JUNE 5, 2010
I remember seeing Chopping Mall (aka Killbots, which is catchy but not AS catchy) at my grandparents’ house back in 1987 or 1988, and being pretty happy. Gore, boobs, robots, Paul Bartel cameos - it was everything that a little kid could ask for in a movie (and it was really short, something that struck me even then). I even distinctly remember my grandfather spoiling that the male lead wasn’t really dead after one of the Killbots tossed a cylinder at him and seemingly broke his head in the ensuing fall. Yet, now in my 5th viewing, I still can never remember that the opening scene is a goddamn commercial, which made me momentarily panic as it began to play on the big screen.
See, I’ve had to PROGRESS to this point. I first saw it taped off of cable, and then again on a copied VHS. I rented a real copy in the mid 90s for my third viewing, and then got the DVD in the mid 00s, only to discover that, while probably better just from being digital, it was a dupe from a VHS (a pan and scan version to boot). So I’ve really never seen the movie in a clean format, and had been really looking forward to seeing a nice print. And then the movie started and I was like “Oh no, it looks like shit! AAARGH!!!” only to remember a few seconds later that it was just a lengthy commercial for the Killbots, a movie within the movie, if you will.
I think part of the problem is that the commercial inexplicably takes place in the same location that the things are about to be introduced to, instead of on a set made for the commercial. Why are people being invited to watch a commercial of something in action in the place it already did something in? Why not just have them come watch that live demo? But more importantly, why am I asking about logic in Chopping Mall???
I’ve been fairly dismissive of Jim Wynorski in previous reviews, but that’s partly because I know he can do better; Chopping Mall is proof positive of that. This is no award winner, but it’s FUN. It’s well paced (actually maybe a bit TOO fast, more on that later), the actors are decent, and looks like more than it cost. Why can’t he put this sort of effort into his modern movies, with all of the years of experience to aid him (this was only his second film)? It’s a damn shame.
It was great to see on the big screen (with Wynorski, co-writer Steve Mitchell, and stars Kelli Muroney and Tony O’Dell in attendance) though, especially the ACTUAL opening scene, which included the two leads from Wynorski’s Raw Force-esque debut Lost Empire (which played before), plus the bigger image allowed me to realize that Angus Scrimm (who also appeared in Lost Empire) is actually the guy asking about the robots. Also, since the last time I saw it wasn’t too long after I moved to LA, it was funny to see the Beverly Center (exteriors, and just a few blocks away from where we were sitting) and the Sherman Oaks Galleria on the big screen. The Galleria has been almost completely overhauled in the past 25 years, but the elevator and general layout of the area where the Arclight is now housed is still recognizable, as is the alley where the one couple’s truck breaks down.
Also, the movie is about killer robots. Not androids or cyborgs (i.e. human-esque ones), genuine rolling/little clawed robots, and the FX really aren’t bad at all. It’s a bit obvious when they have to cut in stuff that the robot isn’t actually doing (various actions with their “hands”), but the scenes where they chase our humans all look great - it’s obvious that the things (or at least, one of them) could actually move on their own, and without digital enhancement. The big screen betrays some of their rough edges (especially where the head meets the body) but they look a million times better than some CG piece of shit. But back to them being robots - there’s something just way more interesting to me about a clunky metal box rolling around killing folks than one that looks human.
The fact that it’s obviously shot in a real mall adds immensely to the film’s strength as well. The store signs are real (there’s even a McDonald’s), apart from a few obvious gags like “Roger’s Little Shop of Animals”, and the movie theater is showing real movies (Krush Groove!). In fact, the only setting that didn’t feel right was the paint store, which I discovered on the commentary was indeed a set. Sets can have genius designs, but there’s a fakeness to them that can’t ever be disguised. The irony is, of course, that the film was probably shot in a real mall because it was cheaper to do so than build a giant set and multiple stores, and not because of any creative reasons, but still, it was a great choice.
The heroes are fairly likable too. They kill off the two most annoying ones first, and even they were more tolerable than anyone in a movie like Slaughter High, which was released the same year. I just wish they had a bit more time before they all knew about the robots. The 2nd victim (not counting various mall personnel, including Dick Miller playing Walter Paisley) dies in front of all of the others, and so the rest is pretty much an extended chase/“let’s try to take one down with random shit that should not be in a mall” sequence. And be it from a budgetary limitation or one of the mall itself (the original Galleria was long gone by the time I moved here, so I have no idea how the mall really looked), it seems like they are running past the same 5 stores over and over. I think they could have cut down on the repetition a bit if they had two more kids had gone out looking for the others, or to break into another store, or something, with some action happening there. There’s a movie theater too - some fun could have been had in that location as well. But it’s never used.
Of course, the goofiness made it more fun at the New Bev. Where I might have scoffed at the notion of an assault rifle being sold at a mall while watching at home, now I applauded the moment along with everyone else in the theatre. And there’s sort of an unspoken rule that any explosion in a film is to be rewarded with cheering and applause, which meant the big finale went over like gangbusters. Plus, unlike a lot of these sort of things, the pace doesn’t let up very much, which made for an even brisker 77 minutes. I also want to point out that it may be the first time in New Bev history where I stayed awake for every second of the 2nd film. THAT is quality.
And you know you’re deep into Awesome B Movie territory when the picture credits at the end puts one over a girl’s exploding head:
It’s a shame that the DVD has such a shit transfer, as it has some decent extras, including a retrospective with Wynorski, Mitchell, and Bob Short, who created the robots, and a commentary with the two former men, which is pretty honest and enjoyable. But as the film is under some sort of legal holdup, it might be your best bet for a while - if you can find it I urge you to pick it up. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a lot better than Wynorski’s other work would have you believe.
Speaking of which, Lost Empire is pretty fun as well. Phil was actually the one to point out the Raw Force similarity, and he is definitely correct. The plot makes almost no sense at all, it combines multiple genres haphazardly (few are the films that include ninjas, killer apes, Satan, mud wrestling, and Native American mysticism), and there is no indication that would suggest anyone involved wasn’t having a blast making it. Plus it had a terrific Alan Howarth score to boot. Again, why did Wynorski seem to be a better filmmaker when he was first starting out? Hell, he even shot it scope! I didn’t stay for Demolition High, which I have seen (also at my grandparents I think, oddly enough), and if my memory is correct, once was enough. If anyone stayed - did you enjoy it?
What say you?