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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Chopping Mall (1986)

Written by Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell
Directed by Jim Wynorski

Kelli Maroney:  Alison Parks
Tony O'Dell:  Ferdy Meisel
Russell Todd:  Rick Stanton
Karrie Emerson:  Linda Stanton
Barbara Crampton:  Suzie Lynn

With the usual complement of Roger Corman alumni and character actors, to wit:  Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Gerrit Graham, Angus Scrimm, Mel Welles and DICK MILLER! as the janitor who gets electrocuted

I was planning to use this for HubrisWeen 3, but after seeing Logan's Run last week (and getting lots of cheap jokes in about how it was very, very obviously shot in a shopping mall) I bumped this one to the top of the list.

There's a story that many people who worked for legendary producer / director / talent scout Roger Corman tell. Something went wrong on a movie they were trying like hell to bring in on time and under budget--an actor gave up, an effect gave out, the weather gave them downpours when they needed sunshine. The filmmakers just plain hit the wall. And Corman would take them aside and quietly let them know that he understood just how much Sisyphean effort was being expended to make a low-budget monster movie or car chase comedy. The last thing he'd say, as a morale booster, was this:  "If you do a good enough job on this movie, you will never have to work for me again".

Jim Wynorski has been directing movies for Corman for thirty years.

That's not to say he doesn't know what the audience wants (look at that poster, or, hell, just look at that title!) but it is to say that you know what you're going to get when you throw a Wynorski movie into the gigantic top-loading VCR in the basement rec room. Or, decades after the original lifespan of the film, check it out on Blu-Ray or streaming video. I'd missed out on this one back in its original video release (none of the mom-and-pop stores in Wheaton carried it) but its reputation preceded it even back in the days when the internet wasn't even like a truck and horror fandom communicated mostly by buying Fangoria and hoping that some of the movies they wrote about wouldn't suck.

Also, a brief moment to salute the genius of Roger Corman when he was ripping things off. He had the intelligence to say "Hey, what if it was a bunch of little fish?" when trying to ride the sharkskin coattails of Jaws, and he beat Jurassic Park to the theater with Carnosaur--even going so far as to hire Laura Dern's mother for his dinosaur movie. He knew that a hit movie was basically a free fifty million dollar ad campaign for his grindhouse retreads of the same concepts, and wasn't above tinkering with the release if it would squeeze a few more dollars out of his audience. For example, this film was originally called Killbots, but the second title was infinitely more commercial and also totally irresistible. I think it's the best B movie title since Blacula, myself. If you're a person who fills their head with cultural junk food, you can no more pass up Chopping Mall than you could something called RoboCop. It tells you everything you need to know in three syllables (even if it promises a slasher movie that you aren't quite going to get). Which is how one winds up with a B movie reworking of the basic plotline of Short Circuit, released the same year as its inspiration.

The film starts with the most 80s of criminal acts--a stubbly, greasy-mulleted white guy in ripped jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and filthy T-shirt smashes a jewelry display case and makes off with a bunch of stuff in his pocket. He is accosted by a squat robot on tank treads (I especially like the little yellow caution light off-center on top of the robot's head) that demonstrates its resistance to small-arms fire, its speed and maneuverability, and its ability to Taser the living shit out of the criminal. Then it is revealed to the film audience that the sequence was a promotional film for Secure-Tronics, a company that manufactures and sells autonomous crime-stopping robots to concerned businesses. And given that Xerox sells a hell of a lot more toner than they do copiers, I'm willing to bet that Taser reloads are the hidden recurring costs if you buy a security bot.

The R&D chief of Secure-Tronics unveils--literally--a trio of robots that are going to take over the night security job at the Park Plaza 2000 mall, where shit is going to go down shortly (if it didn't, the audience would want its money back). He pronounces it "robutt", which I will never be able to repress a juvenile smirk when I hear it. The flacks from Secure-Tronics assure the store owners assembled at their showoff seminar that the robutts are incapable of killing any miscreants; they just have trank darts, tasers and other nonlethal weaponry to "neutralize" criminals. This word choice reminds me quite a bit of City of Heroes, where you could "defeat" your foes with an assault rifle or battle axe, which sounds like a pretty permanent defeat to me. Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov are the two store owners who think it'll all end in tears, and it's great to think that they were still getting paid by Roger Corman in the middle of the Reagan years.

Monsters have rules. That's one of the things that make monster movies so much fun. And as Mary Woronov continues smack-talking the dude from Secure-Tronics, the film establishes what the rules are going to be for the inevitable killbot rampage. The drones are controlled by a central computer on the fifth floor of the mall. They're programmed to patrol the open areas of the mall, but not to go into the stores without just cause. They are programmed to leave mall staff with an ID badge unharmed. And there are steel security doors that are going to lock the entire facility down from midnight till morning, just to make sure none of the Expendable Meat characters can get out. (Anyone else remembering the turbo-stupid fire safety system in The Relic that was set up to lock people inside a burning building right now? Just me? Okay.) The last thing the board member from Secure-Tronics says is that absolutely nothing can go wrong, and then the titles come up promising that they're going to. There's also plenty of synth bass in the score, which says "1986" like almost nothing else can. The title sequence also features plenty of zaniness courtesy of the feather-light comic touch of Jim Wynorski.

