Thursday, October 24, 2019

Census Bloodbath: In the dark it is easy to pretend


The SWITCHEROOOOO!  It's October, and that means it's time for Brennan Klein, of Popcorn Culture and Alternate Ending and Scream 101 and, above all, our hearts, to take on my usual and oft-shirked task of reviewing the Cardboard Science sci-fi schlock of a bygone era, while I get to luxuriate in the blood and guts of 80s slashers with his Census Bloodbath series, which he has been pursuing with diligent and perhaps disturbing obsession, lo these many years.

Directed by Richard Friedman
Written by Scott J. Schneid, Tony Michelman, and Robert King

Spoiler alert: moderate

First observation: there are a lot of slasher movies about malls, like, more than you'd think, not as many as there are about summer camps or schools—and there's even some overlap with the latter—but for all I know it might be the third most popular setting for this kind of low-budget blood-spilling.  It's not that the mash-up of those two 80s cultural touchstones (dead teenager movies and the indoor shopping centers where all the teens hung out) doesn't make conceptual sense, and there's of course something fun and precious about the idea that your local shopping mall hides dark secrets, which is why Netflix spent thirty or forty hours exploring that idea earlier this year in Stranger Things 3.  Meanwhile, just from a purely logistical standpoint, there's hardly any better way for a cheap slasher to pretend to have production value than to place its action inside a building that's very big and quite real and has already been designed by professionals to be (a certain value of) attractive and atmospheric, and then shoot it as if its victims belong there.  Sure, real robots help, but it's unfair to expect every movie to build their own robots.

And yet there's something about it that seems awfully self-consciously kitschy in much the same way that "vengeful killer stalks camp counselors" or "nubile sorority sisters get naked, then die" simply feel like the most natural possible expressions of the genre; and those other mall-based slashers tended to indulge heavily in the comedic possibilities of their settings, if not in outright self-parody.  And that is why Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge—and yes, that is one of the worst "colon-description" titles I've ever seen in my whole life, insofar as I have no idea what it thinks it needs to distinguish itself from (it's not a sequel), and Eric's (or Erik's) revenge is, you know, already pretty strongly fucking implied by the Phantom of part—comes as a bit of a surprise.  It borders on being a genuine shock, because while it's inevitably silly, and very arch, and it features Pauly Shore in a semi-major role, it is 100% sincere about there being a phantom, and a mall, and, in the end, a revenge.  What I can't quite decide is if it's a pleasant surprise, overall; but hopefully we'll arrive at some sort of conclusion before we're through.

The even bigger surprise of Phantom of the Mall, however, is that it has an honest-to-God story, one indebted generally but not specifically to the many other film and stage versions of The Phantom of the Opera that had arisen in the seventy-nine years since the publication of Leroux's novel.  If it necessarily tacks toward the more romantic contemporary versions, it also understands that its iteration of the phantom is a monstrous figure, inside as well as out, and so ultimately the adaptation it's most closely aligned with is probably the second.  And there is indeed something cool and proper, even if it doesn't look that way at first glance, about a slasher film recontextualizing Phantom of the Opera.  After all, once you strip away all that accumulated prestige, Phantom is a slasher, with the visually-striking villain you like more than the heroes (and the massive body count achieved through imaginative methods) to prove it.

This particular story, then, may be all secondhand parts, but they've been retrofitted reasonably well to form a complete, compelling, and even somewhat idiosyncratic slasher narrative in their own right.  So: a small town so middle-American its very name is Middleton has just opened its first mall, the project having been spearheaded by oily developer Harv Posner (Jonathan Goldsmith) alongside the town's mayor, Karen Wilton (Morgan Fairchild, who I assume was this film's big "get"), a woman who clearly doesn't especially like Posner but isn't about to let that get in the way of her hoped-for suburban renewal.  Meanwhile, along with what looks like the town's entire teenaged population, we find three recent high school grads—Melody (Kari Whitman), her best friend Susie (Kimber Sessions), and their weird geek friend Buzz (Shore)—who have all come to work at Posner's mall, which is good for them, but Melody's had a hard time of it since she lost her boyfriend Eric (Derek Rydall) a year ago, a victim of a fire that consumed the housing development that once stood where the mall stands now.  Frankly, I think that she's dealing with it fairly well considering she's taken a job in the exact same spot where she saw her boyfriend die.

