By Drew Taylor | The Playlist February 28, 2014 at 4:00PM
It's strange how intermittently bestselling novelist Dean Koontz has been adapted, and how those adaptations—from the early Ben Affleck joint "Phantoms" to the Jeff Goldblum starring psychological thriller "Hideaway"—have been almost uniformly horrible. Koontz doesn't have the way with characters or the homespun prose of his contemporary Stephen King, but he sells almost as many books. And most are written in a singularly straightforward, cinematic style that should make big screen adaptations easy and accessible (his late '90s techno-thriller "Dark Rivers of the Heart" was the best movie James Cameron never made). So calling "Odd Thomas" the best Dean Koontz adaptation yet feels like damning it with faint praise, but it's true. Too bad it's barely getting released. Koontz's string of bad luck continues.
"Odd Thomas" is based on the first in a series of books starring the titular character, a small-town fry cook whose abilities to see past our existence into the spirit world make him a kind of supernatural private eye, except nobody's really paying him (hence the gig as a fry cook). This movie version has made him younger and cuter and played by Anton Yelchin, of the J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" movies and the sorely undervalued horror remake "Fright Night." Thomas is an ordinary schlub with an extraordinary ability who is trying to do right by those around him. He's not spurred on by some greater sense of purpose or higher calling; he's just bored, and he wants to be a good person. (Or, to quote his gumshoe-y narration, "I see dead people… But then, by god, I actually do something about it.")
As "Odd Thomas" begins, the character starts to get the sensation that something huge and horrible is about to happen in his sleepy Southwestern town of Pico Mundo. There are more than the usual number of restless spirits haunting the town, and he is increasingly disturbed by the presence of bodachs—shimmery creatures that seemingly only appear around instances of death or large-scale destruction. Thomas tries to put the pieces together, utilizing the help of the local sheriff (Willem Dafoe, clearly having fun in a mostly thankless role) and his girlfriend Stormy Llewellyn (Addison Timlin, who is so adorable you can forgive her for saying stuff like "Loop me in, Odd One"), who helps him in his sleuthing and works at the local ice cream shop.
There are some perfunctory plot points that will be familiar to anyone who watches an hour long procedural this week (or any other), complete with red herrings, dead giveaways, and a climax in which the hero maybe missed something he should have spotted long ago (leading to even more trouble). The a-to-b-to-c investigating would have been a lot more boring if it was devoid of, well, its oddness. But the fact that there are ghosts and creepy monsters and serial killers tucked away in every corner of the sun-bleached town makes for a much more engaging adventure. Most of the time, the movie carries the same kind of low wattage charm that Peter Jackson's "The Frighteners" brought almost twenty years ago. (Jesus).
It's just hard to get completely engaged in the mystery aspect of the movie, which is supposed to drive the story forward. This is because the details of the mystery are purposefully fuzzy (Thomas is often guided by what he calls "psychic magnetism," a conceit that works much better on the page) and because that stuff is kind of boring. What's much more interesting is Odd's relationship with Stormy, which is lovingly detailed in a flashback (they've been sweethearts since they were very little) and lends the movie's ending a surprisingly heavy emotional wallop. Also more interesting: all of those crazy monsters and ghosts.
"Odd Thomas" wrapped production way back in 2011, sitting on the shelf for a while until it was revealed that the movie had become embroiled in a costly legal battle amongst the producers and is only now, very quietly, being released theatrically before being quickly dumped on home video. This is kind of of a shame, as it really is the best Koontz adaptation, by a fairly considerable margin, and because the movie's ending sets it up for further adventures of the character (something we wouldn't be opposed to at all). The novel was followed by four sequels and two graphic novels, while the movie will just have to stand alone.
Stephen Sommers, the underrated filmmaker behind big screen spectacles like the first two "Mummy" movies, wrote and directed "Odd Thomas," and it's easily his most unabashedly delightful movie since 1998's sea monster-on-a-cruise-ship romp "Deep Rising." Sommers, after his monster mash "Van Helsing" failed to translate into a graveyard smash, doesn't have the bells and whistles at his disposal that he used to, which has forced him to become a leaner, more inventive storyteller. The movie unfolds with whimsical tangents, flashing backwards in time or indulging in the complicated history of a particular ghost or ghoul, before zinging into the present and plugging back into the narrative's main thread. And while his budget for visual effects seems to have been greatly reduced (this was a director so accustomed to big budget excess that Industrial Light & Magic had a term for effects that were deliriously over-the-top: "Sommersized"), he still manages to conjure up some noteworthy nightmares, with the movie's inherent cheapness only occasionally revealing itself on any noticeable level. (Sommers feels more naked without regular composer Alan Silvestri than anything else.)
In a weird way "Odd Thomas" very much feels like the work of a filmmaker with something to prove. Sommers, as is his nature, wanted to prove a number of things—that you could make a successful Koontz adaptation (if not box office-wise, then at least in spirit), that he could work with a more modest budget, and that Hollywood was wrong for shutting him out after a couple of misfires ("G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra," which he also directed, was something of a bore but showcased the director's innate casting abilities and a couple of nifty set pieces). If judged by these parameters, the movie is something of a success. Sommers smartly adapted the material himself and filled it with actors who you have no probably watching wander through an occasionally pointless movie. It's the kind of thing that, if flipping through the cable channels one night and you happened upon, you probably wouldn't want to flip past. "Odd Thomas" is a much better film than it's non-release would suggest. Hopefully one day it'll find it's audience and people will appreciate it for something other than just being better than "Phantoms." [B]