Thursday, April 25, 2013

Monstrous Mayhem: PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC'S REVENGE (1989)

Stephen: “What the hell is it?”
Roger: “Looks like a shopping center, one of those big indoor malls.”

This bit of expositional dialogue from DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) always cracks me up.  Not only was it clearly added in post-production, but it seems to have been inserted for non-American audiences because shopping malls are as American as apple pie and trying to evade income taxes.  And thanks to George Romero’s trendsetting zombie flick, shopping malls turned into fertile ground for horror films.  The 80s gave us greater mall madness with classics such as NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984) and CHOPPING MALL (1986).  Hell, even the arcade segment in NIGHTMARES (1983) gets my shopper senses tingling.

I don’t know what it is, but give me something scary set in a mall and I’m there.  Maybe it is a combination of the familiar and the unknown. You’ve been in all the sprawling shops, but you are forbidden to access the behind-the-scenes.  That, combined with the unlimited access to everything, sets my consumer consciousness on fire.  So it is hardly a surprise that something titled PHANTOM OF THE MALL got my attention pretty easily when I was a kid.  Cashing in on the late 80s Phantom craze (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical that debuted in England in 1986 and tore up Broadway in 1988), this film is made for those teens plunking down hard cash at the mall theater for the latest FRIDAY THE 13th and is, like, totally awesome.

The town of Midwood, California is moving up in the world as developer Harv Posner and Mayor Karen Wilton (Morgan Fairchild) have just opened up the Midwood Mall.  “No more wondering where are your kids on Saturday night,” says the sleazy Posner.  Yes, this babysitting construction of commerce is going to solve all the town’s problems.  Not only are the kids going to have a place to go, but they are going to have plenty of places to work like the bar/restaurant Sleuth’s and the yogurt place The Chill Factor.  This place is fancy.  How fancy?  They have a dude in a tux that plays the piano for shoppers and – in an amusing nod to DAWN OF THE DEAD – Ken Foree (Peter from DAWN) works security.  So it’s no surprise that Melody Austin (Kari Whitman) and her friend Suzie (Kimber Sissons) are drawn to the place and both get jobs there.  Unfortunately, all is not well in this suburbia paradise.  Lurking in the shadows is Eric Matthews (Derek Rydall), a troubled teen who was thought to have died in a house fire that took place a year ago right where the mall now stands.  Deftly slinking around the crawlspaces and practicing kickboxing in his lair, Eric is out for revenge.

Eric knows the sleazy real estate developer Posner was responsible for his fiery “death.”  And he’s going to show him by crashing the big investor’s party on July 4th and killing anyone associated with the mall.  The only one free from Eric’s revenge is Melody, his ex-girlfriend who was there the night of the fire that he lovingly stalks via the mall’s high-tech security system.  He’s slowly been trying to woo her back by leaving orchids in her locker, getting her a fancy dress she wanted but couldn’t afford (women love shoplifters!) and playing their song in the jukebox at her job.  Only problem is Eric is half the man he used to be as the right side of his face is now badly burned.  Also, Melody seems to be falling for Peter Baldwin (Rob Estes), a local reporter who is slowly uncovering what happened that fateful night a year ago.  So much for Melody keeping the home fires, uh, burning for Eric.  Then again, would you want to live in an underground den with a guy who looks like an alien from MAC AND ME (1988)?   Love never dies, but it certainly can upgrade.

Ah, be still my mall loving heart, I think I’m in heaven.  As you might have guessed, this movie left me in a giddy state when I rented it as a 15-year-old and a revisit some 20 years later finds a similar reaction.  PHANTOM OF THE MALL is essential viewing for anyone who considers themselves a serious student of the shopping center scares.  Not that it is scary, but you will fall in love with the 1980s milieu that seems to bleed off the screen.  Mostly filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria (the same place that housed CHOPPING MALL), PHANTOM fills me with nostalgia when I see places like B. Dalton Booksellers or Sam Goody’s or Victoria’s Secret.  Ah, to see the 80s women sliding into that 80s lingerie…oh, sorry, was I typing out loud?  You also have to admire the film’s what-da-hell take on certain things.  For example, according to this film you get cobras in a pet shop (I assume that is where Eric stole his slithery pets) and a store called The Roughhouse sells flamethrowers.  “Hey, honey, you take the kids to Toys R Us while I got to Roughhouse to get us that flamethrower we talked about.”  Not only that, but the flamethrowers are on the display shelf fully operational.  Then again, this was the Reagan era and what do you expect from a town that elects Morgan Fairchild as their Mayor?

