Phantom of the Mall Eric’s Revenge (1989) Retrospective

SUMMARY
In an unlit store, a shadowy figure steals clothes and a crossbow. Melody and her friend Susie get jobs at the new mall, just before its scheduled grand opening. The shadowy Eric, his face half scarred, excitedly sees Melody, his former girlfriend, from hidden vantage points around the mall, and leaves flowers and gifts for her. He breaks open a mannequin head to fashion a half-mask. When a mall maintenance worker spots Eric in the ventilation ducts, Eric kills him by forcing his head into a running fan. Eric attacks anyone who threatens Melody; he kills a guard, who spies on women in the dressing room via mall security video, by crushing him into an electrical panel using a forklift. A masked mugger attacks Melody in the parking lot, but Eric shoots him with the crossbow. Later the mugger is revealed to be the mall pianist; Eric kills him on the toilet with a poisonous snake. The mall owner’s son, Justin, harasses Melody’s friend Susie; Eric kills him with a lasso pulled into the mall escalator. Reporter Peter Baldwin becomes interested in Melody, investigates the suspicious fire, and with Melody, Susie and pal Buzz, tries to learn if Eric is still alive. A year earlier, Eric Matthews’ house was destroyed in a suspicious fire which apparently trapped and killed him, just after he saved his girlfriend Melody. Now, a year later, in the mall built over the site of his home, Eric plants a time-delay bomb beneath the mall, timed to coincide with the mall’s grand opening.

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Mall guard Christopher Volker attacks Melody and Peter at gunpoint as they talk, in a car, about the fire; he boasts that he is the arsonist. As they escape and Volker chases them with his car, Eric leaps onto the roof, distracting him and causing a crash. Later, Volker attacks Melody again, knocking her unconscious. Eric fights him, then kills him using the automatic box crusher, and carries Melody to his lair.

Buzz tricks a guard away from the video surveillance booth so he and Susie can search for Melody. Melody awakens, and talks with Eric. She is glad he is alive, but confesses she does not love him anymore; he angrily declares that he has planted the bomb, so she will die and be with him forever anyway.

As Peter searches for Melody in the tunnels, Eric deploys the snake to kill him, for being interested in Melody. When Peter retreats, then later finds them anyway, Eric tries to fight and kill him, but Eric is stunned by Melody’s shout that she loves Peter. Peter takes the chance to knock Eric out, so the pair escape and are able to warn Buzz and Susie of the bomb. Eric revives and kills those involved in the arson, the cover up, and the construction of the mall: mall owner Harv Posner and the complicit Mayor Karen Wilton. Melody, Peter, Buzz, Susie, and all of the mall patrons escape, as Eric’s subterranean bomb explodes, destroying the mall.

Phantom of the Mall Eric's Revenge (1989)

DEVELOPMENT/PRODUCTION
Inspired by the 19th-century Gaston Leroux novel, which has already spawned half a dozen adaptations over the decades, most recently the highly successful Broadway musical. Yet knowing he was up against some stiff competition, notably the version starring Robert Englund (The Phantom of the Opera (1989), didn’t deter the Brooklyn-born filmmaker: he believed the script, penned by Scott J. Schneid, Tony Michelman and Robert King, had an edge.

“One aspect that really attracted me was that it takes place in a normal environment, a brightly lit shopping mall,” Friedman says. “This is where people go to hang out and have fun, not some moody. Gothic place. The idea of someone lurking beneath such an environment really turned me on to the project.

“I’ve always been a horror fan.” he continues, “though I never set out to be a horror director. The Phantom story has always appealed to me, so when Fries Distribution came to me with the script. I suddenly had an opportunity to do something I’d always wanted. What I’ve brought to the picture are, I think, two things: One, I’ve made it a homage to the other versions from the past, and second, I’ve given it a new twist, a new look, a new feel.”

In an attempt to achieve maximum stylistic effect on a $2 million budget. Friedman and director of photography Harry Mathias approached the story with two different moods in mind. We went for a sinister, dark undercurrent, quite horrific, for the below-ground material: above ground. we used a contemporary neon-soaked environment everyone knows very well. It is.” the director opines, a very interesting contrast.”

