Thursday, October 27, 2016

Retro Review: CHOPPING MALL (1986)

(US - 1986)

Directed by Jim Wynorski. Written by Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell. Cast: Kelli Maroney, Tony O'Dell, John Terlesky, Russell Todd, Karrie Emerson, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Dick Miller, Gerrit Graham, Mel Welles, Barbara Crampton, Suzee Slater, Nick Segal, Paul Coufos, Angela Aames, Arthur Roberts, Ace Mask, Lenny Juliano, Lawrence Guy (Angus Scrimm), Toni Naples, Robert Greenberg. (R, 76 mins)

The premiere release of Lionsgate's new Vestron Video nostalgia line (along with Jackie Kong's inexplicably loved and absolutely unwatchable BLOOD DINER), the Roger Corman-produced CHOPPING MALL seemed primed to be a cult classic based solely on its goofy title. Corman's Concorde Pictures released the film in a few markets in early 1986 under its original title KILLBOTS, but it was quickly withdrawn and rechristened later in the year with the much more catchy CHOPPING MALL. It still didn't play anywhere for more than a week, but it was an attention-getting box on video store shelves several months later. Directed and co-written by Corman jack-of-all-trades Jim Wynorski, who started in the advertising department (SCREAMERS) and worked his way up to becoming one of Corman's go-to guys well into the '90s (DEATHSTALKER II, BIG BAD MAMA II, NOT OF THIS EARTH, BODY CHEMISTRY 3: POINT OF SEDUCTION), CHOPPING MALL puts a sci-fi slant on the shopworn slasher genre. Set at the Park Plaza Mall (played by the Sherman Oaks Galleria, memorably mentioned in the Frank and Moon Unit Zappa hit "Valley Girl"), the film finds a group of teenagers--played by actors in their early-to-mid-20s--partying in a furniture store after hours only to be killed off one-by-one by a newly-launched series of "Protector 101" robot security guards. "Absolutely nothing can go wrong," mall personnel is told by designer Dr. Simon (Paul Coufos). Of course something can go wrong, or there'd be no movie.

The Protector 101s are designed to incapacitate any intruders, but when a lightning strike hits the server on the mall's roof, the robots reprogram and reboot themselves as lethal killing machines. After locking down all the mall entrances and closing off the emergency exits, the robots slaughter the security technician on duty (Gerrit Graham!) and night janitor Walter Paisley (Dick Miller!), then start pursuing the six teenagers, offing them in a variety of gory ways. Leslie (Suzee Slater) gets one of the more memorable post-SCANNERS head explosions, and each kill is capped off with a robotic, monotone "Thank you. Have a nice day." That's about as complicated as CHOPPING MALL gets, with no time to slow down during its scant 76-minute running time, and with plenty of inside jokes for Corman fans and movie buffs. Nice final girl Alison (NIGHT OF THE COMET's Kelli Maroney) and Suzie (RE-ANIMATOR's Barbara Crampton) work in the mall's greasy spoon (run by LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS' Mel Welles!) which, like all of the stores at Park Plaza, inexplicably has posters for other '80s Corman movies all over the place (the furniture store revelers are also rocking out to the theme song from 1985's STREETWALKIN'); Miller reprises his BUCKET OF BLOOD Walter Paisley character for the umpteenth time; PHANTASM's Angus Scrimm (credited under his real name, Lawrence Guy) has a bit part in the opening scene, along with Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov dropping by as EATING RAOUL's Paul and Mary Bland.

As far as horror movies set in malls go, CHOPPING MALL is no DAWN OF THE DEAD, but it's better than, say, PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC'S REVENGE. Wynorski dishes out the requisite amount of gore, humor, and T&A, and the cast is likable, a standout being the always-amusing John Terlesky as horndog stud Mike, the actor quickly becoming Corman and Wynorski's first choice when they needed someone to play a smirking douchebag. Slater's topless shots are amazing, and HEAD OF THE CLASS' Tony O'Dell sufficiently handles the requisite "uptight dweeb" character (named "Ferdy Meisel") and is actually allowed to be somewhat heroic and respected by his player buddies instead of existing as a punchline. Maroney is very appealing as the shy Alison, who quickly shows what she's made of, toughening up on her way to being the last woman standing and getting to use the robots' catchphrase against them in true Roy Scheider fashion. Lionsgate's new Blu-ray offers extensive bonus features, including three (!) commentary tracks and several interviews and featurettes. The company's "Vestron Collector's Series" combs through the library of '80s video store staple Vestron Video (though CHOPPING MALL was technically handled by Vestron offshoot Lightning Video), whose iconic logo kicked off many a trashy VHS discovery back in the day. Carving its own niche as a Criterion of B-movie trash, the Vestron line also includes the unrated RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 (released by Vidmark, now owned by Lionsgate, but certainly "Vestron"-ian in spirit) and a double feature of Anthony Hickox's WAXWORK and WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME.  Future releases include the thoroughly unnecessary C.H.U.D II: BUD THE C.H.U.D., Bob Balaban's brilliant horror satire PARENTS, and Ken Russell's surreal THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM.

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