Friday 7 February 2020

Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986) Review

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“I guess I'm not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.” The 1980s was the decade when the shopping mall ruled all from the consumerist dream driving the economy to the food court driving teenagers' social engagement. It was a time and a place that was important in people's lives, something worth protecting, but how best to do that? Perhaps big steel time-locked doors and a trio of roaming robots armed with laser eyes? Gee, I sure hope a random lightning storm doesn't scramble their circuits and result in a slew of corpses … oh, hang on, too late!

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“They remind me of your mother … it's the laser eyes.” The Park Plaza Mall has had enough with the flagrant criminality assailing its bottom line (even if that seemingly only amounts to a few LPs brazenly half-inched from a record store), so they've beefed up their security with big ass steel doors and a trio of 'Protector 101' robots. It's become a veritable consumer prison, but that won't stop a host of decidedly mature-looking teenagers from staging a sordid after hours party at the Furniture King store on Friday night. Fire up that Casio cassette player, 'cos it's gonna be bodacious!

“Trust me, absolutely nothing can go wrong.” However, when the guard bots go rogue and slay their masters (who seem more interested in smut mags and exceptionally chewy donuts), a night of fun for the 'teens' is about to turn into a battle to the death. While Rick (Russell Todd, Friday the 13th Part 2) and Linda get busy, Suzie (Barbara Crampton, From Beyond) and Greg get jiggy with it, and Mike and Leslie (Suzee Slater, Savage Streets) sweat-up the sheets – everyone in full view of each other – blind daters Alison (Kelli Maroney, Night of the Comet) and Ferdy are watching an old monster movie about a bloody big crab. Hot stuff!

“Fuck the fuchsia, it's Friday!” Little do they know, but they aren't safe – especially not poor old Dick Miller (Gremlins, Evil Toons) as the world's grumpiest janitor with the muckiest water bucket. With the first round of fun over, the respective couples catching their breath from their weird orgy of clearly delineated monogamy, things spiral out of control right quick when chewing gum jock dude Mike (John Terlesky, Deathstalker II) goes for a pack of ciggies and never returns. Found dispatched by one of the killer robot guards, it all goes pear-shaped for Leslie in the movie's most memorable moment as she is chased down and has her blonde-haired bonce blasted apart by a ruddy laser! Whoever had the idea of making that Suzee Slater's appearance in the cast credits deserves a high five for the sheer silliness of it.

“You smell like pepperoni.” So, with three murderous machines roaming the mall, it's time to get their game faces on. Now, if this had been set in the United Kingdom all the characters would have been royally stuffed, but this is Reagan's America dagnammit, so say good morning to Peckinpah's sporting goods: home to pistols, shotguns, and flippin' assault rifles galore! Cue lead-spraying, laser-zapping battles, chase scenes, and a dwindling cast – will any of them live to shop another day?

“They look like the Three Stooges.” The cast is a veritable who's who of genre movies and 80s fare. Amongst them are Tony O'Dell from The Karate Kid, Karrie Emerson from T.J. Hooker, Nick Segal from School Spirit, Paul Bartel from Piranha, Mary Woronov from Death Race 2000, and Gerrit Graham from TerrorVision, and they all gamely play along with Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell's script, managing to paper over some bits of clunky dialogue with enough gusto to help earn Chopping Mall (originally titled Killbots) its place as a fan favourite. Straddling multiple genres – sci-fi, comedy, action, and slasher movie – makes for a very mixed tone, but there are some oddly interesting bits strewn throughout, such as the moment when Linda calculates how much debt they'll be stuck with should they survive the night of death and destruction. It makes for a curious scene, but could it be taking a swipe at American consumerism and the spectre of debt on young shoulders? After all, Rick and Linda are newly-weds who've just invested the entirety of their savings into their auto shop business. Fan favourite Barbara Crampton had just appeared in Re-Animator the year before, but unfortunately she doesn't get an awful lot to do here in the part of Suzie. While her more interesting roles were yet to come, Crampton's nice sense of banter with Kelli Maroney's Alison does hint at the actress' ability to breathe life into any role she inhabits.

“Hey, would I set you up with a slime dog or something? No way, babe … it is babe, isn't it?” Naturally, being a B-Movie from the 1980s under the Roger Corman stable where exploitable elements were handled much like an equation under the gaze of a cost/profit ratio, it's not what dreary Twitter types would call “woke”. The director's seemingly uneven reputation – and filmography – aside (listen to the corresponding episode of the podcast How Did This Get Made?), the movie isn't so cut and dry if you look a little deeper. In the scene where Rick and Linda are introduced Rick fails to fix their car, but Linda swiftly solves the problem (seemingly as-per-usual considering Rick's knowing response). Similarly, it's Linda who instructs the group on the construction of impromptu Molotovs. Now, while Suzie does freak out in classic horror movie fashion, so too does her boyfriend Greg. Then there's Alison as the 'final girl', regularly seen taking the initiative. She's the one who goes in for the kiss between her and nervous 'n' nerdy guy Ferdy, and while all the men fire off the mall's Commando-esque stock of weapons in a 'spray and pray' manner, Alison only needs one shot to detonate a bomb. She's cool under pressure – even when being assailed by snakes and tarantulas – and defeats the final killbot with speed, cunning instincts, and even a triumphant quip.

“I don't know why I watch these things, I scare so easily.” Further to that, one of the common criticisms of these kinds of movies is the death of female characters … while tumble weeds roll past the myriad male corpses littering the floor. Of all the deaths in the movie two thirds of the victims are male. Does this actually matter? No, but it's still a fair point worth raising in response to a common and selective criticism of the horror genre. What is also quite natural for this kind of fare is gratuitous nudity – one of a host of 'exploitable elements' which includes explosions, gore, recognisable star names (some of them belonging to stars on the wane), and buff dudes. Is it necessary for Suzie and Leslie to whip their boobs out? Well, it'd be a curious kind of 'Furniture Storgy' (hat tip How Did This Get Made?) without it. Is it necessary for Mike to take a long walk to the cigarette machine with his shirt off – muscular body gleaming in the moonlight – and his joy trail exposed from unzipped jeans? Is it necessary for Leslie's head to be blown to smithereens in a gleefully gory close up? Personal conduct for all involved in any endeavour aside, it's all part-and-parcel of the genre. Indeed, this methodology extends to any type of genre. Singin' In The Rain would be weird if the characters didn't burst into brutally rehearsed song and dance numbers. Star Wars wouldn't make a lick of sense without spaceships flying all over the shop. The Expendables wouldn't be much fun without guns, 80s action heroes, and a massive pile of bullet-riddled bodies.

“What's that?” / “Robot Blood.” Making full use of its gleaming mall location (Sherman Oaks Galleria), Chopping Mall makes for brisk and self-aware B-Movie fun, clocking in at a rather scant running time well below 80 minutes. Squeezing in more action than you might initially expect, it's not as gory as one might hope (even with that stunning head explosion). What is interesting to note is that this film pre-dates Short Circuit, which coincidentally featured robots getting struck by lightning. Meanwhile, the 1995 sci-fi action flick Evolver must surely have taken some inspiration from Chopping Mall for its pint-sized killer 'bot. There are certainly better 80s genre flicks out there, but Wynorski's movie does punch above its weight and manages to land most of the strikes that it flings at the viewer.

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