Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Census Flashback: Skewing Younger

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Solo: A Star Wars Story, which explores younger versions of characters you know and love, I'll be reviewing a movie that transposes last week's pick of The Phantom of the Opera into a teenage milieu. It's Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge!

Year: 1989
Director: Richard Friedman
Cast: Derek Rydall, Jonathan Goldsmith, Kari Whitman
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Phantom of the Opera musical was already about three years into its medium-defining run in 1989, so it makes sense that Hollywood would want to cash in on that ASAP. But that still doesn't excuse the fact that, even though the slasher subgenre was wheezing its death rattle, it used that precious last breath to cough out two rip-offs of that very same story. Last week we took a look at the chintzy and misguided Robert England period piece, but this week is an entirely different animal. Now Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge is certainly chintzy and misguided, but there's still some spark that the po-faced straight adaptation lacks.

An actually handsome romantic lead doesn't hurt, either.

Phantom of the Mall positions itself as a mystery, but let's not pretend the plot is anything but straightforward and get the exposition out of the way that the movie wastes 40 minutes not telling you. The Midwood Mall - the brainchild of venal businessman Harv Posner (Jonathan Goldsmith, of two episodes of every 80's show you've ever heard of) and local mayor Karen Wilton (Morgan Fairchild, making her second Census Bloodbath appearance after the dreadful The Seduction) - has just opened up, bringing this small town into a world of economic opportunity. Well, for everyone except Eric Matthews (Derek Rydall), a presumed-dead teen whose family perished in a fire that just so happened to clear the plot of land the mall was built on. With a load of scars on his face, hate in his heart, and a Bowflex in his lair to give him that obligatory slasher villain murderstrength, Eric lurks in the underbelly of the mall vowing revenge on those who built it and taking down anyone who threatens his bereaved girlfriend Melody Austin (Kari Whitman of Masterblaster, a credit I'm sure she'd sooner have us forget).

Conveniently, Melody and her friends - the fashionplate Suzie (Kimber Sissons) and the goofball slacker Buzz (Pauly Shore) - have gotten jobs at the aforementioned mall where Eric is doing his phantoming. Oddly for a teen mall slasher, most of the victims are anonymous adult maintenance workers, but also on the potential platter of Meat are Harv's deadbeat greaser son Justin (Tom Fridley, who unforgettably played Cort in Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI), security guard Acardi (horror icon Ken Foree), and intrepid teen newspaper photographer Peter Baldwin (Rob Estes, a series regular on three seasons of Melrose Place, so my crush on him arrives 20 years later than the rest of the world), who has developed a bit of interest in Melody's horrible backstory, and a lot of interest in Melody's beautiful face.

Their love doesn't please Eric much, but really what does?

1989 slasher films don't tend to have a lot to offer in the field of gore, scares, creativity, acting, filmmaking, or reasons to exist, but there's one thing that they all have in common: an abundant supply of 80's cheese. The ridiculous fads and fashions that cropped up around the beginning of the decade had had many years to ferment, becoming as pungent and flavorful as possible in the process, and Phantom of the Mall has a delightful surplus of that excess. It also doesn't hurt that it's set in a mall, the ur-location of 80's cinema.

Everything in sight is a beautiful time capsule, from the music to the technology to the cast (see: Morgan Fairchild) to the outfits (see: Morgan Fairchild's oversized peach blazer that threatens to drown her in fabric). Although the slasher movie had long since run out of steam and couldn't deliver something you hadn't seen before, this was the perfect background onto which a film could regurgitate a decade of well-worn tropes and character archetypes.

Plus, even hough they lack creativity and even at times a coherent pool of victims, the kills - the counterpoint upon which any slasher must balance - are achieved with a crazed live-wire energy that more than makes up for the less than pristine gore. Most of these murders have a hilariously complex Rube Goldberg quality that calls to mind the best of the Final Destination franchise (one singular kill sequence involves a skateboard, a lasso, and an escalator), and their bizarre, unpredictable nature is captivating. Plus, lots of these moments are satisfyingly on-theme with their use of common mall objects and locations, and the ones that aren't are at least f**king bananas, like Eric planting a venomous cobra inside a toilet.

You know, like are found at your average mall pet store.

Basically, the entire theme of this movie is succeeding in spite of the limitations of being exactly what a late 80's slasher always was going to be. Those kills really are something, and they do tend to draw from a well of contemporary urban legend fears (the toilet snake, people! Not to mention the fact that Stranger Danger lurks around every corner here, with predatory men stalking the mall parking lot like it's a prison yard) that elevates them just slightly from typical slasher fare.

And when the movie really digs in, it goes nuts, splashing every dollar of its presumably modest budget right into your face. The third act pulls out all the stops in an orgy of 80's genre tropes, pulling from the best of the worst of horror, action, and soap operas of the time. There's a splashy car chase, a fight between the Phantom and one of the mall's many sex predators that involves at least a dozen spin-kicks, and a Dynasty-esque reveal involving Morgan Fairchild diva-ing it up in a sparkly dress. And there's literally a scene of someone jumping away from an explosion!

He's flying directly into the 80's slasher Hall of Fame.

As a campy, trashy experience, Phantom of the Mall is an especially epic good time. The ensemble of familiar character actor faces provides a reasonably reliable performance quality (Kari Whitman is probably the least recognizable of them, and for good reason, considering that she's by far the blandest presence in the film), the stupidity of translating Phantom into this milieu is wholeheartedly embraced, and the tropes it leans heavily on are some of my favorites. It's certainly no masterpiece, but for once a slasher movie has lived up to its epically ludicrous title, and that's not something to scoff at.

Killer: Eric Matthews (Derek Rydall)
Final Girl: Melody Austin (Kari Whitman)
Best Kill: There are a lot of fun elaborate kills here, but what could possibly beat a cobra rising from a toilet to bite a dude on the dick?
Sign of the Times: The arsonist the teens are hunting down looks exactly like George Michael, stubble, earring, and all.
Scariest Moment: Melody's sex dream about Eric turns into a hideous nightmare of fire and blood.
Weirdest Moment: Suzie finds an eyeball in her frozen yogurt.
Champion Dialogue: "He can ask me probing questions anytime."
Body Count: 9
  1. Stanley is stabbed in the gut.
  2. AC Repairman has his face shoved in a fan.
  3. Devlin is crushed by a cart into a fuse box, electrocuting him until his eyeball pops out.
  4. Piano Player is bit in the dick by a toilet cobra.
  5. Justin has his neck snapped in an escalator.
  6. Christopher is decapitated by a trash compactor.
  7. Mayor Wilton is thrown out a window and impaled on a shard of glass.
  8. Harv Posner is burned by a flamethrower and thrown onto propane tanks, which explode.
  9. Eric perishes at the hands of his own bomb.
TL;DR: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge is a surprisingly delightful late entry in the slasher genre.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1362

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