“Not only is this illegal, it’s sacrilegious.”
“Has popular success written all over it,” crows the quote from Slaughterhouse Magazine on the back of the slipcover for the deluxe Arrow Video Blu-ray of Phantom of the Mall.
Reader, it did not. While I was unable to find a specific number for the film’s box office take when it was released into theaters in December of 1989, I was able to track down a few contemporary reviews. Here’s part of one from the Los Angeles Times: “There’s a perfection of awfulness here that almost commands respect; it can’t have been easy to keep going on this picture after a look or two at the rushes.”
Oof, that’s rough. Perhaps later years have led to a reassessment, though? Let’s check in with EFilmCritic.com circa 2003, where Charles Tatum declares the film “worse than Montezuma’s Revenge.” Hmm…
Still, some people obviously like this flick, enough for Arrow to gamble on releasing a deluxe, slipcased Blu-ray loaded with special features and a 60-or-so-page book. So what gives? Well, Phantom of the Mall is, as the essays in the booklet spend honestly more time pointing out than they do talking about the movie itself, a snapshot of a bygone era. A moment in time when malls were, well, everything – in this case, quite literally, as pretty much no scene in the entire film ever takes place much of anywhere else.
That’s not all there is to it, though. Phantom of the Mall also has an… unusual pedigree. Directed by Richard Friedman, whose previous horror offerings have also gotten the collector’s edition treatment from Arrow, the film has quite a cast. By which we mean Eric, the eponymous phantom, is played by none other than the goofy boyfriend from Popcorn, while the town’s mayor is Morgan Fairchild, and a better-than-this-movie Ken Foree is slumming as one of the mall’s few security guards.
Perhaps the weirdest inclusion, though, is that Pauly Shore is here, doing his usual schtick, as the female lead’s obligatory comic relief character friend. Bear in mind that this was fully three years before Encino Man would hit multiplexes. You even get (?) to see him distract a security guard by doing a “sexy” dance and then mooning the camera. So there’s that.
In fact, “So there’s that” is something that you could say about Phantom of the Mall quite a lot. Here’s a partial list of things that definitely happen in Phantom of the Mall:
- Pauly Shore eats an ear.
- A guy dies by getting bitten in the crotch by a cobra (and no, I don’t know why Eric was able to get a venomous cobra in the mall, either, any more than I know where he got explosives toward the end of the picture).
- The Phantom does spin kicks.
- There’s a private eye-themed bar & grill called “Sleuths.”
- The Phantom throws Morgan Fairchild out a window after lifting her like he’s doing a vertical press.
- We get the obligatory, classic “unmasking” scene, except instead of playing the organ, the Phantom is distracted working out on a bowflex.
In case you haven’t pieced it together, the Phantom likes to lift. In fact, it’s most of what we see him do besides scurry through dark air ducts and underground tunnels – and occasionally, if only sporadically, enact his eponymous revenge. We could maybe assume that this was a development that came about only after his transition into the Phantom, but when he encounters his old flame and explains to her how he survived the fire that was believed to have claimed his life, he points out that the basement he now inhabits was a place under his old house where he came to work out, “my special place.”
Phantom of the Mall even has a theme song – because of course it does – performed by Orange County punk outfit The Vandals. The song features lyrics about the snake biting the guy in the junk, the mayor’s breasts, and the outfits the girls wear at “Hot Dog on a Stick.”
The chorus of the song goes as follows: “Is there a Phantom in the mall? Folks are bound to ask. Is he the Phantom of the Mall? Or just some retard in a broken hockey mask.”
Told you it was a snapshot of another time.
Unfortunately, most of the selling points of Phantom of the Mall come down to these kinds of “artifacts from days gone by” elements. As a slasher, it’s fairly dull, in spite of a lot of goofy kill sequences and the aforementioned list of extremely random things that happen in its 91-minute running time.
The plot is pretty straightforward, even if the movie still spends most of its time in laboriously unspooling it: Eric was a guy who lived with his invisible parents in a house that sat right smack-dab in the middle of where some greedy land developers wanted to build a new mall. So they hired a guy with a conveniently distinguishing earring to set fire to the house, killing Eric and, presumably, also his parents, though they’re never mentioned again. Then they were free to build their new mall!
Except, of course, that Eric didn’t die. Badly burned on just his head for some reason, he took up residence in his special basement gym under the mall, where he proceeded to plot his revenge, steal the stuff he’d need from the stores above, and lift weights a lot.
Meanwhile, the love of his life, the girl who had narrowly avoided being burned up with him, got a job in the new mall, which doesn’t seem like it would carry any unpleasant emotional baggage for her at all. No sooner does she start, though, than she begins seeing eerie reminders of Eric, who, as far as she knows, perished just a year before.
Despite the relative clarity of its plot synopsis, the movie feels jumbled and lacking anything that remotely resembles suspense. Which isn’t to say that it’s not still occasionally fun, or doesn’t have a sporadic good idea to throw at the screen. I particularly like the fact that Eric’s classic Phantom of the Opera mask is the chiseled-off face of a mannequin.
That feels like a better critique of consumerism than this film can actually muster.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.