PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC’S REVENGE (1989)
A man assumed dead after an act of arson razed his house to the ground to make way for a shopping mall, returns for revenge.
It’s nice when a movie lays its cards on the table in the title. Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge is the story of a teenager, Eric (Derek Rydall), who’s skulking around in a shopping mall like a vengeful phantom. Some movies would expand on this premise to add more nuance, but not Phantom of the Mall, a slasher that’s all glorious superficial fun with nothing on its mind besides silly mall-based murder.
Tenuously an adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, the film in actuality has less to do with Gaston Leroux’s novel or any prior film adaptation than it does another succinctly titled mall-based slasher, Chopping Mall (1986)—a film which, coincidentally, was filmed in the exact same mall only three years prior. Arrow Video’s loving 2K restoration goes above and beyond to bring this lovably trashy film back into the attention of slasher freaks worldwide, complete with three different cuts of the film across two Blu-ray discs. While it’s not quite a lost masterpiece (did you expect it to be with a title like that?), there’s enough baffling dialogue and gonzo murder sequences to make it deserving of a place on the shelf alongside such classics as The Mutilator (1984) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984).
Eric wasn’t always a vengeful phantom or, for that matter, stuck in a mall. Our antihero was once an average John Hughes-ian high school jock, performing high-flying gymnastic stunts and participating in uncomfortably long PG-13 sex scenes with his girlfriend Melody (Kari Whitman). That all changes when a gaggle of greedy land developers, intent on building a luxurious shopping mall over Eric’s family home and tired of negotiating with them, decide to simply burn down Eric’s house and take the land by force. What they don’t realise is that Eric and Melody are in the midst of one of the aforementioned sex scenes when their house is set alight, and Melody’s the only one who seems to escape. Emphasis on seems to, as Eric, presumed dead by everyone, secretly escaped the building and is deformed by the burns he suffered, so has been taking residence beneath the mall for the year it was under construction.
But now, on the day of the mall’s grand opening, Eric is finally taking his revenge—and not only the developers of the mall, but anyone who gets between him and Melody, including her new boyfriend Peter (Rob Estes). Meanwhile, Eric’s quest for vengeance is punctuated by nonstop D-list cameos like Pauly Shore, the guy from the Dos Equis commercials, Chandler’s mom from Friends, even Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead (1978) has a small role as a security henchman, which makes a little more sense as a callback to the reigning champion of shopping mall horror films.
While that rough summary doesn’t necessarily break the slasher mould of a wronged innocent losing his mind and carrying out bloody retribution, the film does to some degree eschew the typical hack-n’-slash formula, although not always in a good way. Instead of opening on exposition that explains who Eric is, why his face looks cooked medium-well, and why he’s seeking vengeance in the location from Chopping Mall, we’re steadily given crumbs of backstory throughout by way of flashbacks and dream sequences. By the time the film hits the hour mark, there are enough clues to connect the dots on what led up to these events, but at that point it’s hard not to feel completely lost. It’s generally unclear what’s happening and why at any given point in the story, and characters aren’t really introduced so much as they just… appear.
More than anything, it feels like walking into a movie 15-minutes after it’s started and spending the rest of the runtime playing catch-up. Even once all the pieces are on the table, it never really makes any kind of narrative sense. Phantom of the Mall exists in an alternate universe in which disgruntled burn victims live in the basement of shopping malls for a full calendar year, undetected, and shoplifting is a crime punishable by high-speed car chase and a revolver jammed in your face. The only reason Melody eventually suspects that Eric may still be alive is that she hears “their song”—a nonspecific 1980s power ballad that plays at least six times over the course of the film—on the jukebox at work. Something that could surely be explained away more easily as a coincidence than as a sign your long-dead boyfriend is secretly living beneath a mall!
Then again, who cares if a film like this is incomprehensible? A dearth of plot has never been much of an obstacle when it comes to slashers, as we’re in it for the blood! In that sense, Eric doesn’t let its audience down. While this is hardly Friday the 13th (1980) and the SFX aren’t even mid-budget, they make up for their cheapness in ingenuity. A man gets his face shoved into an industrial fan, a voyeuristic security guard is electrocuted until his eyeballs fly out, and, inexplicably, someone gets their penis bitten off by a cobra while sitting on a toilet! In one scene Eric nearly kickboxes a man to death, a development which seems to imply the existence of a well-equipped gym underneath this mall where Eric has been practicing his acrobatics. While he occasionally opts for restraint in his killings—a humble stabbing, your average everyday defenestration—more often than not he’s reaching for the crossbow and/or snake. Rest assured, this man is hardly qualified to be judging and often killing creepy mall security and overzealous suitors. When he’s not constructing convoluted, exotic forms of murder (see: death by escalator) for consumers, he’s staring at his ex-girlfriend over CCTV while loudly mouth-breathing and listening to that same terrible power ballad ad infinitum. If he wasn’t already, you know, a deranged ‘phantom of the mall’, he would hardly be winning himself any favor with how he acts the rest of the time.
If you approach a movie like this with any expectations beyond outrageous horror setpieces, you’re bound to be disappointed. Let me break the bad news: Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge isn’t high-art, nor is it a horror classic. If anything, it feels like the middle movie of an already established horror franchise—there’s lore that’s only explained via flashback, and the final frame implies the existence of further revenge in a sequel that never came. If you leave your brain at the door, however, this is a quick, gross, and spectacularly fun footnote of an ’80s slasher, and ne with a veritable bounty of “how did this get made?” moments to keep genre fans more than satisfied.
Arrow’s new Blu-ray includes three versions of the film: the widely seen theatrical cut, the television cut (which includes additional footage but less onscreen violence), and the newly assembled “phan” cut which splices the standard definition deleted scenes of the TV cut into the gorier theatrical cut for the best of both worlds. The biggest addition in the TV version, aside from an inexplicable pre-credits scene of Eric doing gymnastics, is that we get more Pauly Shore. Much more Pauly Shore! I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know if the comedy stylings of Shore were ever the saving grace of a movie, but his character Buzz’s grating stabs at comic relief certainly don’t add much to Phantom of the Mall, even in the theatrical cut. In the TV cut, that screen time is practically doubled with the addition of a romantic subplot for Buzz that seems to slam on the movie’s brakes every time it interrupts the plot’s forward momentum.
To make matters wore, what this cut gains in Pauly Shore romance, it loses in gore. It’s a no-brainer that they can’t show, for instance, a man being decapitated by a garbage compactor on public television, but it still feels like a crippling loss when the appeal of this slasher lies largely in its bizarre murder setpieces. Without the blood and guts, what we’re left with is just a particularly stilted Phantom of the Opera adaptation. The Phan cut, which keeps the gore in, isn’t a bad compromise, but those additional scenes won’t add much to the movie for anyone but completionists, so the theatrical cut is really still the best route to go for a first-time viewing.
USA | 1989 | 90 MINUTES (THEATRICAL) • 89 MINUTES (TV EDIT) • 96 MINUTES (FAN CUT) | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Richard Friedman.
writers: Scott J. Schneid, Tony Michelman & Robert King (story by Scott J. Schneid & Frederick R. Ulrich).
starring: Derek Rydall, Jonathan Goldsmith, Rob Estes, Pauly Shore, Kari Whitman & Morgan Fairchild.