Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Chopping Mall
While many of the films we talk about every weekend stem from cynical cash grabs in the wake of Star Wars‘ success, there is a different sort of cash grab which, in retrospect, feels more wholesome: the drive-in B-movie. This sort of cheap and borderline exploitative sort of film existed prior to the existence of drive-ins as the programmer, cheaply made pictures from fly-by-night distributors or outfits like Producers Releasing Corporation and Allied Artists to fill holes in exhibitors schedules. But whether they were a 70 minutes wonder at the Bijou or a biker movie at the Valley Drive-In, they were part of an ethos: fill a runtime for as cheaply as possible. And no one fulfilled this spirit better than Roger Corman.
And I promise, someday I’ll talk about a film he directed, but first we’ll fast-forward to the mid 1980s, when Corman screenwriter Jim Wynorski (he’d written Sorceress by this point) convinced producer Julie Corman — Roger’s wife — and the great man himself that he could write and direct Julie’s next production cheaply. She had a deal with Vestron Pictures to deliver a horror film which took place in a mall. With co-writer Steve Mitchell, Wynorski massaged the premise to feature out of control robots in homage to the 1954 film Gog. Vestron and the Cormans signed off on the idea and soon, Wynorski, Mitchell as his second unit director, a cast, and a crew were at the Sherman Oaks Galleria filming Killbots, a film which became known as Chopping Mall in the home video circuit.
The plot concerns a group of young adults work at the Park Plaza Mall. Despite the mall owner upgrading the overnight security system, Greg (Nick Segal) has convinced his coworker Ferdy (Tony O’Dell) to use his father furniture store as the sight of a rad, but intimate, after hours party. Greg also intends to set Ferdy up with Allison (Kelli Maroney), a co-worker of his girlfriend Suzie (Barbara Crampton). Greg and Ferdy’s obnoxious co-worker Mike (John Terlesky) intends to bring his girlfriend Leslie (Suzee Slater) to the bash while Greg and Suzie have also invited their friends Rick and Linda Stanton (Russell Todd and Karrie Emerson) to join in the fun. And since this whole thing is inspired by the drive-in movies of the previous decade, “the fun” is code for sex.
But unbeknowst to our randy group, the mall’s new security system — three robots — experienced a short circuit during an earlier lightning storm. Now, free of a computerized central control, the three fulfill the deepest desire of every machine built by man: kill all the humans.
Back at the furniture store, the couples get down to the deed while the chaste Allison and Ferdy watch Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters. The fun night is shattered when one of the robots kills Mike and uses its laser eyes to explode Leslie’s head. The remaining young people find themselves locked in a struggle to survive as heavy security doors seal the mall exits shut.
And if all of this reminds you of uninspired gimmicky movies you might remember from 1990s cable, that’s part of the charm. Wynorski, who would go on to direct Deathstalker II and The Return of Swamp Thing, was a fan of these sorts of B-pictures and consciously crafted the film to have that silly yet earnest tone. But as he was working for Corman in the mid-80s, he was also an active participant in the milieu. The film was released theatrically, but eventually found its audience in the spiritual successors to the drive-in: cable television and home video. And unlike the schlocky films that inspired him (and the dozens of schlocky films he would make later in his career), Wynorski believed in his silly movie and that passion shows on screen. Well, the sort of passion which develops after a diet of Corman movies. The mall looks great throughout, the robots work very well and the cast is surprisingly charming despite how many of them are there just to get killed on screen.
Chief among the talented ensemble is Maroney. A veteran of the great and cheesy Night of The Comet, Chopping Mall represents her transition into legitimate Scream Queen status. She can certainly scream, but she also has a plucky, take charge attitude which feels more inspired by her own persona than the way Wynorski and Mitchell wrote the part. The director would later admit Maroney’s ad-lib “my father’s a marine” to explain away her sharpshooter eye was as much a homage to Night of the Comet as it was a quick way to cover up a plot hole. But the script also serves Allison well as she reveals hidden competencies and makes the first move during a brief make-out moment with Ferdy. By the point she appears to be the last person standing, you buy Allison that could survive a robot attack.
Crampton, a Scream Queen in her own right, is also an appealing presence, as is O’Dell as Ferdy, Segal as Greg and Emerson as Linda. Emerson also gets to say the defining line of the film: “I’m just not used to be chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.” Sadly, she quit acting shortly after the film was released. Terlesky’s gum-chewing performance as Mike would land him the lead role in Deathstalker II and a long association with Wynorski.
Besides the cast, other gems of legit quality emerge, like the Killbots themselves. Designed by Robert Short, the practical props look impressive on screen; in part because their tank treads actually work. According to Wynorski, Mitchell and the cast, the radio control on the one completely functional robot worked brilliantly almost all the time. Considering how cheaply the film was made, a convincing and dependable creature effect is a true accomplishment. Also, because of Short’s dedication to the robot design and the tricks used by Wynorski to make it seem like the other two were fully functional, the shots of the Killbots have an endearing home-made quality to them.
In fact, the whole film has that sense to it. While Corman productions often have that feeling of the cash grab to them, this feels different; almost as though everybody in town was getting behind the one film buff’s attempt to make a movie with the resources available to them. A closet toward the end of the picture is filled with disused props from Battle Beyond the Stars while Wynorski admits to raiding the Corman office to fill out a computer room set with more functional pieces of gear like a copier. Angus Scrimm, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel and Dick Miller make cameos in the early part of the film as favors to either Julie Corman or Wynorski. As an in-joke, Bartel and Woronov reprise their roles from Bartel’s Eating Raoul and Miller’s character is named after the part he played in Corman’s A Bucket of Blood. Even after the film gets going, references pop up as Wynorski and Mitchell continue to honor their inspirations. Supported by Chuck Cirino’s fabulous score, the film feels oddly personal despite its intended shallowness.
And at a lean 76 minutes, Chopping Mall may not develop its characters very much, but it will give you a cheesy good time.
Chopping Mall is available for rent on Amazon. It’s is also available on Blu-ray with numerous commentaries and featurettes.