Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge! 1989 Review
Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge! 1989
Directed by: Richard Friedman
Starring: Derek Rydall, Jonathan Goldsmith, Kari Whitman
Review by Luis Joaquín González
What do you get if you cross an intelligent idea for subtle comment with a garbage bag bulging with eighties trash…?
Well, you get Phantom of the Mall. This was the second slasher effort from Richard Friedman, the director of campy genre-parody, Doom Asylum. It became an attractive proposition for financiers after author Scott Schnied circulated a draft in 1982, because coming before The Initiation meant that it was the first slasher to incorporate a mall as a backdrop for some murderous mayhem. Soon after, it was signed up for a four-million dollar development with advanced special effects, but the production date was never confirmed and it kept being further delayed. As the eighties drew to a close, the budget was halved and different writers were brought on-board to make sure that the script could be completed within the tighter funding. Having read an interview with Schnied, it seems like the version that we were eventually delivered is nothing like what he had planned at the outset. In fact, it’s something of a twisted mishmash that is dismilar to anything that I’ve seen before (or likely will see after).
An un-named town in America sets about building a huge mall in its centre, but construction is held-up by a family that refuse to sell their house so that the development can continue across their land. When that same abode is burned to the ground in a fatal ‘accident’, production begins and the stores are opened quicker than expected. Local girl Melody, whose boyfriend was killed in the blaze, finds a job in the food court, but she’s still upset about the death of her beau. Before long, people begin disappearing in and around the mall and it seems that someone has an axe to grind. Could Melody’s love Eric have survived…?
For all intents and purposes, Phantom of the Mall is slightly bewildering in its structure. A story about a guy that ends up disfigured by a fire that also killed his parents, because greedy cigar-chomping politicians wanted to build a shopping centre where their house stood, should only throw pathos in one direction. Bizarrely, our antagonist turns out to be Eric; – the guy that we were feeling sorry for in the opening act – and because he had been portrayed to be a genuinely decent character, his transformation into a murderous villain is illogical and hard to comprehend. I understand of course that we are not expecting intense drama from a cheesy eighties slasher and I do like psycho killers with a believable motive. A better writer though would have recognised the obvious contradiction in the synopsis, and either made Eric have a dark side from the start (perhaps a fiery temper) or at least not conceived him to be as clean-cut and heroic as he came across in the opening scenes. From what I understand, Schnied’s original screenplay had Eric remain a good-natured vigilante type all the way through, which makes a lot more sense, but the latter adjustments deviated from a logical plot-path.
What we are left with is a movie that nods at the same kind of ‘obsession with image’ commentary that the wonderful Spanish film, Abrir los Ojos, delivered, but doesn’t really make anything of the concept. There were so many possibilities that could have been explored by the return of a disfigured former sweetheart that is seeking revenge and a reunion with the love of his life. Not one of these themes were developed to any level though and you could erase the link between the heroine and the phantom and just make it a film about a masked killer in the basement of a mall and nobody would’ve noticed any difference. Eric only murders wrong-doers and even protects Melody and her new admirer at one point in the runtime. This makes her decision to turn her back on him when he finally reveals himself the atom bomb that obliterates her appeal. She had been conveyed up until then as a sensitive heroine, but we forget about that as soon as she meets a handsome journalist and brushes off the disfigured hero that saved her life – twice. It is kind of like her saying, “I know you were my first love and suffered excruciating pain so that I could escape, but I met a guy with a car and a steady income that doesn’t live in the sewer or have a disfigured face, so see ya” . All this begs the question, why include another romantic angle when that of a saviour returning from beyond the grave is about the best that any writer could hope for? It all stinks of a poorly put-together plan of action, which is generally what you get from four separate screenwriters that don’t know or have contact with one another outside of the connection that they must finish a film on time and within budget. In principle, it’s the same as a few of my readers writing a paragraph each for a film that they watched once upon a time and me posting them together in one review here on a SLASH above.
These script issues are mainly notable because they prevent the film from fulfilling its obvious potential, but there are still bits and pieces that I enjoyed. It’s hard not to be entertained by a bunch of dweebs being stalked by a masked Kung-Fu kicking killer and this is definitely one for eighties aficionados. We get a host of bad hair styles and cheesy catchphrases along with an all-encompassing performance from Gregory Scott Cummings (Hack-O-Lantern/Click: The Calendar Girl Killer) as a hilariously OTT bad guy. He gets into a martial-arts fight with Eric that flows like Steve Seagal in extreme slo-mo and he delivers a teeth-gnashing portrayal of silliness. There’s one ok-ish killing that involves a length of rope and an escalator, but I don’t remember a single splash of blood which was a shame. In fact, the murders seem to abruptly cut before the money shot and despite the fact that I’ve never heard of an unrated copy, it’d be interesting to find out if such a thing exists. It’s only speculation, but those jumps do look a little too forced to be genuine. Perhaps it was just bad editing.
Director Richard Friedman, who had achieved marvels with his previous slasher, seems to be on auto-pilot mode for this project. His characters are fairly well proposed, but aimless, and he shoots most scenes flatly. Whereas Doom Asylum set a tone of comedic fun, Mall seems to be lost in the confusion of its moral compass. Also, the fact that we know that it’s Eric hiding in the shadows destroys any suspense or mystery surrounding the killer’s identity and motivations. It’s hard to understand why no one in the production recognised the need for a slice of tension or intrigue, but instead, a film that took seven-years to finally shoot comes across like a rushed un-planned mess. How easy would it have been to keep Eric’s identity a secret and just have him reveal himself at the conclusion? It could’ve opened the door for a more emotional struggle from a heroine who had met a new love and was suddenly confronted with the guy that was hideously scarred whilst preventing her demise. Audiences generally bond with characters that face big decisions and that would’ve worked a lot better than the confusing dreck that we were presented with. Still, we can find consolation in the fact that it may be a shame for us viewers, but imagine how Scott Schnied must’ve felt when he watched this back. His great idea for a unique slasher was ruined by influences beyond his control. It’s a shame.
Phantom of the Mall is a disappointing movie because of all the things that it doesn’t do. There’s still a chance that someone could pick up Schnied’s original script and salvage the idea, but it is looking unlikely. If that never happens, we are left with a cheesy eighties slasher that’s entertaining in a bargain-bucket way, but it’s also a failed opportunity to make something truly exceptional.