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Hipster Holy Grail: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

If the idea of taking the plot from "Phantom of the Opera" and putting it in a mall is inherently hilarious to you, then Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge is right up your alley.  But if you think that premise would wear thin quickly and you're looking for something with any semblance of depth or humor, then you'll be disappointed.

My Rating: 2 / 5 (Failed Secret Comedy)

The Plot Summary

It's "Phantom of the Opera" in a mall.  You know that plot already, right?

To be fair, there's a bit of novelty in how they managed to translate the story to the new setting.  Parts of it almost work.  But the big problem, which I'll get to in more depth later, is that its insistence on being an adaptation of a classic story keeps getting in the way of it just being a compelling story in its own right.

A good example is the Phantom himself.  The movie takes a lot of time to build up a mystery around the titular figure, but then it front-loads the movie with a flashback scene and gives itself a title and subtitle to tell you exactly who / what he is, and any sense of mystery is shattered.  Why be precious about it?  You're called Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge, guy.  I know the dude in the mask is Eric. Quit milking it and get on with the revenge.

(That title, by the way.  Oh, man.  What crap.  Don't get me wrong - Phantom of the Mall is kinda catchy and sums up your movie just fine.  But why'd you tack on that stupid Eric's Revenge at the end of it?  Aside from the fact that it makes it sound like it's a sequel, what kind of reaction were you hoping your audience would have?  "Oh, no!  Not Eric!  That guy's crazy about revenge!")

Anyway.  Eric (Derek Rydall) is a high school student who's dating Melody (Kari Whitman).  They have one of those creepy movie teenager romances where everybody pretends like it's okay to treat them like adults since the actors portraying them are in their late 20s / early 30s, but in the reality of the movie, they're just kids.  It's especially skeevy later when they talk about committing to long-term relationships and Melody has sex dreams, but let's ignore that so we can get on with the plot.

The movie starts with Eric practicing some gymnastics in the school gym while Melody and her friends Suzie (Kimber Sissons) and Buzz (Pauly Shore) watch.  It's a little unnerving because they appear to be the only people in the gym, so I guess either the school's team is just really small or Eric is so vain that he was like, "Hey guys, hang on a second so I can show off my moves."

Melody and Eric go to his house afterward for some covert sex, and then the opening credits roll.  By the time they wrap up, we've fast-forwarded to some time in the future to see the grand opening of a brand new mall.  The owner, Marv Posner (Jonathan Goldsmith), gives a speech and introduces the town's mayor, Karen Wilton (Morgan Fairchild).  They're all tremendously excited about the many new jobs that the mall will create.

As it happens, Melody, Suzie, and Buzz are all there specifically to get jobs, and we see them hang out a little bit.  We're also briefly introduced to Peter (Rob Estes), a reporter who's covering the mall opening for the local paper.  Peter notices Melody from across the room and appears to be smitten.

Ahem.  Let me rephrase that.

Peter, a guy in his mid-thirties with an established career as a reporter, notices Melody, a maybe 18 year old waitress who's trying to save up money to pay for her college tuition, and falls madly in love.

Ew. Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew, ew.  Fuck this movie already.

I'm sure the original Phantom of the Opera story probably has an even worse age difference, but somehow, dressing people up in 17th century gowns and making them talk in fakey British accents lets you forget about all the pedophilia.  But when you put your story in 1980s America and have a guy twice the age of your barely-legal protagonist serve as the romantic lead, you're a gross dickhead.

Anyway. Peter introduces himself to Melody and starts to uncover some backstory that we missed during the opening credits.  Apparently, the mall was built on the land where Eric's former neighborhood used to be.  It burned down mysteriously not long ago and claimed Eric's life, but the police never investigated it as fully as Melody wanted or expected.

