Was Ben Affleck Really Da Bomb in ‘Phantoms?’ A ScreenCrush Investigation
25 years ago, a bomb was unleashed on Hollywood.
Or, depending on your perspective, da bomb was unleashed on Hollywood.
January 23, 1998. That was the day Phantoms was released to theaters. Based on the horror novel by author Dean Koontz, Phantoms followed a pair of sisters — played by Joanna Going and Rose McGowan — who wander into a Colorado ski town, only to find it mysteriously empty. Eventually, a few police officers show up to investigate; collectively, they discover that some sort of “Ancient Enemy” — one that was maybe responsible for similar mass historical disappearances in places like Roanoke — has wiped out the town’s entire population.
Phantoms had all the makings of a horror hit. It had brand-name source material from Koontz (who even adapted his own novel) and it came from Dimension, a subsidiary of Miramax, which was then the hottest brand in genre films thanks the success of films like From Dusk Till Dawn and the Scream franchise. Phantoms actually starred several veterans of the Scream franchise, including McGowan and Liev Schreiber, along with Peter O’Toole as an eccentric historian (and writer for a thinly fictionalized Weekly World News) who is the only one who has solved the mystery of the Colorado disappearance.
But the movie had an additional ace in the hole, another handsome young actor named Ben Affleck, who played Phantoms’ key role of the sheriff called in to investigate the missing town. Phantoms arrived in theaters just a few weeks after another Miramax release called Good Will Hunting, which Affleck had co-written and co-starred in with his friend and collaborator, Matt Damon. Less than a month after Phantoms premiered, Affleck would be nominated for an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting’s script. Six weeks after that, he won his first Oscar.
None of the attention on Affleck and Good Will Hunting helped Phantoms. The same weekend Phantoms debuted, Good Will Hunting grossed $8.5 million. Phantoms wound up grossing just $5.6 million during its entire run in theaters. And while Good Will Hunting became one of the decade’s most celebrated films, Phantoms was quickly forgotten.
Or maybe it would have been — if not for Affleck’s frequent collaborator Kevin Smith mocking Phantoms in his next movie. That was 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, where Phantoms became one of the running jokes. It pops up the first time when the title characters visit Affleck’s Holden McNeil, a comic book artist who created characters based on Jay and Silent Bob. (Affleck had first played the role in Smith’s Chasing Amy in 1997.)
In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Miramax is producing a movie based on Holden’s comic Bluntman and Chronic — essentially Jay and Bob as stoner superheroes. When Jay (Jason Mewes) and Bob (Smith) ask who is playing them in the film, Affleck quips “It’s Miramax, so I’m sure it’ll be Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.” Jay claims not to know who Affleck and Damon are; Holden explains that they made Good Will Hunting, which Jay dismisses as “that f—ing movie with Mork from Ork in it.”
“Yeah I wasn’t a big fan either,” Affleck (as Holden) says, “but Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms.”
“Word, b—! Phantoms like a mother f—er!” Jay replies.
Then Phantoms comes up again later, after Jay and Silent Bob have made their way to Hollywood, snuck onto the Miramax backlot, and found the set of Good Will Hunting 2, starring Damon and Affleck as fictionalized versions of themselves. When security guards come to take Jay and Bob away, Jay yells “Affleck, you da bomb in Phantoms, yo!”
This throwaway line has had surprising staying power — to the point that when Affleck spoke at Mewes and Smith’s hands-in-cement ceremony at the Chinese Theater in 2019, Affleck mentioned it. A case could be made that the only context that Phantoms is remembered 25 years after its release is via that line.
But was Affleck da bomb in Phantoms? In honor of the movie’s 25th anniversary, I decided to perform an extremely scientific study — i.e. I watched the film for the first time — and find out. And in my professional opinion, Affleck is not da bomb in Phantoms.
But someone else is.
First, while Affleck does not necessarily rise to the level of being da bomb in Phantoms (yo), he’s not necessarily bad in the film. He does precisely what is asked of him by this slightly silly and not very scary movie. He plays Bryce Hammond, the no-nonsense sheriff who winds up trapped in the abandoned Colorado town by an ancient evil.
Over the course of the film, viewers learn Hammond’s tragic backstory: years earlier, he had accidentally shot a young boy. His feelings of guilt over the incident have essentially taken over his life and ruined his career. Yes, if only this poor police officer could stop feeling bad about killing an innocent child, he would be so much better at his job! (This same tragic backstory, which would never fly today, was also used to motivate Reginald VelJohnson’s cop in Die Hard, who must finally conquer his guilt and shame by, uh, shooting another person.)
Affleck’s main issue in Phantoms: At just 25 years old at the time of the film’s release, he seems way too young and babyfaced to play this hardened lawman. Good Will Hunting was about guys who were still college-aged. All the other action heroes Affleck played in this late ’90s and early 2000s period were youthful, inexperienced, or in over their heads. (Think of his “younger” version of Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears, which was made three years after this.) Affleck would be the perfect age to play Sheriff Bryce Hammond today. In 1998, he looks miscast.
The person who is perfectly cast in the film is Peter O’Toole. As the evocatively named Dr. Timothy Flyte, the 65-year-old O’Toole strikes just the right note; Deadly serious. How else should an actor supposed play the role of a kook who works for the Weekly World News who, under interrogation by the FBI, defiantly declares that an unholy immortal hellbeast is hanging out in the sewers beneath a ski resort? The FBI recruits O’Toole to come with them to Colorado, whereupon he delivers more expository dialogue while stumbling around in an ill-fitting hazmat suit.
O’Toole commits fully to the character. Which of course makes it all the more hysterical...
If you’re going to watch Phantoms — something I do not necessarily recommend — Peter O’Toole is the reason to do it. His role is so far beneath him it might as well be hanging out in the sewers with the Ancient Enemy. Ben Affleck’s best days were yet to come; Peter O’Toole’s were already behind him. But he was still da bomb in Phantoms.