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Chopping Mall
(a.k.a. Killbots)
(1986)

Director: Jim Wynorski          
Cast:
Barbara Crampton, Zoe Kelli Simon, Tony O'Dell


When looking at the B-movie throughout the decades, one cannot help a strange and simultaneous occurrence happening with just about every outfit putting out B-movies around the mid-'80s. That is, the overall quality of the output suddenly takes a dramatic turn for the worst. Up until that point in history, while there certainly were a number of B-movies made with poor production values by the standards of any decade, each year you could still find a good number of others that had production values ranging from passable to excellent. Seeing them today, you can understand why they were deemed worthy of theatrical release. But then take a look at what was generally being made and released to a steadily decreasing number of theaters from the mid-'80s to a few years afterwards. Seen today, most of these movies look appallingly cheap and tacky, so much so that it's hard to believe they were deemed worthy of theatrical release even when there was still somewhat of an audience for theatrically-released B-movies.

Oddly, during this period of dwindling theaters willing to show them, and subsequently a few years barely making heartbeats in the straight-to-video market, the B-movie started to make a comeback. The general quality has improved enormously since that dark period. While the percentage of B-movies with good to great production values may not be as high as the golden period of the '70s, there is good product out there if you are willing to search a bit. Certainly, many B-movie producers have learned how to do a good job after the theatrical market died. And then there are producers who either weren't able to relearn, or seemingly just stopped caring about making a movie She supported herself as a waitress while trying to start her acting career... only to be cast as a waitresswith a minimum amount of quality. One of the latter is Roger Corman. Right after he sold his New World Pictures company in the early '80s and subsequently started making movies under his newly-founded Concorde Pictures, the general quality level of his product immediately took a notable dive down - a dive that has yet to level off after twenty or so years have passed.

Though the movies that Corman released in those first few years in his new company are unquestionably a lot better than what he typically releases nowadays, that's not to say that the overall quality back then was acceptable. I mean, you don't exactly see people searching hard for rare copies of Cocaine Wars or Munchies. In fact, some of what he released was absolutely terrible, like Sorority House Massacre. Though for every absolute bomb like that, there had to be a movie with a decent amount of merit to make up for it and keep the average up. One such Corman production during that period was Chopping Mall. Okay, okay, it was actually produced by Julie Corman, Roger's wife. However, upon watching it there's clearly no doubt Roger had an uncredited hand in its production, so I'll let it go with that. What's surprising about Chopping Mall is that even with Roger pulling the strings behind the curtain, the movie gets closer to resembling an actual theatrical-worthy movie than just about anything else he produced then, or since. The scent of cheese is never totally gone at any point, but at the same time you also sense that the people who made the movie not only put in some real effort, but did so consciously. Even more surprising is that the end result is actually pretty entertaining. No, nothing spectacular or really that memorable - this is Corman, after all - but it at least keeps you amused while it's playing.

It probably comes as no surprise that the events of the movie take place in a shopping mall. As the movie starts, we learn that the Park Place 2000 shopping mall is firmly stepping into the future that its name suggests with installing a high-tech security system from the Secure-Tronics company. Part of this new system includes the entrances being fitted with steel doors controlled by a time lock, described in enough detail to give us time to finish chuckling over what we  instantly guessed what will happen to the soon-to-be-introduced protagonists. The centerpiece of the new security system are three units of the Protector 101 - three robots with tank-like treads that can subdue intruders with non-lethal methods including sleeping darts and electrical shocks. The robots are controlled by a roof-top computer that looks suspiciously like an air conditioning unit, with this computer controlled by two technicians in a control booth on the ground floor. Sounds impressive, until you start to seriously think about it. I mean, even today, just one robot that size and with those abilities would cost you a huge amount of money. Then there would be additional costs each month to maintain the robots and the rooftop computer, and those technicians would demand pretty hefty salaries.

As for the steel doors, they at first seem like they could take care of Its father was a Cylonmuch, if not all of the mall's after-hours security on their own. However, later we learn that all of the mall's fire exits actually lead to the ground floor interior of the mall. Uh, what if someone is inside the mall while the steel doors are shut, and there is a fire? And I may not be well-versed with fire codes, but even in 1986, didn't fire exits have to lead to the outside of the buildings they are in? Personally, I think it would be cheaper and just as effective to hire minimum-wage security guards to keep an eye on the mall interior via security cameras. (Maybe even more effective, since if there actually was a robbery, it's clearly shown that even the most overweight security guard could easily outrun one of these robots.) Though if the mall or even the security system had been designed with a lick of sense, there wouldn't be people trapped and terrorized, and we wouldn't have a movie. Speaking of people, let's now get to the characters, a pack of youthful mall employees and their friends who decide to have a party in the mall after hours. These characters are the typical ones you usually find in youth-oriented horror - the slick dude, the jock, the nerd, etc. So you know how the drill goes in these kind of movies - lightning strikes the rooftop computer, the robots go homicidal as a result and start killing everyone, blah blah blah...