After that, the movie falls into a bit of routine that goes on repeat a few times.  It'll start with a scene of Melody, Suzie, and Buzz screwing around and being dumb kids.  A shadowy figure (Eric, it's Eric, I know the movie thinks you won't guess this, but Eric's totally alive and he's a Phantom of the Mall) will watch them and breathe creepily.  Then some random idiot - either a pervy security guard or a mugger or whoever else - will in some way imply harm or malicious intent toward Melody.  And then Eric kills them.

The murders aren't terribly exciting, so this isn't the kind of slasher you can appreciate for its inventiveness.  The only one that stands out is when Eric throws a lasso around Marv Posner's asshole son and then puts the other end of the rope in an escalator, slowly dragging him upstairs and to his doom.

When there isn't a murder happening, the movie follows the exploits of Peter the creeporter.  He starts looking into a security guard named Volker who's wearing an earring that matches a description given by Melody when she tries to describe a suspicious figure. Eventually, after a series of chase scenes and some confessional moments in private, the truth about Eric's supposed death is revealed:

Posner wanted to buy Eric's house, but his parents wouldn't sell.  So Posner hired Volker to burn the house to the ground.  Now that Peter and Melody are on his trail, Posner and Volker are trying to kill them, too.

Eric intervenes and kills Volker, then abducts Melody and takes her to his secret under-mall lair where he lifts weights and listens to hair metal all day.  His plan appears to be for them to stay here for the rest of their lives, which Melody is understandably not on board with.  Spurned and furious, Eric decides to take the next logical step and plant a time bomb to destroy the mall.

Coincidentally, this also happens to be taking place on the night of an enormous Independence Day party at the mall, where Mayor Wilton and other powerful folks are in attendance.  Peter helps Melody to escape from Eric's lair and they try to warn Wilton that a bomb is about to go off, which prompts Wilton to make the incredibly stupid decision to out herself as a villain.  She draws a gun on Melody and Peter and tells them that not only does she not believe them, she also was in on the plot against Eric the whole time because of money.

So Eric comes out of his lair and kills Mayor Wilton by picking her up and tossing her off a balcony like a log.  The party is slightly ruined.

Buzz and Suzie get on the intercom system and warn everybody to evacuate the mall while Peter helps Melody escape from Eric.  Eric comes face to face with Posner for the first time and sets him on fire (naturally), and then the mall blows up.

While recovering outside, Melody and Peter kiss, and the credits roll.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

My biggest complaint? The guy who's older than me dating his daughter's friend.

Other than that?  It's so insistent on retelling "Phantom of the Opera," that it won't let the original parts of its story breathe, yet it picks only the lamest parts of its source material to adapt.

The main thing it pulls is the Phantom itself, which is a completely absurd premise.  Okay, fine, so Eric is burned and he decides to get revenge by haunting the mall.  Where does he live while it's being built?  Even if they are the fastest crew in the universe, you've got to expect it'll take at least a few months, right?  Probably even a couple of years?  How does nobody notice this burn victim wandering around their construction site? Why doesn't he go to the police in that time?  Why doesn't he try to contact Melody and let her know that he's okay?

Fine, fine, that's just nitpicking, whatever.  Where's the rest of the story?  "Phantom of the Opera" is about unrequited love more than anything else, but that barely enters into the movie. Where's the week where Melody is trapped in his lair and slowly comes to pity rather than fear him?  Where's the tearful moment when he realizes he's more monster than man and releases Melody of his own accord?  Where's the part where Melody is a rising star in the world of the mall and Eric manipulates the mall from behind the scenes to boost her status?  (That's really the part I want to see.  How you go from opera singer to rando waitress is beyond me, but if you can figure it out, I'm hooked.)

The Phantom alone does not make for a great story. Honestly, the best part of this movie is Pauly Shore and his rapport with the two lead actresses.  After a little time watching them hang out and work their dead-end jobs, I wanted to see more of them.  If the movie ditched its pseudo-literary pretenses, it could have been a halfway decent ghost movie.  Why not make Eric an actual phantom and call it "Haunted Mall" or whatever?  Then it would be this nifty little adventure where Melody keeps getting strange hints to dig deeper into a conspiracy and unravel the truth behind Eric's death. Simple.

