In Praise of Chopping Mall, a Preposterously Charming Piece of '80s Schlock
Whatever else may be said about the animated kid move Ratchet & Clank, which opened last weekend, this much is inarguable: It’s full of robots. Indeed, the second of the two title characters in this sci-fi adventure, based on a video game series, is a diminutive mechanical dude of polite manners and useful talents.
Ratchet & Clank also contains a legion of scary “Warbots,” which put me nostalgically in mind of a very different movie for which I’ve always had an affection, one decidedly not for younger kids. It’s a piece of ‘80s-era schlock called Chopping Mall.
The title of this low-budget 1986 chiller sounds like one of the many slasher films then in vogue, and this, no doubt, is not by accident. And the set-up is classic slasher flick, too: Eight young nitwits, four male and four female, decide to stay after closing in a shopping mall — the guys invite the gals to spend the night partying with them in the furniture store where they work. Because, you know, what the ladies love isn’t being taken out dancing or to dinner, but being shut into a furniture showroom all night with a few six packs of beer. I guess the abundance of beds and couches is the big appeal.
What does all this have to do with robots, you may ask? Well, as is traditional for the genre, the kids pay a heavy price for their transgression. But that’s where Chopping Mall departs from typical slasher fare: the source of the menace, this time, is not a maniac in a mask but rather a trio of killer robots — the film has also been known under the alternate title Killbots.
About trash-can sized, with tank-like tracks instead of feet, flattened-Robocop heads, and spindly little pinchers for arms, the Killbots are the Mall’s new security system. They’re supposed to be non-lethal, but as luck would have it, on the very day of their debut, the Mall is struck by lightning.
This somehow turns the robots aggressively homicidal. They run amok in the deserted Mall, blasting at the young revelers with death rays—it really seems like a design flaw that they have this capability at all. The kids put up a spirited resistance, and take a couple of the mechanical monsters down, but the Killbots quickly rack up a grisly body count, until we’re down to the Final Girl (Kelly Maroney), stalked through a petshop by a vengeful Killbot.
This synopsis probably still sounds pretty business-as-usual. I doubt I’m getting across the special quality of imbecility that gives Chopping Mall its preposterous charm. There’s the dialogue, as when one of the young ladies apologizes for being a bit snappish: “I guess I’m just not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.” Excuses, excuses. There’s the extravagantly gratuitous nudity — Barbara Crampton (already a celebrated scream queen on the basis of Re-Animator), eccentrically hums “Stranger In Paradise” as she disrobes in the furniture store.
There’s the profusion of heavy-handed in-jokes with which director Jim Wynorski, screenwriter Steve Mitchell and producer Julie Corman stuff the film. We get dialogue cribbed directly from The Thing From Another World, the kids steal weapons from a sporting goods store called “Peckinpah’s,” and there are numerous nods to Julie Corman’s legendary husband Roger Corman — the pet shop, for instance, is “Roger’s Little Shop of Pets” (a reference, in case you’ve spent your life in more worthwhile pursuits than memorizing Z-movie trivia, to Roger’s 1960 The Little Shop of Horrors) — as well as cameos by Corman favorites like Dick Miller, Mel Welles, Paul Bartel, and Mary Woronov.
It should also be said that, for all the risibility of Chopping Mall, it’s never boring. Wynorski sets a nonstop, headlong pace, and the movie flies through its very short running time without a backward glance. There are moments of odd, accidental resonance, too, as when a slithering snake, accidentally liberated by the robot in the pet shop, inadvertently whips a nearby tarantula across the floor like a hockey puck. I always picture the tarantula indignantly on the phone to its agent.
Also… as silly as it may sound, the Killbots, designed by special effects and makeup master Robert Short, really are a little bit scary. They zip along at rather alarming speeds, and to the accompaniment of Chuck Cirino’s driving electronic music, they have an inexorability that’s sort of unnerving. And though they aren’t as benign as Clank, they do at least share his courtesy, concluding each act of mayhem with a pleasant “Thank you. Have a nice day.”
More than any of this, however, Chopping Mall’s chief charm, especially for those who came of age in its era, may be as a time capsule. The film was shot at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in L.A., and it’s strange to see the characters and robots dashing past departed Mall standards like B.Dalton, Florsheim Shoes, and Radio Shack. Likewise, it almost seems stranger, now, to see a cigarette vending machine in a shopping mall than to see a robot there.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.