Some of the Expendable Meat is introduced next. Allison and Suzie, two waitresses at a diner run by a short Greek (the best kind of diner, incidentally), are making plans for the evening. Meanwhile or later or something, lightning from a rainless, cloudless night sky hits the A/C vent on top of the mall repeatedly. This causes one of the robots to necksnap the tech guy who was supposed to be overseeing the security drones (and it means that Wynorski is one of the few fans of Gog on the planet, judging from the robots' design and the particular way the lab coat wearing IT guy got taken out). Then it's back to meet more Meat; three guys at a furniture store (Michael the gum-chewing asshole, Ferdy the nebbish assistant manager and Greg the nice guy) are planning some kind of party after hours. I'm betting the waitresses are going to be there too.

Rick and Linda, a married couple, fix a truck while more sourceless lightning strikes; they're also coming to the party. Michael goes to a clothing store to mack on his girlfriend Leslie. More Shazam lightning strikes (even though the Protector-101s aren't going to go any more crazy) and Gerrit Graham shows up just long enough to steal a coworker's leftover doughut half, read at the robuts' control desk and become the second casualty thanks to some decidedly non-nonlethal weaponry.

The party at the furniture store is in full regrettable-pop-song-beer-and-close-dancing swing, with Ferdy in the bathroom trying to spruce up his look for his blind date with Allison. He turns out to be instantly smitten, as does she (which is nice--not just because the terrible pop song fades out for some syrupy romantic music on the score). The robots start patrolling the open spaces of the mall, and the practical remote-controlled props look pretty damned impressive. I'm glad that Corman sprung for enough money to realize five of the robots (there are only three in the movie; they had two spares constructed in case the metallic costars turned out to be balky or just plain nonfunctional). And the Protector-101s actually look like something that might have been built in the gadget-happy 1980s in order to automate Paul Blart out of a job. They aren't nearly as impressive as the Short Circuit creations, but this flick got made in 22 days for about $750,000; for what they cost they're really quite impressive. And there's something cool about a three-dimensional prop in a science fiction movie--I prefer stop-motion monsters to computer-generated ones because the stop-motion monsters have to be lit and shot like an actor. They have a certain amount of presence on film that ones and zeroes don't necessarily have.

Three of the pairs of couples split off to have sex (the third duo winds up on a couch, presumably because the first two pairs got to the beds first). Ferdy and Allison wind up watching Attack of the Crab Monsters on television, which is the perfect time for me to mention that taking someone I'd had a crush on for years to see Army of Darkness was my first date in high school. Go, Ferdy and Allison, go! They're sweet and awkward, especially when overhearing one of the other girls having sex with her date. Elsewhere in the mall, Walter Paisley (DICK MILLER!) is mopping up a splatter of spilled food and classing up the joint as only he can. He brings more authenticity and emotional truth to his ninety seconds or so of screen time before he gets fried by a killbot than the rest of the cast put together.

Back at the Screw Party, two of the post-coital partiers want cigarettes. Mike scoots off to procure a pack of Leslie's preferred smokes from a vending machine and gets tranked and neck-snapped in short order. Leslie goes looking for him in the manner of girlfriends in body-count movies of the Reagan years. Ferdy is chivalrous enough to try and get Allison out of the mall before the security doors close (and though neither actor is all that spectacular, it's nice to see some characterization other than "we want to bone" from one of the couples). Leslie stumbles upon Mike's body and her screams alert that floor's Battle Drone--which somehow manages to open a door inwards without using its arms to chase her down--and the stakes get upped as it uses a laser gun to blow her head completely off!

Two of the robots smash the door of the Furniture King and attack the remaining six partiers. There's a nice nod to science fiction movies of the past here; one of the sound effects of the deathbots' lasers is the War of the Worlds Martian heat ray. For me, at least, that sound effect is as welcome as a Godzilla roar. Everyone escapes from the robutts at least temporarily by hiding in a stockroom and barricading the door, but from inside that room they hear the security doors announcing it's midnight by locking them inside until six that morning. As is par for the course for this sort of movie, the phone is dead as well.

While the 'bots plant explosives to blow the heavy steel stockroom door off its hinges, the victims hatch a plan to sneak through the air ducts and get out of the mall via the unsecured and robutt-free parking garage. The women all get in the conveniently large air ducts before the door goes, but the men all have to flee once a Protector unit shows up to kill them. The robutts turn on the heat (somehow, although they're not connected to the system anywhere) to fatigue the women while they try to run. At the same time, the men run to Peckinpah's Sporting Goods (yes, I know) to arm themselves against the malfunctioning security droids.