For what it is, though, there were a handful of ridiculous moments that caught me off guard and made me laugh:

1) When Posner announces that he's going to host an Independence Day gala to drum up more business for the mall, it cuts to Eric mysteriously circling July 4th on a calendar.  As if you might not know when the big "4th of July Sale" is happening.

2) When Volker, a security guard, first suspects that Peter is on to him, you think he might call for backup or otherwise make up a reason to have Peter detained.  But that wouldn't be dramatic enough, so instead he turns into a complete sociopath and goes on a ridiculous chase through the mall.  It culminates when he leaps onto the exterior of a rising glass elevator and dangles upside-down over it, growling at Peter and banging on the glass - and this is after he pushes over a baby stroller that's in his way.  Good chase scene, I have to admit.

3) Eric's reveal of his time bomb is pretty hilarious, too.  There's no build-up or exposition or anything.  He just plugs a clock into something and goes, "Yep, it's a bomb," as if he just picked it up at Macy's.

When the movie has these moments, it starts to feel like it had the right idea of what it should have been.  Unfortunately, it falls just a little too short.

The Distinction Between a "Failed Secret Comedy" and My Other Nonsense Ratings

I have this annoying habit of thinking that there's an irritating fact-checker following me around with a clipboard and calling me out any time I say or do something the slightest bit misleading or confusing.  (Kinda like the personification of a comments section I never asked for.)  One of the constant sources of chagrin for this fictitious fact-checker is my bullshit rating system.

If something is a really great bad movie, one that virtually anybody can indulge in, then it's a Secret Comedy.  If it's an entertaining bad movie, but slightly less accessible, then it's a Novice Bad Movie.  As the movies get less and less accessible, you hit Junior Varsity Bad Movies, Varsity Bad Movies, and then, finally, Workman Bad Movies.  By the time you get to the WBMs, the movies are just so dull that even bad movie fans like me can't find any joy in them.

So why confuse things with the "Failed Secret Comedy" rating?  Because of movies like Phantom of the Mall, that's why.

It's a lot like a Workman Bad Movie. It's generally uninteresting, you wouldn't recommend it to anybody, and you'll probably forget about it pretty soon after watching.  But somewhere along the way, there's a handful of scenes that make you cackle.  If you could excise those moments and cram them into a montage somehow, you would, but some of them don't work out of context.

At the end of an FSC, you find yourself wondering if the filmmakers actually set out to create a comedy.  You almost get a sense of self-awareness, but without the stench of cynicism and spite that comes with a Fake Bad Movie.  The problem is that there's just not enough of it - they didn't commit fully to one plan or another, so you've ended up with this weird freak of a movie that's like 5% ironic gold and 95% tedium.

Phantom of the Mall has some truly terrific moments.  Unfortunately, even at only 90 minutes, there's too much padding to get through.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Now, see, this one is really tricky because certain types of hipster cred are so volatile.  You find something cheesy and/or obscure that taps into the pulse of irony today and you're King of the Hipsters, but the second it's been memed out, you're back to farming mud tomorrow.

At this exact moment, Phantom of the Mall is worth a pretty penny.  It's extremely '80s and has to do with a shopping mall, which is quickly becoming a totally retro thing.  So if you're looking for short-term, high-yield investments, then this one would serve you well.

But that value is fleeting.  All it will take is for the current fascination with '80s culture - which has been coming and going in gross little spurts ever since The Wedding Singer was released - to dissipate, and a lot of that cred will vanish.  On the basis solely of its pedigree (it was made by Fries Entertainment, the same team that made Timestalkers and Flowers in the Attic), I'll give it 15 hipster cred.  And since the market is right for it, I'll say it currently gets an extra 25 points for a total of 40 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

If you go before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can watch Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge on Youtube.

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