September 1, 2017
The teenagers in the low-rent slasher flick Chopping Mall (1986) could have at one point walked out the front door to escape their troubles. The fiend chasing them around is not a relentless, knife-wielding maniac a la Michael Myers, and the setting isn’t a suburban neighborhood in which an escape isn’t so obvious. Instead, a quaint Californian mall is the location hosting the mayhem, and the villains are security robots gone rogue. The building’s pretty big and has plenty exits. The robots move somewhere south of five miles per hour and sound like an original MacBook getting frustrated by a long-winded computation.
To find stalk-and-slash characters even more imprudent than the ones in Chopping Mall is close to an impossibility, unless one reflects on the thinking processes of the victims of the Scream movies (1996-2011). (Granted, the Scream series is a grand, refined satire.) They move slowly and loudly and plot with the passion but not the aptitude of the Scooby gang. They act only in clichés, exclusively wandering alone into the darkest corners of the mall, partaking in illicit sex, running up broken escalators by way of escape, and have a nice way of spewing one-liners that ironically seal their fates. There are the designated cattle unknowingly marked for slaughter, and there are also the angels in white who will inevitably make it to the end.
Some movies like Chopping Mall — movies that care more about cashing in than reinventing — are insufferable. But Chopping Mall seems aware that there isn’t an original thing about it, almost inviting us to laugh at the predictable shenanigans. It isn’t knowingly humorous, winking at us like Fright Night (1985) or New Nightmare (1994). But yet all involved appear conscious that the stakes are low, and to watch the film is to be reminded of a gleeful high school production that was fun to make and isn’t so bad to sit through.
As Chopping Mall opens, we’re thrust into a presentation introducing a local mall’s intent to up their security measures. Though it goes unmentioned whether such is the result of a rising number of break-ins, the complex’s personnel has taken it upon themselves to install security robots to keep the building safe. Given that breaking into a mall is a pointless endeavor, as each individual store likely has its own security system and thus makes it difficult to pull off a successful robbery, the enactment is probably gratuitous.
And, as it turns out, lethal — apparently, these robots have minds of their own. Placed in the mall’s control room until the center closes, they’re able turn on by themselves and make their own decisions. In one scene, they even turn their “heads” to “look” at one another, as if democratically agreeing that their mission is not to rid the building of criminals, but to kill any human they sense is near.
Too bad, then, that their ratification coincides with a childish plot. A group of mall employees/teenager couples have decided that they’re going to spend the night in the building’s furniture department, sexing each other up for the night. The couples fornicate in such close proximity the scene looks like something of an eccentric orgy, and we’re almost excited to see the robots disrupt the icky fun just to have the discomfort come to an end. Disrupt they do —only five minutes after raiding the party has just one of them mangled a throat and blown a head off.
Chopping Mall thereafter continues the rampage until just two characters are left. And a hoot of a rampage it is, supplemented by precisely overwrought special effects and portrayals that recognize their existing in a Corman production.
Enough so-bad-it’s-good touches are put forth to keep us delighted. There’s the way the robots always tell their victims to have a nice day once they off them. The sequence where one character has a nervous breakdown after traveling through an air-conditioning vent for less than 90 seconds, only to, moments later, get set ablaze in a misguided plan to outsmart the bots. John Terlesky's gum-chewing, Kelli Maroney’s severe camel toe, Barbara Crampton’s decision to hum during a striptease. There’s even a nutty moment when Karrie Emerson, calculator in hand, computes how many years it will take to pay off the damage done to the mall amidst a melee, and another when the characters use mannequins to trick the robots into thinking that they’re the targets only to stand among them. Best of all is the set piece that sees the movie’s second victim’s head explode.
The movie was neither a commercial nor critical success upon release, even after it was retitled Chopping Mall when audiences didn’t take to its original Killbots banner. But because of the movie’s connection to cult-favorite Eating Raoul (1982) (Chopping Mall prominently features the protagonists of that film in a riotous cameo), because of the rising appreciation of the Corman brand, and because the film is generally what one looks for in an accidentally funny 1980s B-movie, its stature has deservedly grown. At a painless 76 minutes, you could hardly ask for more, and often is goofy garbage a nice change of pace from the grind of quality. B