Friday, July 17, 2009

Chopping Mall (1986)

From Jim Wynorski, the horrible monster who must be stopped at all costs, comes a long forgotten, microbudget robo-horror with a totally sweet title: Chopping Mall. Wynorski's most recent film is Cleavagefield, a soft-core parody porn, and his vast legion of IMDB credits read like something out of the direct-to-video Necronomicon. (Lock yourself in the bathroom at night and read them aloud into the mirror. If you are not possessed by the fires of hell by the time you reach The Bare Wench Project 3: Nymphs of Mystery Mountain, I'll eat my sweet hair hat.) It should go without saying that he's somewhat disinterested in the artistic aspects of his profession compared to the financial, but in case you needed convincing, Chopping Mall was originally released in theaters as Killbots, where it totally bombed. It was then given the infinitely more awesome yet cruelly misleading new title and re-released to significantly better box office. If it had failed again they probably would have given up and retitled it Tits, Death, and Lasers! which I already prefer to Chopping Mall considering that there is a complete and utter lack of chopping in the film.
Chopping sold separately

Watch the trailer closely:

What were your favorite shots? The correct answers are A. exploding head, B. Shadow of bot holding a decapitated head, and C. bot dragging dismembered arm with shopping bag. (I will also accept D. Dick Miller saying "dead meat", but only if you knew his name or called him "guy from Gremlins") The problem is that B & C never actually happen in the good-fer-nothing movie. That's not too unusual for the film biz, but the trailer as a whole is so misleading that it might as well have been a joint operation by Michael Moore and Ben Stein. It doesn't even get the film's setup correct; the kids don't break into the mall for a party, they're employees sneaking around after hours for a party. The the shot of them glass breaking is from much further into the film. As for that totally awesome synth score: you heard basically all of it during the trailer's 53 second runtime.
Misleading trailers, artless mercenary sensibilities, and awful music aside, it is hard to be too disappointed a film this blisteringly fast. By the time you've figured out that Chopping Mall isn't going to be the gleefully unhinged gorefest the cover art and trailer were promising, the credits are probably already rolling. Clocking in at a featherweight 77 minutes, there is barely enough time to fit in three acts of moderately coherent plot, let alone all the requisite boobs and blood.

Rather than spending the time and energy to create a storyline that grows organically, all the messy expository requirements are quickly met with a pre-credit sales pitch and promotional video, complete with questions from the audience. That's better than title cards or voice over narration, but only by a teensy margin. The subject is a technological revolution in shopping mall security: the bastard hybrid spawn of Gort and Johnny-5. (The resemblance to the former, in one of the film's most erudite moments, is noted by a character who yells 'Klaatu barada nikto' at one of the bots before having his throat slit.)
The bots are equipped with the latest taser and tranquilizer dart technology, are nearly bulletproof, and totally promise not to zap anyone with a giant coded identification badge... as long as they hold it very still and right in front of the bot's scanner. Meanwhile, for no reason at all, a couple of audience members roll their eyes dramatically and provide snarky comments. (Hey! That's my job!) It's interesting that the film decided to add people who are suspicious of the obviously dangerous soon-to-be killer robots, but then they say things like "the one in the middle has an unpleasant ethnic quality" about identical robots, so I guess they're a bit touched in the head.
Behind the opening credits runs a montage of the mall's awesomely '80s beehive of barely contained chaos. Pratfalls and giant hair abound as kids skateboard and shoplift, people drop their food, and Miss America contestants parade around for some reason. (Probably just to cause more inevitable slapstick.)
Over at the Unframed Roger Corman Movie Poster Cafe, the virginal girl who will survive to the end (minor scream queen Kelli Maroney) is waiting tables with the gal from Re-Animator (Barbara Crampton, who currently has a whole week devoted to her at Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies). The cool kids are planning a big shindig over at the mattress store (nudge nudge) that evening, and Barbara needs someone to hook up with the nerdy guy who must be placated for the party to take place. Meanwhile, nerdy guy (the conservative preppy from 'Head of the Class') is being chagrined into submission by slick guy and huge chin guy, one of whom was in Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Dead and dead.

