Chopping Mall (1986) ***
Jim Wynorski made a decent movie once. Hard to believe, I know, but it really and truly did happen. Indeed, rumor has it that Wynorski made two decent movies, but I plan on remaining skeptical about that until I’ve had a chance to see The Lost Empire for myself. What that movie and Chopping Mall— the decency of which I can and am about to vouch for— have in common is that they were both made at the very beginning of Wynorski’s directorial career. And what is probably even more significant, they both came very near the launch of Concorde-New Horizons, the production and distribution company that Roger Corman formed in 1983, after selling out his interest in New World Pictures. Concorde-New Horizons was thus still interesting enough to Corman for him to want to maintain the hands-on style of producership that he had perfected at New World during the 70’s, while his financially reasonable but artistically disastrous strategy of saturating the home video market with the studio’s product had not yet gained sufficient momentum to make such a role for him untenable. Chopping Mall is thus among the very last artifacts of the era when every film with which Corman was associated would bear the imprint of his personality in some way more salutary than the conspicuous niggardliness of its budget, among the last of the movies that an informed viewer will instinctively want to call “a Roger Corman film” no matter who else’s name is in the credits as director or even producer. (Chopping Mall was officially a Julie Corman production, but by all accounts, Roger was looking over her shoulder just as much as Wynorski’s.) For that very reason, or so I must surmise, it does not suffer cripplingly from Wynorski’s ordinary panoply of faults. Wynorski’s training wheels hadn’t come off yet, and you’d like to think that even he could keep a project upright under those conditions.
The Park Plaza Mall has just made a major upgrade to its security system. I don’t mean a staff of rent-a-cops, a network of closed-circuit television cameras, a silent alarm that automatically dials 911 in the event of a break-in, or anything sensible and cost-effective like that. No, what they have now at the Park Plaza Mall is a set of timer-activated armored doors at every entryway and a squad of the new Protector 101 security droids, one for each of the three main floors. (The mall has a two-story parking garage below ground level, too, but the owners evidently decided that it wasn’t necessary to put a robot guard on duty down there.) The Protectors have both autonomous artificial intelligence and a control uplink to the central computer in the mall’s guard station on the top floor for maximum flexibility. They have a visual recognition system enabling them to distinguish intruders from mall employees working after normal business hours by reading the latter’s staff identification cards. Most importantly, they have an arsenal of non-lethal weaponry— tazers, tranquilizer darts, and so forth— sufficient to incapacitate a whole gang of thieves or vandals until the regular cops arrive, and they’re impervious to even military-grade small arms fire. Also, despite the manufacturer’s assurances that the Protector 101 is completely safe and incapable of doing lasting harm to a human in the normal course of its duties, the ones at the Park Plaza Mall have curiously been outfitted with pulse-laser blasters that (to steal a line from Surf Nazis Must Die) can take the head off a honky at twenty paces. Surely nothing could possibly go wrong with this situation, right?
Oh, wait… Although the Protectors’ creators thought to armor the robots themselves against anything up to and including an AR-15, it apparently did not occur to them to shield the central computer against lighting strikes. An electric storm— one which oddly involves neither rain nor clouds— rolls through on what looks to be the droids’ first night in service, clobbering the Park Plaza Mall with a thunderbolt to the roof, right above the third-floor security station. The results are considerably less benign than when Number Five was similarly zapped in Short Circuit the year before. Far from befriending Ally Sheedy and leading Steve Guttenberg on a succession of wacky chases, the Protectors kill both of their human overseers as soon as they come online to begin their inaugural patrol.
