CHOPPING MALL (1986)
Directed by Jim Wynorski, starring Barbara Crampton, Kelli Maroney, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov
By Graham Rae
Well now VHS-horror-cellar dwellers, here’s a laserblast from the dim and distant past. Towards the end of last March I somehow ended up on director Jim Wynorski’s Facebook page (maybe through Barbara Crampton’s page, cos I glance at her stuff there), and saw that this film was apparently celebrating its 30thanniversary. I told Erok that I would watch and review it purely because I called a chapter in my soon-to-be-released novel Soundproof Future Scotland after it, and was vaguely curious to see it after first seeing it a mere three decades ago. Literally the only thing I could remember about it was somebody’s head exploding. So here we are. Isn’t life grand?
|How could you forget the glorious death of Suzee Slater?|
I confess, watching this film did remind me of the antediluvian times when I would go out to the local video shop in Falkirk (my Scottish home town) and get horror videos out on a Friday night and review them for Deep Red. I just went back to see when this film got a UK release. Oddly, if you go to the BBFC website, it shows that the trailer (cut by an esthetic-debilitating – GASP! – one second! THE EVIL CENSORIOUS MONSTERS!!) was rated on 09/09/1987, whereas the released-uncut film itself was rated on 30/07/1987. So celebrations of the release date over here are kind of premature anyway. Oh, the non-controversy! Check this for yourself if yer bored and have no life:
So yeah. Let’s see. Plot? Well, three prototype ‘killbots’ are placed in a suburban shopping mall to guard the place overnight. Some way-too-old ‘teens’ who work in the mall decide to have an overnight sex-n-boozefest party and lock themselves in. Like some sort of tangential-riffing, it’s-alive Frankenstein vibe, a freak thunder storm lightning bolt zaps the control room for the evil-bastard-bots and renders them armed and dangerous. They then set out to – what else – kill all the teens, and a few random overnight staff; basically anybody they see and can get their lasers and hooks into, and their tracks to run over. How does it end? How do you think?
Anyway. This is a functional, funky, fun-in-places scifi-cum-horror film, exhibiting equal parts The Terminator, Dawn of the Dead and, well, other random films that drifted through my psyche when watching it. It’s funny watching a film from that long-gone time now, having first seen it when it came out. You can contextualize it within the era it emerged from, maybe have dimlit tattered memories come silently roaring back at you out of an unquiet shallow historical VHS grave, and you can pick apart the stuff that headspinfluenced it back then. Which is odd with this film, because there are scenes in it you would swearcame from Robocop, which came out the year after Chopping Mall got its USA release. I did hear stories back at the time about a glittery-eyed, hand-rubbing Paul Verhoeven lurking around the shopping mall set, ears burning with new plot details to riff on and rip off. He was eventually ejected by film crew, his pen and pad confiscated and ceremonially burned, but he still managed to retain enough information, despite the head trauma he suffered when thrown to the pavement outside the mall, to throw a few elements from Wynorski’s lesser-known effort into his own roboprick mix.
OK, so I made all that preceding robocrock of cybercrap up for fun. Obviously. It is true there are scenes that seem familiar from Robocop, though, like the start, which presents an advertisement for the killbots (not that they’re called that – they are only meant to subdue mall malefactors, not kill them, but that would not exactly have made for an interesting film, would it? Lightly Injuring Mall just doesn’t have the same ring to it) to introduce them to us. I idly wonder if the script for Robocop was kicking around Hollywood when Wynorski made his own film, but don’t wonder too hard. It could genuinely be just a serendipitous occurrence, like when JG Ballard wrote High-Rise (the film of which came out recently) and David Cronenberg made They Came From Within the same year on different sides of the Atlantic. I truly don’t care enough to research it at all. Why don’t you do it and come back and schlock-shock and awe us all? Or (chuckling here) more likely not.