In the sporting goods store, the guys have one of those "lock and load" montages before engaging one of the security bots in a firefight; an exploding propane tank knocks it out of commission but none of the bullets seemed to have the slightest effect on it before the detonation. Also, where the hell are the other two 'bots? One of them showed up seconds after the group made some noise, but the firefight was a great deal louder and lasted some time. Whatever investigation protocol is running in the murder droids' brains should have been tripped.

In the air ducts, Suzie breaks away from the group to find her boyfriend. The other two women follow, presumably thinking either that there's safety in numbers or that they want to be there to say "I told you so" when Suze gets everyone killed. They rig Molotov cocktails in a hardware / auto supply store (in my mind, Jake Blues is mentioning that this mall has everything). Elsewhere, the murderbot that got blowed up real good reboots and gets back up on its treads. At the same time but another place, the men are rigging propane tanks to the top of an elevator as some kind of booby trap.

Suzie gets shot in the leg and set on fire (the murderbots don't believe in half measures); her boyfriend snaps and empties his shotgun at the droid before running away. They lure one of the robutts into the elevator (and there's a rather cool stunt jump here when Rick leaps to safety from the elevator roof); the propane bomb goes off and drops the elevator and murderbot inside four stories down, where it's presumably destroyed. The survivors retreat to the restaurant to rest up and calculate how much money they owe the mall for blowing stuff up and stealing the supplies they needed to get away. This is also time for the second-act "the survivors can be their own worst enemies" scene; none of the actors acquit themselves particularly well here.

In lieu of going out to hunt the other Protector-101s, Ferdy floats a plan:  The central computer controlling the security system is on the third floor, and if it's shut down or destroyed the robots won't have any orders to follow (although it's not ever made clear if they're autonomous drones or following bad commands from the central system). A moment of distraction means Greg gets thrown off a third-story balcony and he exits the movie with a thud.

Both of the security bots pursue the four survivors, who barricade themselves inside a department store and beat feet for another level; the robutts split up here. One goes to the third floor while the second one burns a hole through the security gate with a laser. Allison recommends splitting up; Ferdy is the Fifties monster-movie fan in the group so he knows what it means to split the party when a menace is lurking about. There's a lull in the action that they use to get some sleep. An indeterminate time later, the robutt cutting a hole in the door finally gets through (this is the cruddy B movie equivalent of Thor taking several hours to pick his hammer up before the final throwdown in The Avengers). Allison has the brainstorm that setting up mannequins and mirrors might confuse the robot; it shoots itself and takes out Linda and Rick (who charges in ridiculously on a floor buffer or airport luggage tram before getting zapped). That leaves two survivors and one homicidal Roomba.

Ferdy resolves to find the Master Control Program and shut things down; Allison decides to split up and cover more ground. She gets surprised by a Fibber McGee closet full of junk as the false scare while looking around, and gets ambushed by the remaining 'bot. It fails to kill her instantly (she's the Final Girl, so there are rules here) and her screams alert Ferdy to her location. He charges in and gets a fire extinguisher chucked at his midsection hard enough to kill him; Allison has to run rather than grieve. She hides in a pet shop and the killbot fails to spot her in the shadows. Also, Kelli Maroney is a hell of a good sport in this scene; the "got to stay quiet or the monster will find you" suspense scene features escaped tarantulas and snakes from knocked-over tanks crawling over her. She eventually sneaks out of the store (at least partially to get away from the creepy-crawlies) and gets chased down by the third murderbot again. eluding it by taking a dive down to another floor and landing on a kiosk that breaks her fall.

She's a clever girl, and uses the paint and thinner in another mall store to keep it from getting any traction (its treads can't find any purchase in the paint) and tosses a flare from the auto parts store at it. Turns out that much paint, primer and thinner is not just flammable--it's explosive. That puts the final score at Meatbags 3, Robutts 5. I guess you have to go by percentages; the team that has someone alive on it at the end wins. And what the hell, let's go for a happier ending. Ferdy just got a concussion , and he's okay! A rather well-executed crane shot to the skylights showing the sun coming in brings us to the end credits.

Well, it certainly was a movie. The mid Eighties were the last gasp of cheap B movies that gave a damn (I have a really poor opinion of SyFy Channel originals and Asylum mockbusters), and Wynorski generates a substantial amount of good will from me by putting Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Mel Welles (the short Greek who runs the diner) and DICK MILLER! in the film. The plot hits all the expected beats (although I think we really needed some kind of explanation of why the Protector-101 series had lethal armaments and just sort of made up new powers whenever the script required any of the bots to do something new). The shot setups take advantage of the space available in the mall and there's a pretty boss exploding head. The actors do a credible enough job, which is all you can expect from this sort of thing (DICK MILLER! excepted, of course).

It's the faintest of praise, but you wouldn't think that the director of The Return of Swamp Thing or Vampirella had it in him to make even a mediocre movie, let alone a pretty darn good one.