Ah, the late 1990s, a period of horror renewal, massive hits, and plenty of scares. Well, yes and no. Some films like the Scream franchise hit it big, like really big, and others, not so much. One of the failures of the late 1990s box office is Phantoms (watch it HERE) which was considered a massive flop. How did Phantoms become considered one of the biggest flops of its era? Well, it’s a mix of a lot of factors, most of them easily guessed by those who have had the pleasure, or displeasure, of seeing the film. The story here is that of a small town where the whole of the population has vanished, the town is Snowfield, Colorado, and a ragtag group of people has to make sense of it all.
The film is based on a book by Dean Kootz who also wrote the script for the film, so in terms of adaptation, it could be considered the proper way of doing things as any change done to the story was made by its creator. However, some of the changes were fairly major and not every fan of the book was enthralled by the changes. The book had originally been published in 1983 and it found its audience after its release in paperback where it was a hit. That being said, the book itself was something that Koontz had been almost reluctant to write, being that he was not a horror writer. His publisher, however, was seeing the numbers horror books made, so they needed in on that. They advised him to write a horror book which Koontz did with a lot of research put into it and some truly creepy sequences. Through the years, the book almost became a film twice before the iteration we now know. Once in the late 1980s by New World Pictures and again in the early 1990s by Allied Vision Entertainment, with both attempts not coming to fruition. In the late 1990s, following the release of the Dean Koontz’ film Hideaway, which oddly enough was also not exactly a hit at the box office either but did do well on video, Phantoms was green lit. Miramax, who had a little streak of success in the early and mid 90s, would produce.
The script for Phantoms by Koontz has changes from the book of course. A few of them are minor with some of them adjusting things to take a few of the more inappropriate things out of the story. Things like making Lisa in her mid-twenties versus her age of 14 in the book as one of the characters does speak about her inappropriately, something that changing her age and changing that male character could fix easily. Of course, other changes like removing characters to streamline the cast and changing the story here and there to also streamline to story were to be expected. Probably the most affective change was that of the ending going from a happy one to a more open one, possibly to allow for a sequel. In the book, the creature is killed off with an infection and two of the lead characters end up getting married. In the film, as they believe they have destroyed the creature, an extra scene hints at the possibility that it may not be fully gone. One could stand with these changes as they were made by the author himself, a bit like when Clive Barker made changes between The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser, but here, these changes do not work as well and take a lot away from the story. Of course, subplots being removed is often a good thing, but too many changes to the characters, the open ending, and a drop in the story’s suspense meant that Phantoms the film was much less effective and Phantoms the book.
Another aspect of the book is that it seemed to aim at adults, as in the older adult audience rather than teens. The film, however, seemed to go for a younger audience with a cool and hot cast. The poster itself was a giant misfire done mostly in editing instead of getting the cast together for a photoshoot. In fact, they used images they already had. They even used the bodies of other people with the heads of their cast added, those head photos coming from other films and photoshoots they had on file at Miramax. This screams laziness and a total lack of care about the film and folks saw through it. For fun and potential trivia game answers, the bodies of Drew Barrymore and Neve Campbell from the Scream poster and promos were used and had the heads of Rose McGowan and Joanna Going tacked onto them. Liev Schreiber’s face and body are his own, but they are from the Scream 2 poster, modified and flipped, and Ben Affleck’s photo is of himself as well, but from the marketing for the previous year’s film Chasing Amy. This is some special level of “but why?” Of course, the film had another poster since that one, but that hodge podge of a poster was the one used in theaters and video stores all over the country.
The film was released in theaters on January 23, 1998, not exactly a great release date, especially in the late 1990s, where the film would be considered as lesser just for its release date window. Back then and up until a few years ago, films released in February were the films the studio had no faith in and had an obligation to release in theater. January was a bit like that, but to a lesser extent. An end of January release was never a good sign. The film would be coming up against other titles that were in similar situations and films that were held over from the Holiday season as they were large hits or films that were extended to more theaters following award season limited releases that went well. Phantoms was released in 1859 theaters, not a bad release, but not the largest possible either. It did kind of decent at the box office on its release weekend, pulling in $3,065,951, but then it took a nosedive after word of mouth started. The film’s total box office was $5.6 million, so it clearly didn’t do so well in the following weeks. Looking at the box office for its release weekend, it came up against some major players including films that had been out for over a month. The top ten that weekend had Titanic in its 6th week making $25,238,720 USD at number one, followed by Spice World which was the only other new release hitting the top ten that weekend with $10,527,222 USD. The other films in the top ten were Good Will Hunting, As Good as It Gets, Fallen, Wag the Dog, Hard Rain, Half Baked, Tomorrow Never Dies. Phantoms came in at number 9, just ahead of 007.