Meanwhile, a group of mall employees who bear a remarkable resemblance to the typical mid-80’s slasher movie cast have decided to throw an after-hours party in the furniture store where three of the boys work. Naturally such things are not strictly speaking allowed, but Greg (School Spirit’s Nick Segal) and Mike (John Terlesky, of Deathstalker II and The Naked Cage) are counting on their assistant manager, Ferdy (Evils of the Night’s Tony O’Dell), not spilling the beans to the higher-ups if they include him in the action. And to sweeten the deal, Greg’s girlfriend, Suzie (Barbara Crampton, from Re-Animator and Robot Wars)— the mastermind of the whole undertaking— is bringing along a dorky but cute coworker by the name of Allison (Kelly Maroney, from Night of the Comet and Servants of Twilight) with the aim of setting her up with the equally dorky (albeit significantly less cute) Ferdy. Also on the guest list are Suzie’s best friend, Linda (Karrie Emerson, of White Dog and From the Dead of Night); Linda’s husband, Rick (Friday the 13th, Part 2’s Russell Todd); and Mike’s girlfriend, Leslie (Suzee Slater, from Savage Streets and Las Vegas Serial Killer). Now the plan here is to split well before the doors to the outside world lock down at midnight, and to confine the party to the furniture store. Because the Protectors are programmed not to enter the individual shops except in response to a clear provocation, that should mean that the only people in serious, immediate danger from the malfunctioning robots are the night-shift cleaning crew (led by Dick Miller, of The Howling and Amityville 1992: It’s About Time). However, Leslie has exceedingly specific taste in cigarettes, and she discovers that she’s all out when she opens up her purse in search of a post-coital smoke. Mike smokes a different (and wholly unsatisfactory) brand, so she sends him out into the mall to raid the cigarette machine on her behalf. Leslie goes out herself when Mike doesn’t return, and although the lightning-frazzled Protectors are interchangeable in most respects with Michael Myers, they were apparently never given any programming that could be repurposed into a hide-the-bodies subroutine. She quickly finds what Protector 1 left of her boyfriend, and when the droid itself finds her a moment later, her panicked flight leads the killer robot straight to her friends. Protector 1 calls for backup, and soon Suzie and the gang are facing the full strength of the mall’s mechanized security staff. Then the clock strikes twelve, the armored doors slide into place over all the exits, and things get a whole lot worse.
I kind of love the concept of Short Circuit remade as a slasher movie, and modeling the robots after the mechanical killers in Gog makes it even better. It’s probably the best idea Jim Wynorski ever had, and it buys enough of my goodwill to get me past virtually all of Chopping Mall’s admittedly numerous minor flaws. I’m unimpressed with most of the acting and dialogue, I’m not thrilled about how inconsequential Barbara Crampton’s role ends up being, and it irritates me that the various doomed couples among the protagonists invariably die as couples. The opening-scene cameos by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov as derisively skeptical shopkeepers who heckle the presentation of the Protector droids are stylistically out of step with the rest of the movie in an annoying way, and don’t contribute much of anything beyond a mild outbreak of the warm fuzzies over the prospect that those two were still getting the occasional Corman-signed paycheck in 1986. None of that matters very much, though, so long as those infinitely charming pyramidal death-droids are rolling around onscreen, blasting the shit out of people and set dressings with lasers that they have absolutely no earthly reason to possess in the first place. The key point, I think— and this makes for another stark contrast with later Concorde-New Horizons offerings— is that Robert Short, Wynorski’s main special effects guy on Chopping Mall, really did build working, full-scale, radio-controlled Protectors to perform the vast majority of the robots’ scenes. What we’re seeing here is another once-ubiquitous phenomenon in Corman productions that would be on its way out within another few years, the tendency of Corman’s experience as a director to influence and occasionally override his penny-pinching instincts as a producer. Corman might always have been a cheapskate, but at least up until the late 1980’s, he wasn’t merely a cheapskate. In those days, he still had enough of the artist left in him to recognize and appreciate what might be called a creative bargain— a situation in which a little extra investment yields a disproportionate return in production value. I’ve never encountered a direct quote regarding the cost of the Protectors, but knowing how they were made and knowing that there were five of them (the three needed for the groups shots early on, plus two more as insurance against breakdowns) leads me to think that it had to be comparable to the complete budgets of subsequent Concorde-New Horizons movies like Raptors and Vampirella. The expense was well worth it, though, because there’s no monster more convincing than one that’s really there, and that doesn’t need sleight-of-camera assistance to interact with the human cast. The decision to make the robots functional led to a twofold enhancement of realism, too, for all the off-the-shelf parts that went into them (motorized wheelchair frames, car batteries, conveyor belts, roller skate wheels) prevented them from becoming implausibly futuristic. The Protectors look like something that could be made to work within the technological constraints of 1986 because they were made to work within those constraints. And thanks to the skill of the people manning the remote controls, they’re also better actors than any of Chopping Mall’s carbon-based performers save Dick Miller. It’s sad in a way that Chopping Mall is so good in spite of its limitations. Watching it, you’d think that Wynorski had a bright future ahead of him as a noteworthy cult director. Instead, though, he went on to be the guy who made four Bare Wench Project movies.
This review is part of a long-overdue B-Masters Cabal salute to the incomparable Roger Corman. Click the banner below to read my colleagues’ words of praise both heartfelt and damningly faint.