Big jaw shows off his assets by chewing bubblegum, then goes and gets his girlfriend, huge tits, from a nearby fashion boutique. Outside, a husband and wife auto-mechanic team are apparently also showing up to the party. (If the random inclusion of expert mechanics in the cast elicits a knowing snicker from you, you're sadly mistaken; their vocation is barely mentioned again, let alone put into the service of killbot disassembly.)
Yay! Party! Everyone gets nekkid while the nerdy kids watch an even worse Roger Corman movie on TV. Gazongas aside, it is a pretty tame affair, making the decision to hold it at their place of employment a little odd. (Either those mattresses are super comfortable, or every single character lives in a shitty studio apartment.)
Despite the fact that no rain or other bad weather is ever shown or mentioned in the film, a freak bolt of lightning hits the top of the building and fries the master computer in charge of not letting the killbots kill. The lesson here (in case you didn't pick it up from Ghost in the Machine) is that lightning always turns electronics evil. That is why Jesus invented surge protectors. They quickly dispatch their squishy human technicians, showing enough evil foresight to hide bodies and set up ambushes, then begin their nightly rounds.
The ground floor bot quickly bumps into surly janitor, Dick Miller. He waves his identity badge, but didn't get the memo about holding it perfectly still three inches from the robot's face. Also it's evil now and probably wouldn't care about the badge even if it could get a proper scan of it. Provoked by the shooting of a tazer barb into the puddle of water he is standing in, his well thought out next move is to threaten to hit the thing with his mop.
Back at the party, Jaws and Chesty LaRue are getting restless about not having been killed already, so she cajoles him into leaving the store on a shirtless quest for Virgina Slims. When confronted by a bot, he also tries the casual badge waving trick to no avail. Fortunately for him, it hits him with knock-out darts before tearing out his trachea with its slender claws.
I just want to hug.

Hootie McBoob goes to investigate the status of her cigarette savior, and finds his corpse by the vending machine. (Cigarettes in a vending machine? What is this, the future or something?) The killbot then chases her back to the furniture store, blasting eye-lasers the whole way. Lasers? That wasn't in the presentation. Was that a free bonus with their lightning induced evil-izing, or could they always do that? Either way, the lightning has definitely set their targeting systems to "Stormtrooper" because they sure seem to hit everything but their victims. Also, the beams, when they do hit one of the meatbags, cause mere stumbling or the occasional squib to go off.
Nooo! Not Busty St. Claire!

I stand corrected: if the subject holds perfectly still and gets hit right between the eyes (or maybe right in the screaming mouth) the whole head goes Scanners. The rest of the kids show a little more common sense, and immediately retreat to the stockrooms to formulate a plan. Thanks to the abbreviated runtime, the movie takes a sudden left turn from slasher territory into action horror.
They split into teams based on gender: team girl is tasked with escaping to the parking ramps, while team dude makes a break for the gun store. Each of these mystical quests involves something that, for anyone who has every worked in or been to a shopping mall, don't actually exist outside of movies and games. Namely gun stores and people sized ventilation ducts. Somewhere, probably in the deep South, there may be a shopping mall with a gun store, but I worked as a maintenance guy for a while, and while I did have to crawl into the ventilation system a couple times, the only spots big enough for doing so tended to be short, isolated and connected only to giant, scary fan blades. Any corporate espionage ninjas would find nothing at the terminus but a messy death at the purée setting.
On the third level, between Talbots Petite and Orange Julius

Also, if the kids had attended the killbot seminar like they were supposed to, they would know that the things are damn near bulletproof. (Though we only saw them going up against small arms fire, not shopping mall grade assault weaponry.) They do get points for bringing along propane tanks to detonate; one of my favorite mall activities.
Left 4 Dead: Vice City