$3,065,951 could be considered a good amount of money if the film had been an indie with a really low budget. As it is Phantoms didn’t have a really big budget, but it was still a high enough budget to make that money and the total of $5.6 million paled in comparison to the $18 million budget. Not even getting a third of its budget back, the film was officially a flop. It was a massive flop, and it was mostly due to the film not being great at all. Per reviewers, it was a terrible film. From what can be seen on Rotten Tomatoes, the film gathered as of today, a 13% rotten rating from the professionals and a 27% audience score. Reading comments about film online, it seems like very few like it because it’s good and those who enjoy it do because it’s “so bad it’s good”. Something here wasn’t adding up, something went wrong, and it can be hard to pinpoint the reasons for this.
The film here was based on a successful book which has some more than decent reviews, one that is still readable to this day. The author had a good track record for books, but not as much for film adaptations of his books. The adaptations such as Hideaway and Whispers were not very well received or successful at the box office. Watchers on the other hand did well enough to get 3 sequels of varying quality. The author’s film adaptations were not exactly great as of 1998, so this may also have affected the box office for Phantoms.
Looking at the rest of the talent involved, director Joe Chappelle has been good recently with television series like Godfather of Harlem, Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Fringe, The Wire, the various CSI series, and a lot more. His film resume is a lot less impressive unfortunately with Thieves Quartet, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, Takedown, Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula, The Skulls III, An Acceptable Loss, and of course Phantoms. It seems the man does better with the episodic format.
The cast here was one that should have put butts in the seats back in 1998. Leading the pack were Peter O’Toole, Rose McGowan, Joanna Going, Liev Schreiber, and Ben Affleck. This cast was interesting at the time, but seemed to be one picked to sell the film to younger audiences, the preferred 16- to 25-year-old cinema going audience that so many marketing campaigns are pushing films to. The film being rated R should not have been an issue here being aimed at this audience, but the story and the book it was adapted from seemed to aim it more at the 25+ crowd. Still, many would have loved to see this cast. Ben Affleck was just coming off of Good Will Hunting, which was still in theaters at the time. He was being talked about for awards and his name was everywhere. It was a good gamble to have him in this. Peter O’Toole was a more than qualified actor and perfect to attract older viewers. Rose McGowan and Liev Schreiber were both fresh off of the Scream franchise, so both had good box office appeal. Joanna Going had a solid body of work, but one that was more television than film. The cast here was attractive, talented, and fun to watch, so it should have helped sell a lot more tickets.
The time of year the film was released, the changes to the story peeving the die-hard fans of the book, the script and direction, as well as the competition seem to have held down the film some. However, what mostly hurt the film were the reviews and the word of mouth coming from early viewers. These were not good and still aren’t good to this day. Watching the film, it’s obvious that it was a misfire on a lot of fronts. The cast selection was interesting and has some truly appealing names, giving the film a bit more attraction. The acting of these folks here is uneven at best, seemingly lost in the script at times. To this day, this film is a bit puzzling as to why it misfired so badly. The decisions behind the scenes seem to indicate a lot of studio involvement and some odd choices being made to work with the budget and the limitations the filmmakers were faced with. It should have been a lot better and perhaps the story at hand should be readapted, maybe even in the longer form of a series. As it is, Phantoms is a failure, one that flopped at the box office due to many things going wrong and one that didn’t have legs after its original decently attended weekend. The film could have been better made, it could have had more of a cult following had it been better or worse even for those that enjoya so bad its good flick. There is something here, there are good bones, but some things are missing, and some things are off, and this all led to an abysmal box office and return on investment for the studio.
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Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/phantoms-1998-wtf/