“I wanted to bring the characters alive, while at the same time maintaining an action-adventure story, which is primarily what I wanted to make,” Friedman asserts. “I had no intention of letting this become a slasher story with a disfigured guy running around, clichéd camera work and a high body count. The Phantom is a sympathetic character, a tragic case. Half human, half monster. His life is one of extremes. I wanted to use a teenage actor to contrast the resilience and vitality of youth with a horrible fate that limits his mobility. That’s physical drama, which in turn reflects his mental dichotomy: typical teenage desires in conflict with terrible mental, emotional and physical damage. It’s potent stuff, and in another respect, the two different environments in the movie reflect that, too.”

The director feels Phantom of the Mall’s style gives it a strange sense of being two different kinds of film rolled into one. “That’s the area I probably had most fun with,” he observes. “For the underground material, we decided to shoot it as if it were Alien or something similar-the classic horror film, very dark, shadowy, where you’re never quite sure what it is you’re seeing.”

This seemingly simple approach caused a plot problem. “How could we get the classic environment, with rats running around, decay and the other trappings you would expect?” Friedman poses rhetorically.. “We made a decision to give the underground two levels: a subterranean lair that existed before the mall, then above that the area where they built the vent shafts. With the mall on top, there are actually three stages, with a gradual build in light from the bottom up.”

For their location, Friedman and producer Tom Fries chose the Sherman Oaks Galleria. “They were very happy to have us,” the director acknowledges. “A lot of other places were not, but then, the Sherman Oaks people are used to film crews. A number of movies have shot there, like Chopping Mall, so they know what to expect. They weren’t phased at all when we told them we were going to do major stunts and blow up their storefronts. The only thing they didn’t want were motorcycles in the building, but we later negotiated that. Anyway, the material in the mall has a regular feel to it, nothing mysterious at all. If you took the Phantom out of those scenes, they could come across as regular drama.”

Although Friedman admits Phantom of the Mall lacks a significant blood quotient, the movie does sport a reasonable share of murder and mayhem. The mall owner’s spoiled brat son, for example, gets chewed up in an escalator, and a security guard disappears only to turn up later sans eyeballs. Any film in which Morgan Fairchild gets shafted between the breasts with a sharp object must be worth slipping into the VCR when there’s nothing else on TV.

Director Richard Friedman Interview

Richard Friedman
Richard Friedman

Phantom of the Mall does a great job of encapsulating the mall scene of the late ’80s. You had a great cast, including Morgan Fairchild, Ken Foree, Rob Estes…and Pauly Shore!
Richard Friedman: My wife and I were flown out to Los Angeles to shoot the film, and we were sitting in The Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard and Pauly Shore came out. We were right in the midst of casting at the time, and I turned to my wife and said, “That’s the guy I need for the movie!” His mother owned The Comedy Store at the time. We contacted him, he came in the next day and I cast him.

Scream-queen legend Brinke Stevens has an uncredited cameo as one of the girls changing her clothes in the department store dressing room.
Richard Friedman: I didn’t even know that was her until you told me! When (I found out) I wanted to go back and watch the movie to see it. I don’t remember it being her. I know I never knew it was her…

She was never afraid to reveal her body. Many of the films she got hired for were to show off her amazing figure.
Richard Friedman: The truth of the matter is, I don’t think I was even part of casting her. What probably happened was, whoever handled the extras on Phantom just brought in someone who would take her clothes off. We shot that at night, if I remember correctly. In fact, we pretty much shot the whole movie (for six or seven weeks) at night, because we were at the Sherman Oaks Galleria and couldn’t shoot during the day because it was a working mall. She came in and did the scene, and that was it. That was really my only contact with her.

Phantom of the Mall was released in 1989, the same year horror icon Robert Englund starred in Phantom of the Opera. Did that help or hinder your picture?
Richard Friedman: I don’t think it had any influence on it at all. Phantom had a big theatrical release; it was in major theaters at the time. That would never happen now. I remember the newspaper campaign; they were supposed to take your blood pressure when you entered the theater, and if it was higher than a certain number, they wouldn’t allow you in to see the movie. As far as I know, they never did that, because I know friends who went to see it and it didn’t happen. I went to see it at a theater myself, and it wasn’t done.