Meanwhile, Barbara Crampton is having a claustrophobia freakout in the vents, and forces them go back and help the boys. They end up in the hardware store, where one of the gals instructs the others on how to make Molotov cocktails. In the second worst piece of planning in Video Updates history, they make the cocktails out of metal gas cans. Don't try this at home kids, because it won't fucking work. That's a moderate safety hazard, not a deadly weapon.
The two rapidly shrinking teams join back up, and the movie reveals itself as a distinct pattern of hide - plan - damage a bot - lose a character - retreat - repeat. There are a couple of moderately impressive stunts and some pyrotechnics, but the real attraction is how the killbots keep pulling new powers out of their shiny metal asses.
Why would a bot designed to protect a shopping mall have such a destructive toolset? Tazers, tranquilizers, and kung fu grips make sense. Plastic explosives, difficult to aim laserblasts, and door destroying wielding beams are a harder sell, especially when the droids should, in theory, have the ability to remotely unlock doors. They should at least have a stupid keyring. What kind of future is this where we can make super advanced robots and then force them to interact with their environment using a clumsy approximation of our hands? Otherwise, they are going to be kicking themselves for not buying Rampage Insurance from the manufacturer.
Eventually things get whittled down to one droid and one final girl. (The one who didn't get laid, natch.) It may have lasers, tazers, and a small quantity of C4, but she's got a signal flare in her cleavage, so it's really no contest. Oh yeah, the movie is over.
As mentioned above, Chopping Mall is a Roger Corman production. I didn't notice this while watching, because I like to chow down on paint chips while I watch movies. In retrospect, this could only be more Corman-like if he had directed it himself. All the tropes are there: high concept, low budget, and a script so basic that you can practically see its gears turning. If that wasn't enough, the film piles on the inside jokes and cutesy references. One scene near the end takes place in "Roger's Little Shop of Pets," most of the cast are Corman regulars, and every poster or TV screen has a previous production splashed across it. The bizarre eye rolling folks from the beginning? They are the main characters (not just the actors, the same roles) from Eating Raoul. In other words, unless you are well versed in the RC production oeuvre, prepare to scratch your head and wonder why such minor characters get so many lines.
It's a real shame that Chopping Mall can't quite make the leap into sublime madness that cements other B-movies into the highest circles of the cult elect. All the pieces are there: killer robots, a goofy title, tits, Dick Miller, tongue-in-cheek humor, boobs, lasers, MacGyver style robot killing contraptions, and, most importantly, female nudity. Yet somehow they never congeal into a truly great bad movie.
I blame the "Roger Corman Film School." As much joyful mediocrity as it has brought us throughout the years, the formula was clearly wearing thin at the dawn of the video era. Unlike fellow killer robot movie, Hardware, Chopping Mall has no pretentious or delusions of grandeur. They set out to make a cheap, mediocre genre film, and succeeded in exactly that. So even though it can hit all the same beats as a true classic (of awfulness), it will never have that exhilarating musk of failure. (It's a manly smell--like Tommy Wiseau's armpits, I imagine.)
It's not just about failing upwards; Hardware is a surprisingly literate film that wants desperately to say something meaningful, even if it lacks the cohesion and quality to do so. Chopping Mall, on the other hand, is a sterile affair. A quick exchange of the audience's time and money for some breasts and blood. Of course, the transaction goes by so quickly that you'll probably never even notice that you got a little shortchanged.
Special mention should go out to the composer, Chuck Cirino, whose synth heavy exclusive score acts as a microcosm for the film itself: it aspires to fantastically awesome John Carpenter style '80s cheese, but quickly gets stale after you realize that it is exactly one riff played over and over and varying speeds and settings. This was especially harsh, considering I had just watched Moon, a film with an incredible score by Clint Mansell.


  1. Lightning didn't turn Johnny 5 evil, but it did make him a smart-ass. Does that count?

  2. @Natalie - She's in there somewhere.
    @Saevus - I think because Johnny-5 was built for the purpose of killing that the lightning had the opposite effect. Of course that awful killer-computerized-jet movie totally ruins that theory.

  3. How embarrassing... she was in there after all.

  4. Funny review, Knarf Black XIV. I love the synth exclusive music score by Chuck Cirino, Kellie Maroney's third act pluckiness and the welcome return of Paul and Mary Bland.

  5. Also, how does this theory apply to lightning hitting electrical equipment with people in them, e.g. Shocker and Ghost in the Machine? Both times they started out evil anyway... did the machinery pull their human souls in *because* they had become evil, or is this an unrelated scientific phenomenon? Enquiring minds want to know!

  6. In Ghost in the Machine, the lightning gave evil life to the MRI scan of a serial killer. Shocker never actually involved lightning; it was direct intervention by giant TV Satan lips.

    So depending on your particular theories about what the fuck was happening in GitM, my theory still holds.

  7. i LOVE chopping mall! nice post!