Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Thank You, Have A Nice Day

For the crossover review of this film at Kinemalogue, click here.

Year: 1986
Director: Jim Wynorski
Cast: Kelli Maroney, Tony O'Dell, Russell Todd
Run Time: 1 hour 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Over the course of my romp through slasher history, I've run into some incredibly strange premises. Together, we've battled a killer scarecrow, a possessed mirror, a demonic computer, the ghost of a prom queen, and the angry spirit of a Native American medicine man. We're no strangers to strangeness, so don't take it lightly when I tell you that the Jim Wynorski picture Chopping Mall -produced by Roger Corman's wife Julie in 1986 - has one of the downright weirdest slasher premises I've ever encountered.

And I don't just mean that fact that we're supposed to suspend our disbelief and accept this implausible hairstyle.

Chopping Mall has the perfect slasher setup. A group of friends parties together in a mall after closing, only to find that they're trapped inside with a crazed killer. Only instead of a masked psychopath or territorial mountain man, the particular threat they're facing is... a trio of security robots that have gone haywire following an electrical storm. Seriously.

While we let that sink in, let's Meet the Meat. Our midnight revelers include Ferdy (Tony O'Dell), a nerdy young man whose uncle owns the store where they're holding the party; Allison (Kelli Maroney of Night of the Comet), a sweet young waitress who has been set up with Ferdy by their mutual friends; Suzie (Barbara Crampton of Re-Animator and From Beyond), Allison's party girl best friend; Rick (Russell Todd of Friday the 13th Part 2 and He Knows You're Alone) and Linda (Karrie Emerson), a married couple who own a mechanic shop together, and who for some reason are equally enthused about this mattress party/teen orgy; Greg (Nick Segal), who exists and is dating Suzie; Leslie (Suzee Slater), the bubble-headed shop owner's daughter and thus Ferdy's cousin, though this is never explored; and Mike (John Terlesky), a douchey stud muffin who chews gum in literally every scene and whose hairdresser I dearly wish was included in the body count.

This haircut should be included on the list of capital punishment-worthy offenses.

As my previous two captions may have informed you, Chopping Mall is urgently, endearingly 80's. The cast, the genre, the fashions, and the dialogue are unrelentingly entrenched in the cultural battleground of 1986, and it's an indelibly fun treat throughout. 

Like nearly all Corman pictures, the film is an extremely chintzy, thin affair that values ass shots and waggling breasts more than story and character development, but director Jim Wynorski squeezes every ounce of cinema magic out of the circumstances as he possibly can. This might sound like scant praise considering that the man also directed Sorority House Massacre II, but Chopping Mall is Wynorski's magnum opus, making the most out of its low budget, silly special effects, and ludicrous villains. 

But let's begin with the most pressing topic of any Chopping Mall discussion: The Killbots. By all accounts they should be a campy, cheesy mess, but if we're going to be completely honest (which I know we all hate to do, this being the Internet after all), they're really quite remarkable. Their creation is the oldest trick in the book: slap a motor on some shiny plastic boxes, tack on some lights, and call it a day. But the old tricks were used for a reason: they worked.

The Killbots, through the surprisingly professional methods with which they are framed and coordinated, are an utterly believable menace. There's hardly a crack in the special effects (largely because they are so simple), lending to the sense that these robots are acting of their own volition. They have purpose and agency, roaming the mall with specific, calculated, and (dare I say) character-driven movements.

Also their little tank tread feet are adorable.

Chopping Mall also boasts a surprisingly sophisticated lighting plan. The mall itself is full of heavy shadows, complemented by tickles of gaudy pinks and blues in the corners, reminding the audience of the cheery, commercial nature of the setting as it's plunged into a surrealist hellscape of killing and laser beams. Oh, did I mention the robots have laser beams? The only thing that could make this film more 1986 is an Alice Cooper cameo.

But I digress. The lighting uses the power of suggestion to expand upon its sparsely decorated sets (which largely consist of blank white walls with a handful of Corman posters tacked to them, not even in particularly good condition), most notably in the diner scenes. As visible in the first photo of this review, a false window casts shadow over the actors, cementing in the idea that they're hiding in a restaurant, and not a parking garage hallway. There's also some tremendously fun gags using silhouettes, but I'm not here to replay the movie, I'm here to sell it.

Not that it needs the help.

Chopping Mall is also remarkably funny, rife as it is with the typical 80's gags and guffaws. But there are moments that transcend the expected, especially in one admirably well-placed editing gag that will have hawk-eyed viewers nursing a stitch in their side. The cherry on top is that all the characters have generally intelligent reactions to their predicaments, almost never resorting to Dumb Horror Character antics, save for some truly, epically insane moments where the film briefly converts into a testosterone carnival of gun-totin' action.

But here I go acting like Chopping Mall is the second coming of Craven. It's certainly no grand classic of horror cinema, merely a shockingly decent turn for a trash auteur. The acting is bottom of the barrel (Russell Todd especially fails to make any attempt at an actual performance; only Barbara Crampton escapes the fray, bringing Suzie to vivacious life and igniting some terrific chemistry with everyone around her), the characters are exceedingly shallow, and the fun - while genuine - is ephemeral.

It's a cotton candy delight, tantalizing the taste buds for 77 short minutes before completely dissolving as if it were never there. It may be considerably more well made than other Corman/Wynorski films, but the fact remains that it's a Corman/Wynorski film, and that's a pretty dreary place to be at the best of times. I stand by Chopping Mall as a beacon of pure light in the B-movie community, but its charms only go so far. You have my blessing to seek it out and have a rollicking great time, but it won't change your life.

But sometimes, we don't need a film to radically change our perspective on the cinema. We just need the Killbots. And Chopping Mall is worth breaking out the jelly bracelets and borrowing daddy's credit card, if only for one night of fun with your friends.

Killer: The Killbots
Final Girl: Alison Parks (Kelli Maroney)
Best Kill: Leslie's head is exploded with a freaking laser. I love the 80's.
Sign of the Times: It's genuinely astonishing that Barbara Crampton has the mobility that she does, weighed down as she is by a pile of crimped hair and about 8,000 jelly bracelets. Oh, and she says "bitchin'!"
Scariest Moment: Alison hides from the final robot in a pet shop. When it destroys some glass cages, snakes and tarantulas crawl over her, but she must keep quiet to avoid detection.
Weirdest Moment: The robots reveal that they can shoot laser beams in the middle of the film, when up until that point they've just been using flimsy little claws.
Champion Dialogue: "I guess I'm just not used to being chased around the mall in the middle of the night by killer robots."
Body Count: 9
  1. Marty is choked to death by a robot arm.
  2. Marty's Friend has his neck broken with a grappling hook.
  3. Janitor is electrocuted in a puddle of mop water.
  4. Mike has his throat slit.
  5. Leslie has her head exploded with a laser.
  6. Susie burns to death.
  7. Greg is tossed off a balcony.
  8. Linda is shot to death with lasers.
  9. Rick is electrocuted.
TL;DR: Chopping Mall is pure campy fun, with a surprisingly masterful aesthetic for a film out of the Corman stable.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1361

1 comment:

  1. Oh, man, this is one I've been meaning to find the time to watch for ages. Thanks for the reminder, B.

    ReplyDelete