“We had a very ambitious project, but not a lot of money,” said Friedman. “We wanted car chases, special effects, and the world, and gave ourselves five weeks to do it. The project became overwhelming. We were shooting seven pages a day, including two major stunts or effects. It doesn’t give you a lot of time to sit down with the actors or walk them through a scene. If an actor would ask me what their motivation was, I would tell them so we can get to that effect over there that we’ve just spent the last three hours preparing.’ You have to expect that kind of pace on this type of picture.”

SPECIAL EFFECTS
Phantom of the Mall’s makeup and murder FX come courtesy of Matthew Mungle, for whom Friedman has high praise. “Tom Fries and I originally wanted a rather unrealistic transformation,” the director recalls. “Matthew took that idea and pared it down to what we have in the finished film. Matthew researched scars and the effects of fire on burn victims to give it an authentic edge, but we didn’t want to be ultra realistic. That stuff is truly horrific, really disturbing.”

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Mathew Mungle created a 2 1/2 hour transformation for Rydall after researching burn victims and scar tissue. “Derek was incredible with the makeup.” Friedman said of his leading man. “It can be a painful experience to have makeup like that on and stand around 2-3 hours in 90 degree heat. He would spend 12-13 hours a day in it and sometimes we wouldn’t use him. I was always the one to tell him that he wouldn’t be needed that day. He was not a happy camper. He had never done anything like this before, and I don’t know if he’ll ever do anything like it again.”

With the Phantom’s look ready, his haunt needed to be found. Finding a mall in L.A. proved more of a task than originally thought, as Friedman related. “Everybody turned us down. We went to the mall operators and said, ‘We’d like to blow up a few of your stores, ride motorcycles around the aisles and have car chases in your parking lot’ and they said ‘Are you kidding?’ We eventually shot at Sherman Oaks Galleria

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“We had lots of problems,” laments Friedman, “which all boiled down to one factor, lack of time. What we attempted to do in five and a half weeks was, in retrospect, quite crazy. We got the type of effects and stunts you see in a movie that costs double what we had. Fortunately, we had one of the best stunt crews in the business, Stunts Unlimited. Dave Zellitti, the stunt coordinator, was terrific getting things arranged. And Special Effects Services, under the guidance of Larry Fioritto, made sure we got as much of it up there on the screen as possible. I really don’t think Phantom of the Mall will disappoint an audience, but we really should have had a second unit that just worked on the stunts. I ended up working on that material at times when I should have been concentrating on the drama. Shooting effects concurrently was a major problem.”

Friedman shot most of the film in an old warehouse in Valencia, California, converted into a studio, with as many as three set-ups filming simultaneously, often working 16 hours a day. Though positive about the experience, he regrets not having had more time for the actors and more money.

Phantom of the Mall Eric’s Revenge (1989) Song Tracks

CAST/CREW
Directed
Richard Friedman

Produced
Charles W. Fries
Thomas Fries
Robert J. Koster
Paul Little

Screenplay
Scott J. Schneid
Tony Michelman
Robert King

Story
Scott J. Schneid
Frederick R. Ulrich

Make Up Effects
Matthew W. Mungle

Derek Rydall as Eric Matthews, The Phantom of the Mall
Jonathan Goldsmith as Harv Posner, Mall Owner
Rob Estes as Peter Baldwin, Reporter
Pauly Shore as Buzz, Yogurt Clerk
Kimber Sissons as Susie, Fashion Clerk
Gregory Scott Cummins as Christopher Volker, Security Guard
Tom Fridley as Justin, Posner’s Son
Kari Whitman as Melody Austin
Ken Foree as Acardi
Morgan Fairchild as Mayor Karen Wilton
Terrence Evans as Security Guard
Dante D’Andre as Piano man

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Fangoria#86
Fangoria#331
Cinefantastique v20n01-02

 

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