Melody believes the fire was arson, and, through some relatively minor contrivance, that's exactly what she tells junior reporter Peter (Rob Estes), who's attracted to Melody, and therefore takes her story just seriously enough that when he spots the man she described as behind the arson, he becomes fairly convinced that there really is a sprawling conspiracy dedicated to covering up the crimes atop which Posner's mall's been built; it doesn't allay his suspicions when the man attempts to murder him for taking a picture.  Melody, for her part, has never had any need to doubt herself, because she knows that somebody's been watching over her—most notably when a rape attempt was cut short by a crossbow bolt launched from a rooftop—and her suspicion that Eric did not die that night is soon confirmed, even if the man she loved is not necessarily the ruthless murderer he's now become.  Or maybe he was always a dick; that's also very possible.

Phantom of the Mall is, nonetheless, maybe the gentlest slasher.  Partly, this is thanks to the manageable cast of a thriller rather than the thronging ensemble of a true body-count film.  But even on its own terms, where each individual character isn't entirely expendable, there's something almost counter-intuitively charming about its extraordinary reluctance to do its would-be victims harm.  (In many individual moments, it feels like a teen adventure more than a proper slasher—especially any moment revolving around Susie and Buzz crawling through air vents, which they spend a substantial portion of the film's final act doing.)  On the minus side, this means that the kills, which are still there, feel even more gratuitous and perfunctory than usual, and for a rather long time the subtitular revenge can be meted out solely to featured extras, some of whom earn their deaths, one of whom was just fixing the air conditioning.  It does not make up for this with style, though the final fate of Melody's attempted rapist (it involves a cobra and his penis, and I fear I may have spoiled it) is at least good conceptual fun; on the other hand, the film's single well-accomplished gore shock is in its second and best kill, which finds a poetic justice in having a leering security guard's eyes blown completely out of his skull.  Even this is a blink-and-miss-it moment, and one somewhat gets the impression the production had neither the money nor the craft for any serious grue.  This impression is definitively confirmed when we get a good look at Eric's fakey disfigurement, boosted or undermined—you make the call—by the electronic reverb on his voice.  A pity, since the other elements of his design are perfect for a character who's basically an allegory for refusing to move on after high school: a Universal monster reborn in a letterman jacket and a Nike T-shirt.

What the production did evidently have the money and craft for, however, was stunts, and I've decided that this is the most surprising thing about it: from a car chase in a parking garage to Eric's deployment of the martial arts to the film's willingness to dangle live human bodies over the Sherman Oaks Galleria's food court, Phantom of the Mall does things you don't expect out of a slasher, perhaps especially one that announces so transparently that it was only barely made in the first place.  Now, director Richard Friedman does not stage any of these things especially well.  It is not a good car chase; it is not a good martial arts showdown between Eric and the dastardly arsonist.  But that they're here at all, and done with any level of proficiency whatsoever, makes me smile.  And Friedman (this was his second feature and he's still working today) has certain ideas about how to do certain things that are genuinely strong—every one of Melody's softcore sex fantasies that gives way to jagged psychological horror has something to say about the character and her trauma, and Eric's lonely vigil in the bowels of the mall, with only his stack of surveillance CCTVs all trained on the same woman to keep him company, works perfectly well as an imagistic literalization of his mad self-imposed isolation.

Friedman never pulls a legitimately good performance out of anybody, but adequacy (defined as "not-too-bad" or "at least they definitely memorized their lines") is rewarding in its own modest way; Whitman even manages one truly perfect read (even if it's also natural to wonder if the flatness of it was really a deliberate choice rather than a happy accident), when Melody refuses to demonstrate the slightest amount of surprise as to her savior's identity, or to anything else about him, and says simply, "Hello, Eric."  The biggest disappointment on this front is that Baby Pauly Shore is more akin to zygotic, and after a short spell I realized that I was laughing at his scenes because I expected him to be the Weasel, not because he was.  But Phantom of the Mall isn't particularly comedic—it's sincere, as I said—and when it's funny it's funny because it believes it's being (sincerely) cool, as when an overwrought foot chase through the mall climaxes with the security guard leaping atop a moving elevator, or when Erik bench presses a mechanical door.  And since I do sincerely find these things cool, that all works out, though perhaps a touch less sincerity might've been called for when Phantom of the Mall sets up the perfect scenario for Susie to eat the human eyeball garnish on her fro-yo (look, it makes perfect sense in context) and then executes every last stage of the gag except the damned follow-through.

