Monday, July 15, 2024

Whatever Wednesdays: ‘Chopping Mall’

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Chopping Mall is grade A schlock in all the best possible ways. If the fact that the film is delightfully silly, aware of what it is, and weirdly smart isn’t enough it clocks in at under an hour and twenty minutes. What more can you possibly want? 

A masterpiece of cheese, legitimate thrills, and low budget robotics, Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall is as barebones as they come. I wouldn’t have thought teenagers trapped in a mall with killer robots would be such great fun but then again, what do I know? 

The characters are more tropes and archetypes than anything resembling characters. The script by Wynorksi and his co-writer Steve Mitchell wisely doesn’t call for little else. This isn’t Shakespeare folks; this is Chopping Mall.  

It helps that the Wynorski has gathered actors that embody these tropes so innately we know these characters on sight. John Terlesky as Mike, in particular, might be one of the great “choad” characters since Roy Stalin. Terlesky has a way of just sitting and chewing gum that just screams “jackass”. 

Everyone does their job. Mike’s girlfriend, Leslie, is played to bimbo-ish perfection by Suzee Slater. The great Barbra Crampton is Susie, the Valley girl befriending the new girl in town Alison (Kelli Maroney). Susie drags Alison to her boyfriend’s party at the furniture store because that’s what’s needed to trap all the characters in the mall.  

It’s okay though because Ferdy’s (Tony O’Dell) dad owns the store. All he has to do is make sure the beer stains are cleaned up before they open the next morning. Greg (Nick Segal) is Susie’s boyfriend and Alsion is being brought along as a match for Ferdy. This is a slasher movie with robots with the body design of Short Circuit and the attitude of Robocop. 

In other words, the characters aren’t that important. Yet, miraculously, here, they kind of are. While the characters in Chopping Mall are only a few steps removed from fodder, they are distinguishable from another. They may not have inner lives so much but they have enough life that we find ourselves rooting for them. 

You might be asking, foolishly, why are the robots killing people? The answer is simple. They are part of the latest state of the art security system employed by the mall. Sadly, on the night their schedule to go online for the first time, a lightning storm strikes L.A., as they are want to do, and turns our friendly anti-crime fighters into killdozers.  

Wynorski and Mitchell waste little time in explaining and setting up. Once the lightning strikes, away we go, with a bunch of teenagers fighting robots with lasers for eyes and reacher grabbers for hands. If all of this sounds goofy and absolutely ridiculous, I assure you, it’s because it is. This isn’t camp, camp comes from the people making the film unaware of the film they are actually making. 

Chopping Mall is one hundred percent aware that it is Chopping Mall. But that doesn’t mean this can’t be dumb silly fun. Even the dumbness is circumvented at times with clever references without feeling the need to stop the film dead. When the characters stop off at Peckinpah Sporting goods, Wynorski edits the scene like something out of a Sam Peckinpah film, as the characters load guns and discuss their plan. As they leave the store the trio walk towards the camera like something out of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. 

But if you don’t know who Sam Peckinpah is, or if you’ve never seen a western, the joke still lands. Because the reference is built into the tone of the movie so their machismo makes sense for a bunch of frat guys trying to fight a trio of robots fueled by their lust for murder. Low budget or not, 80’s or not, that’s just solid filmmaking. 

Even the great ubiquitous character actor Dick Miller shows up to be unceremoniously killed by one of the devil machines. Granted you can see it coming a mile away, but you can see most deaths coming a mile away. These robots aren’t most high tech, even by the standard of the 80s. One scene has Crampton’s Susie flailing about in the middle of the floor as one of the robots slowly meanders his way towards her. She has a sprained ankle, of course, keeping her from making a getaway. Her friends Alison and Linda (Karrie Emerson) watch helplessly from behind two potted plants. 

Granted how she dies may not be as predictable as you think. Honestly, much of the charm from Chopping Mall is how it’s simultaneously predictable in some places while being delightfully unpredictable in others. I knew Rick (Russell Todd) would avenge the death of his wife, Linda. But I never would have guessed he would have driven a single-engine moped meant for the security guards, the type that moves at just over a few centimeters per hour, kamikaze-style into one of the robots killing both of them in a strange twister of electricity. 

I don’t know maybe I just loved the running gag of characters answering the phone either to be hung up on or dealing with wrong numbers. Here I am in the 21st century with devices that would look alien to the people in this film and yet I couldn’t help feel a kinship in these moments. 

Upon its release, the film flopped but has since found a following. Those of you old enough to remember such things might remember the VHS cover, a single hand holding a blood-soaked bag filled with dismembered body parts and eyeballs. VHS cover used to be like covers of those pulp paperback novels. They almost always promised something the author was incapable of delivering; or in the case of Chopping Mall the exact opposite of what it actually was. 

There is no possessed, mentally unhinged mad man killing sex-crazed teenagers. It is merely some robots who have short-circuited. Granted when it comes to most slasher films a mindless killing automaton can just as easily be swapped as one of the killbots from Chopping Mall. The refreshing bit is that while the killer Radio Shacks don’t have any personality the people do. 

I found myself charmed by this ragamuffin horror flick. Maybe it was the synthpop score, the oh so horribly aged computer graphics, or maybe it was the willingness to call a pet shop Roger’s Little Shop of Pets. Who knows? 

Chopping Mall is a blast. Yes, the film has more than a little cheese to it. But there’s a humor and charm to the film missing from a lot of other films which are supposedly its betters. 

Image courtesy of Concorde Pictures

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