Summer of Blood: Have a nice day
There is a gentleman named Roger Corman - perhaps you have heard of him? And if not, how is it that you care enough about movies to find yourself reading a film blog? For Roger Corman is one of the essential producers in the annals of American cinema, the very David O. Selznick of the B-movie set. He has been the driving force behind some of the most beloved crappy movies for over half a decade and counting - at 85 now, he's slowed down but by no means stopped - and launched the careers of such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, and Jim Wynorski. Jim Who? I can hear you asking, those of you at least who were raised with a modicum of taste and respect for your own dignity. The rest of you might now him from such titles as The Bare Wench Project, The Witches of Breastwick, and The Devil Wears Nada, but before he turned to pornographic blockbuster parodies in the '00s, he spent the '90s directing schlock action and horror pictures like Vampirella,* and before that, he spent the '80s making comparatively decent, one might even say watchable, movies, of which the most prominent and best-regarded was Chopping Mall in 1986, Wynorski's sophomore feature and the first where he teamed up with the aforementioned Roger Corman, and now we get back full circle.
Mind you, Chopping Mall was technically produced by Corman's wife Julie, and while I see no reason to doubt that she picked up a thing or two about filmmaking during her marriage (now in its 41st year) and doubtlessly did exactly what she was credited for, you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to spot Roger's hand in the thing, not least because it was the premiere project for Concorde Pictures, the producer's new production company after he sold off New World Pictures in 1983. But there's also the unmistakably Cormanesque manner in which Chopping Mall feels for all the world like a bandwagon-jumper while tweaking the same formula it's allegedly copying so far that the end result feels somehow original, despite being intensely beholden to almost every single hidebound convention you could name; and the cunning manner in which the film marries cheapness with a zealous eye for making sure every dollar gets spent for the greatest aesthetic good (one of the key characteristics of early and mid-period Corman - Chopping Mall is among the very last films before he entered his late or "shitty" period - is his ability to get the most possible bang for his buck; he understands as few other producers do that the best way to get an audience's money is to make sure that audience is completely entertained by your product). I am sure Wynorski had something to do with it all, but I wonder if we ought to credit the future director of such deathless classics as 976-EVIL II with too much of the success for a movie as disreputably fun as Chopping Mall.
Or Killbots, as it was originally called, before a chilly audience response sent it back into the editing room, where it lost about a quarter of an hour, ending up with the decidedly sleek running time of 77 minutes. In the best B-movie fashion, hardly a second of that time is wasted; barely before we have a chance to realise we're watching a movie at all, we've seen a jewelry thief (Lenny Juliano) getting apprehended by a squat metal object, sort of like Johnny 5 from the same year's Short Circuit with more armor plating and a Cylon mask staring out menacingly with its bright red anonymity. And this situation has only barely registered before it turns out that we're watching a promotional film demonstrating the new killbots being sold by Secure-Tronics as fancy-ass new mall security guards that never fall asleep or surreptitiously read porn during their shift or nothing. And so on and so forth: by the ten-minute mark we already know exactly why a whole big mess of young people is camping in the Park Plaza Mall after it closes (but before the gigantic steel security doors close at midnight) and we can assume that several of them will run afoul of the mall's three shiny new killbots that have already murdered one of the security guards they were theoretically purchased to replace, after an errant lightning strike hits the central processor controlling their actions and disables the "don't kill people using the laser guns that, for some reason, have been installed on your chassis" command line. Ten minutes it takes to set all that up. I miss movies like that. Ten minutes into Transformers and we still hadn't met any of our protagonists.
Ruthless efficiency is admittedly not the same as a tight, smart script: the whole thing is absolutely lousy with places where what is cool is not the same as what makes a lick of sense (the laser guns, I think, are proof enough of that). And when we dust just a little bit of the sci-fi trappings, it's quite obvious that Wynorski and Steve Mitchell's script is taking nearly all of its cues from the slasher subgenre which was still inordinately popular in those days despite having long since exhausted whatever creativity and insight it might have once possessed. Though surely, adding murderous military-looking robots to a slasher picture couldn't help but freshen things up a bit, and even as I am certain that The Terminator looms rather large in Chopping Mall's DNA, it's to the filmmakers' credit that it never comes across remotely as derivative as I've just made it sound.
Or, for that matter, as derivative as I'm about to make it sound, because now it's time to Meet the Meat, and a more outstandingly indistinguishable cast of prospective victims is rare even in the rarefied world of '80s horror pictures. In the order that the film introduces us to them, we've got Alison (Kelli Maroney) and Suzie (Barbara Crampton, who forever became the stuff of '80s horror legend when she co-starred in Re-Animator), waitresses at an Italian restaurant in the mall whose owner we can assume once auditioned to play the voice of video game hero Mario, but was rejected for being too stereotypical; Alison is only kind of interested in attending the after-hours party that Suzie is spearheading, but her friend has dangled the promise of a single boy in attendance, and that's who we meet next: Ferdy (Tony O'Dell), whose uncle owns the Furniture King store where this shindig is to happen, and who has been invited largely as an insurance policy for his co-workers, Mike (John Terlesky), and Greg (Nick Segal), who is dating Suzie. Next up are Suzie's friends Linda (Karrie Emerson) and Rick (Russell Todd), a married couple - this fact is brought up only to have no bearing on anything else that will happen) - in which, get this, the woman is better with cars - a fact that, having served its sexist "ZOMG lady gearhead" purpose, also has no bearing on anything else that will happen, despite "we made a point of establishing that this character is good with engine" almost always being foreshadowing in these kinds of movies. Last up, and we don't meat her until the party itself, is Mike's girlfriend Leslie (Suzee Slater).