All kidding aside, while the setting and plot elements are certainly a lot different than what you typically yet, the heart of Chopping Mall is that of your typical '80s slasher movie. It may have a technological twist, but all that fancy machinery doesn't make this screenplay any brainier than any of its brethren. But while it may not be any smarter, it is at least more livelier than your average slasher - or your average Corman production at the time (or later) for that matter. For one thing, the players this time around are a more talented bunch of actors. Although they are stuck with playing extremely familiar stereotypes, they have a lot of fun with these stereotypes. For example, John Terlesky, who plays a "slick dude" type, wildly exaggerates the behavior you usually associate with this kind of character. When he grins, he shows off every one of his pearly whites. When he chews gum (it seems like his character is always chewing gum), he works his jaw overtime seemingly so that any blind or deaf viewers will know what he's doing. He seems to be on the verge of laughing many times, and his obvious enjoyment is infectious. Tony O'Dell (Head Of The Class) not only gives his nerd character a geeky charm, but also some heart during some of the movie's more serious moments. And I certainly cannot leave out the legendary Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator). She plays the "wild girl", though leaves out the typical bitchiness and injects some warmth instead. The fact that she was willing to shed her top doesn't hurt as well.

All the actors are clearly feeling free to break out of their confining stereotypes and add a personal touch of some kind. In fact, throughout the movie there is more of a carefree feeling than you usually get in these kind of movies, as if everyone involved is tired of doing the same old stalk-and-slash and instead wants to do it somewhat differently for a change. For starters, the screenplay (co-written by Wynorski) is not only written with a lot more humor than normal, the humorous moments generally are of a more subtle nature than typical comic relief of the genre involving peeping Toms and humiliating practical jokes. Some of the humor generally comes from various comments the characters make as the events unfold, but there are also visual gags (such as mall shoppers silently shown doing wacky things during the opening credits) and in-jokes, such as when Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov appear as the characters they play in Eating Raoul. But much of the amusement comes just from the premise itself. Just the idea of killer robots stalking victims in a shopping mall is hard to take seriously. And the protagonists' various attempts to escape or fight back just add to the hilarity, like the sporting goods store that they break into conveniently having Magnums and military assault rifles for their disposal. And I won't even begin to describe the subsequent ludicrous sight of fully armed button shirt and slack-wearing youths racing out of the store to kick butt.

Not only was there clearly an effort of some kind by Wynorski to give the screenplay a needed and welcome boost, he and the other people behind the camera obviously put some work into the production values. One cheap but very effective way they did this was to shoot on location in an actual mall. Not only that, the particular mall they chose to shoot in (the same one as in Phantom Of The Mall, I believe) gave them a number of opportunities to create some good visuals, due in part to the mall's expansive courtyard, height, and ability to see several levels of the mall at once. In fact, for most of the movie they were able to simply shoot on location without building sets. The few sets that were built admittedly do look like sets... but I've seen worse, and maybe a slightly cheesy look is actually appropriate for what is taking place in a shopping mall. As for the steel doors, even sharp-eyed viewers who realize that they must be small-scale models shot in close-up will be impressed by how convincing they look. This and everything else concerning the "look" of the movie is further boosted by the cinematography. Instead of having the standard bright-and-polished look of many '80s cheapies that just highlighted their cheapness, the light level has been turned down and the film stock gives everything a slightly gritty (and more believable) look.

And then there are the centerpieces of the movie, the three robots. The biggest surprise is that instead of just building one and having it represent all three robots at different times and places, the production team actually went to the trouble to build at least two working models, since in one scene we see two of them in action. I was impressed by the fact both robots were built to travel without cables attached, so we get to see them freely move on their own without having to use confining techniques like puppetry. The third robot is obviously a non-working mock-up, primarily used to show the after-effects after a particular robot gets inflicted with some kind of great force - which almost always seems to happen just out of the range of the camera. That's not the only cheesy thing associated with these robots. The main problem I found with them was with their attacks on the youths and their subsequent kills. Though this movie isn't taking itself very seriously, there should still be some threatening feeling. But when you have antagonists that move slowly, not to mention that are also incredibly lousy shots, it becomes tiresome; a more cunning enemy would have kept the tension up, and even the amusement, with a little thought.

When the robots actually do get their targets, it's also a letdown. With a movie with "Here's my impression of Popeye with a gun!"such an outrageous premise like this - and being rated "R" to boot - you would expect equally outrageous kills, filled with an amount of blood and guts so immense that the effect would become comic instead of disgusting. Yet except for one passable exploding head, the kills are extremely unspectacular; throats are (lightly) crushed with just a mere trickle of blood, people fall from great heights without a look or even a sound of the splat below, or people are simply shot and fall down dead. Not only is the movie unspectacular in its action, there's addition frustration with the movie taking more time than it needs to get from one significant turn in the story to the next on several occasions. Even with a running time of only 77 minutes, you can feel some padding, ranging from characters slowly wandering around to try and find something to a appearance by Dick Miller that gives him absolutely nothing funny to do in the minute or so he's featured. Yet despite these and other problems, Chopping Mall still has enough of a good-nature to make it an amiable viewing experience. No, it isn't spectacular enough to make it a first choice or an absolute must-see, but that's not surprising - after all, it's not an "A" movie. It's a true B-movie, but one that is fairly fun at that level.

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See also: Death Machine, Robo Vampire, R.O.T.O.R.

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