Still: the more urgent problem is that Friedman had one very big, very bad idea—or he was incompetent, and the results are the same either way, though he seemed happy to start his movie off with like three solid minutes of it—and it swallows Phantom of the Mall up whole, sometimes literally.  Because whatever budget this film demonstrates in any other respect, it has the worst cinematography—well, at least the worst since Prom Night in its genre—so that any scene that is even the slightest bit underlit is almost indistinct from blank screen and wholly unreadable.  Eric's recourse to kung fu exemplifies the sheer frustration of it: Rydall was a honed stuntman, cast for the part of this Phantom specifically for his physical capabilities.  Good luck making out anything more than the barest idea of those capabilities.  Good luck making out anything, period, that isn't lit with every light in the mall: occasionally you might kind of see what Friedman may have been going for, in the way that grid patterns and other snippets of light push certain shots toward a kind of austere visual abstraction; but, usually, you see nothing.  And considering we are talking about a motion picture here, one would have to accept that's pretty close to fatal, even if one likes a whole lot of everything else the movie's doing.

Killer: Eric
Final Girl: [all of them!] it's a slasher miracle!
Sign of the Times: Melody believes she can "save money for college" by working at a mall restaurant over the summer, and she probably can.
Best Kill: The lecherous security guard is rammed with a forklift into a prop with the words "high voltage" on it, and, naturally, this electrocutes him until his head explodes.
Scariest Moment: When Melody's sex dreams cycle through virutally every man she knows until arriving on the one specifically trying to kill her.
Weirdest Moment: Every acting choice related to the almost birdlike shoulder movements of Justin Posner (Tom Fridley), Harv's shithead son.
Champion Dialogue: "Hey girls, wanna pull my chain?"  Honorary mention: Phantom of the Mall's end credits feature a rock song written for the film, which I have mentioned recently I love as an idea, and which has the chorus, "Is there a phantom of the mall/Or is he just some retard in a broken hockey mask?"
Body Count: 9
1. A random security guard, darked to death in the prologue (okay, he was stabbed, but that's clearer through the sound design than anything else)
2. The air conditioner repairman, who took too close a look at a particular fan
3. A less-random security guard, forklifted and electrocuted
4. Penis snake!
5. Justin falls for the old "here's a free skateboard, oh now you've been lassoed and lashed to a moving escalator and now you're dead" trick, like he's never seen that before
6. Volker, the bagman and firestarter, cannot bench press a mechanical door
7. [Mayor Wilton], thrown from a balcony onto a giant spike
8. [Posner] is blown up with propane in a bitchin' flamesuit sequence
9. [Eric], also blown up (this slasher movie has a lot of explosions)
TL; DR: It's bizarre that a slasher can be above average in so many unexpected ways (narrative, production design, stuntwork, pyrotechnics, even genial good-naturedness) while still being direly insufficient in the most basic ones, like the ability to expose film or smear blood on people or make a chick eat an eyeball.
Score: 6/10
Brennan's Cardboard Science

2014:  Invaders From Mars   The Day the Earth Stood Still Them!
2015:  The Giant Claw   It Came From Beneath the Sea  The Brain From Planet Arous
2016:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers  Godzilla (1954)  The Beginning of the End 
2017:  It Conquered the World  I Married a Monster From Outer Space  Forbidden Planet

2018: The Fly  Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman  Fiend Without a Face
2019: Mysterious Island  Robinson Crusoe On Mars  Plan 9 From Outer Space

My Census Bloodbath 
2014:  My Bloody Valentine  Pieces  The Burning
2015:  Terror Train  The House on Sorority Row   Killer Party 
2016:  The Initiation  Chopping Mall   I, Madman  
2017:  Slumber Party Massacre   Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II   Happy Birthday to Me

2018: The Prowler  Slumber Party Massacre II   Death Spa
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge  Psycho III  Stage Fright: Aquarius


  1. Hey, I figured out my commenting problem! Turns out Safari just sucks as a browser, who knew. I'm glad you were able to pul the same nuggets of joy from this film as I was. And while I think Morgan Fairchild is pretty abysmal whenever she plays actual characters, anytime she is merely asked to capitalize on her trashy TV star persona, she is an excellent casting choice.

    1. I'm convinced that if this had been an even slightly more serious production, it would've been kind of almost-great. Like, Phantom of the Paradise is pretty great, there's no reason this couldn't be!

  2. The script for POTM was completely changed from the writers' original draft (Scott Schneid and Tony Michelman). So much of the silliness in the finished film (kung fu phantom, snakes in toilets, ears in yogurt and on and on) were nowhere to be found in their script. The mystery of who was behind the supposed death of Eric the Phantom unfolded in a much more interesting way, with Amy, his g.f., having nightmares and flashbacks, filling us in on what really happened. Read the original script on Arrow's Collectors Edition blu-ray and be prepared to be really-really surprised!

    1. I dunno if I want my Phantom of the Mall without inexplicable martial arts!

    2. (Though I would be curious to see this in a presentation that wasn't as substandard as the one I watched it in.)