Anyhow-what-where-when-why. So what do we really have here? Well, a slasher film with robots, where the roid-rage hemoglob-spiller-droids kill wisecracking middle class white teen hemorrhoids. Especially annoying is the cockwaver jock guy who doesn’t take his chewing gum out of his mouth even when he’s kissing or having sex – I just wanted to slap it out of his jawjawjawing slobgob. The teens get killed one by one and then…they don’t. You know the drill. Have to say, a lot of the performances were pretty bad in this, though Crampton and Maroney came out of it pretty unscathed. The latter exudes a kind of wholesome cheerleaderesque goodygoodyness, so you can’t help but root for her. Plus her big, big ultra-lacquered 80s hair never seems out of place, even when she’s squirming under tarantula assault, so she gets bonus heroine-stoicism points for that.
But never one to have her spotlight stolen, or style cramped, the lovely Crampton gets naked, as usual. Have to say, I thought her character’s charbroiled death (whoops, spoiler! If you haven’t seen the fucking thing after three decades, it’s not my damned fault!) was sadistic and disturbing, the most prolonged and painful during the short (73 minutes) running time, bringing some of the pathological misogyny from horror films from this period sadly to the fore. But even this level of discussion is giving it more discredit than it’s due. It’s a cheap quickie exploitation movie, nothing more or less, and you basically expect a bit of inhuman contempt along the way. Wouldn’t have it any other way, really.
Ultimately what this all boils down to is a cheap and cheerful full-length horror-and-scifi homage from a director who is clearly a fanboy for this sort of stuff, and of cinema in general. Right from the start director Wynorski is nodding to other movies (including an entertaining nod-and-a-wink cameo from Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, who include a mention of their cult 1982 effort Eating Raoul), and has the balls-out temerity to include posters from his own other movies in the background as free rental advertising! This reminded me of Ray Dennis Steckler having a killer being filmed wearing a Thrill Killers jacket during The Incredibly Strange Film Show in 1988, telling Jonathan Ross that he had made that film years before and nobody had seen it, so why not advertise onscreen? Frugality, genius and insanity run rampant! Wynorski just got down to slavish pandering to his influences a half decade or so before Quentin Tarantino would come out with his own tiresome, self-reflexive, filmic recycle-fests, is all. Surprised wee mad Quentin hasn’t used Dick Miller (who is also in The Terminator, which this film clearly riffs on) in a cameo somewhere, as happens here; the Plagiarist King definitely loses esoteric cinema points for that oversight.
|Free advertising couldn't hurt, don't forget to pick up some trailmix lube|
Quite apart from anything else, the film is a prime nostalgia-inducing 80s time capsule, from the over-the-top Reaganite shite fashion statements-of-malintent to the Jan Hammer-alike synthsludge soundtrack to the huge ghetto blasters and wisecracking robots (“Thank you! Have a nice day!” as they put it after they kill somebody, and DAMN, do they ever sound like the ED-209 cyberfeds from Robocop as they do!) and characters. This was, after all, the era of the groanworthy cracked-pun crock, and no dialogue exchange was complete without some smartarse saying something knowing and melodramatic during lulls in the action, or before the next kinetic violence burst.
Thank fuck the 80s are long gone and half forgotten, is all I can say.
Anyhoo. Any poor deluded younger person wanting to foolishly revisit the Decade of Cocaine and Shoulder Pad Excess can do it from the safety of their own living room with Chopping Mall, and a million other straight-to-video flickershows from the same period; the VHS gold rush epoch. An especially entertaining aspect of the film is trying to guess just exactly where the killbots (how the hell did they manage to stand upright on escalators?) were ripped off from, with their red glowing eyestrip. I mean, was it Maximillian, from the weirdly disturbing 1979 Disney film the Black Hole? Was it KITT from Knight Rider? Was it the cylons from Battlestar Galactica? Was it some other undiscussed hardly-noticed scifi progenitor? Or were the red eyes an homage to Cheech and Chong? All these and other hardly-pressing questions will never be answered to your satisfaction. Answers on a postcard to the usual circular file address. Just don’t go into this expecting too much, or even too little, and you won’t be disappointed. But I guess you knew that anyway.
Talk amongst yourselves.