Director Richard Friedman was just in the infancy of his career, but had already delivered two passable horror flicks (DOOM ASYLUM and SCARED STIFF, both 1987) before helming this.  He does a credible job making it all seem like a scenario that could really happen (although I do laugh at the idea of a classical pianist being a prowling rapist) and gives enough gory thrills.  Believe it or not, it took three writers to pen the film’s screenplay.  I’m going to lay all the credit for the good stuff at the feet of co-writer Robert King as he cut his teeth working for Roger Corman and wrote the Video Junkie fave THE NEST (1988).  There are also several well done stunts including some high falls from the top of the mall. But the real showstopper is a stuntman who gets totally plowed down during a car chase.  Dude earned his money.


Naturally, there are laughable plot points galore.  You do have to wonder how Eric is so good at catching seemingly every minute of Melody’s life on camera though. He good.  I also laughed at the idea that Eric is down in his dwelling pumping iron like a madman and when they show him working out, he is hitting the 10 pounds weights.  Damn, he real good.  Derek Rydall was something of a horror leading man staple at the time (he was in NIGHT VISITOR [1988] before this and POPCORN [1991] after) and he is good in the role.  Of course, special mention should go to the master thespian that plays the comic sidekick Buzz – Pauly Shore!  Yes, before becoming my babysitter on TOTALLY PAULY on MTV, Shore was busting his butt in stuff like this.  Just a few years later he would own the world.  Special mention should be made for the band The Vandals and their song “Is There a Phantom in the Mall?” that plays over the end credits.  With lyrics like “Is he the Phantom of the Mall/Or just a retard in a broken hockey mask” you can’t help but love that song.  So when it comes to the "burned teen turned Phantom in a mall" category, you can't beat this flick.        

Although most places list this as direct-to-video, we can show that it at least played theatrically in Salina, Kansas (!) in October 1989:


Moments of Clarity:

5 Reactions:

  1. I actually saw this at a mall in Florida when it came out, I saw a lot of junk because of Fangpria! This one was pretty good for the mall time capsule moments.

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  2. Very cool. I'm envious of anyone who got to see this theatrically.

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  3. Movies set in shopping malls always bring out the consumerist in me. Its not just about watching the movie its about keeping an eye out for all things I could have bought once upon a time.

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  4. HELLO WILLIAM -- SCOTT SCHNEID HERE, SCREENWRITER OF "PHANTOM OF THE MALL, WHICH STARTED LIFE AS A SPEC SCREENPLAY BY MYSELF AND MY FORMER WRITING PARTNER TONY MICHELMAN. THE SCREENPLAY WAS BASED ON A STORY IDEA BY MYSELF AND FRED ULRICH, A PRODUCER ACQUAINTANCE OF MINE AT THE TIME.

    YOU REALLY SHOULD READ THE ORIGINAL DRAFT OF "PHANTOM" BEFORE GIVING KUDOS TO ROBERT KING, WHO, IN MY OPINION DESTROYED THE FILM, CHANGING VIRTUALLY EVERY SCENE, CHARACTER INTENTIONS (MELODY, THE LEAD, FOR EXAMPLE, LOVED THE PHANTOM IN OUR DRAFT AND WANTED TO BE WITH HIM UNTIL THE BITTER END), ADDED RIDICULOUS STUFF LIKE THE PIANO PLAYER/RAPIST, COBRA IN THE TOILETS, KUNG FU IN THE PHANTOM'S LAIR, ETC. , ETC. AND WHILE ROBERT NO DOUBT DID THIS UNDER THE THUMB/DIRECTION OF FRIES ENTERTAINMENT, THE PRODUCTION/FINANCING ENTITY, WHEN I READ HIS SCRIPT AND SUBSEQUENTLY SAW THE COMPLETED FILM, I COULDN'T AGREE MORE WITH A REVIEWER WHO SAID THAT PHANTOM WAS "A VERY VERY VERY GOOD IDEA, GONE VERY VERY VER BAD."

    BE HAPPY TO SNAIL-MAIL A COPY OF THE SCHNEID/MICHELMAN VERSION IF YOU'RE INTERESTED IN READING IT. UNFORTUNATELY, I DO NOT YET HAVE A PDF OF IT (IT WAS WRITTEN IN THE MID-'80s, BEFORE PDFS EXISTED!) AND NEED TO HAVE IT SCANNED. LET ME KNOW...
    SCOTT SCHNEID

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  5. Scott,

    WOAH! Great to hear from you. I'd love to check the original script out. In fact, we do an entry on here that follows films from script to screen, so that would make a fascinating entry. Please contact me at:

    udar552005@gmail.com

    Thanks for the comments!

    William

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