Mike, Leslie, Rick, Linda, Greg, Suzie, Ferdy, Alison; and since in grand slasher fashion, half of them only barely get names on-screen, and since they are barely individualised even in the reductive manner of '80s films, I took to calling them, respectively, Ex-Frat, Slutty McHo, Married Guy, Married Woman, Cameron from Ferris Bueller, Barbara Crampton's Character, Dweeb, and Obvious Final Girl (as befits the more complex personality of a Final Girl, she also got another nick-name: Frizzy Hair). And despite this, I still managed to get Greg and Rick confused half of the time.
So, in the Furniture King, the six normal couples fuck like monkeys while Ferdy and Alison, wishing instead to survive the coming massacre, sit fully clothed and watch the Corman-directed Attack of the Crab Monsters. Meanwhile, the killbots take down a second guard and a janitor played with joyfully hammy grumpiness by a cameoing Dick Miller (a longstanding Corman veteran). One quick trip to a cigarette vending machine later - Do you remember when smoking cigarettes inside malls was just something people did, and it was no big deal at all? Because I just barely do, and it still startles me every time I see a movie like this - and Mike and Leslie are both out of the picture, and it's not much longer before the six remaining kids are aware that something has gone incredibly wrong, and the mechanical death machines are breaking every single rule they came installed with in their zeal to keep the mall safe from the twin scourges of sex and alcohol.
The forty minutes or thereabouts that remain at this point play out much as you'd expect: they run this way, get trapped, run that way, figure out a way to destroy one robot at a time with much effort, somebody dies, and back and forth and so on. It could be junk, nay, it is junk, but junk with a twist: for Wynorski finds a place that is just winking enough, guided there I expect by the Cormans, that his movie plays not like a parody of itself, but with a breeziness that seems to pull the viewer aside just long to admit, with only a little embarrassment, "yeah, I know this is kind of stupid and clichéd, but come on, killer robots with laser guns - you have to admit that's fun". It is, at the very least, a movie that knows exactly how disreputable it is, and embraces that with a defiant shit-eating grin: its constant references to B- and Z-grade schlock of the past, much of it with a Corman connection, makes it almost like a proto-Scream, though with less snark. Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov cameo as their characters from the 1982 cult hit Eating Raoul, and there are visual in-jokes all over: movie posters on nearly every surface, and store names with heavy-handed cutesy names like "Peckinpah's Sporting Goods", though the one that made actually giggle and squee just a tiny bit was "Roger's Little Shop of Pets".
If it's not too much to claim that a film can be lighthearted with a body count that was, if not outlandish by the escalating standards of the mid-'80s, certainly a healthy list of dead bodies, then I should like to claim that Chopping Mall is just that: lighthearted and suffused with a sense of play. The deaths themselves are remarkably un-violent: several people get electrocuted or zapped by the laser, and the only big gore effect is an exploding head that cuts away quick as it can to disguise the obvious model (the quick cut also serves to give the moment a bit more shocking oomph). One character burns to death, screaming all the way, but what could be an upsetting moment is quickly smoothed over by a magic transition that turns her into an inert - though oddly, still screaming - dummy. And of course, there's the mere fact that the characters have such aggressively shallow personalities, which leaves us much less concerned that they are dying. It's a fun exercise in violent death and murder, in other words.
And this, as much as anything, is the Mark of Roger: if there's a single film that Corman ever made that is ultimately as mean-spirited and unpleasant as the great bulk of slasher films, I haven't seen it. Everything he ever touched has a definite flair of the Barnum-esque showman to it; not so far in the direction of sheer hucksterism as, say, William Castle would attain, but the foremost characteristic of a Corman film from his glory days is that it is, after all the blood and terror and horror and death, made in a spirit of utmost good cheer. He wanted to make the people feel good, and his movies are always as entertaining and well-made as his impossibly small budgets would permit.
So even if Chopping Mall has horrible characters played by almost uniformly poor actors; it's still made with a seriousness of purpose and a focus missing in most of its competition. The killbots themselves are a tiny miracle of low-budget production and design, legitimately menacing all the more because they don't seem to be off in some sci-fi wonderland, and because the puppeteers (and Wynorski, who provided their deep monotone, weirdly amusing voices) put so much little touches into their movements, giving these featureless, emotionless machines more legitimate personality than any of the humans involved.
It is a ridiculous film that is above ridicule, and a film that manages to gather up seemingly every current in 1980s genre cinema into one nimble package, in short, and despite a somewhat too-long Final Girl sequence, it does this all without ever dragging. It does not talk down to us, or assume that we are idiots - it knows that it is goofy, but it does not therefore mock itself or ask to be mocked. It is, I daresay, just about the best low-budget movie about killer robots destroying a shopping mall that can ever be produced, and it asks no more from us than that we allow that even this, in its way, is a small but real achievement.
Body Count: 9, not at all a bad number for a 77-minute picture with about $15 in the budget for gore effects.