The Wynorski Project
Midway through my revisiting Chopping Mall specifically for this review I found myself slightly annoyed by how much I was enjoying it. Having started this project with the hope that it would go on to justify my prejudices against Wynorski, it didn’t seem right that I would end up liking his first two films as much as I did. Like The Lost Empire, Chopping Mall is a flawed film, but also a good example of what Wynorski could do before he seemingly stopped caring. Even better, it’s one of his few films where the humour is used to good affect, rather than to excuse the production’s obvious limitations. What I like most about it is that it’s a sincere film, making it one of the few he’s directed thus far,
It’s also the film that introduces many of the actors who would go on to become members of Wynorski’s unofficial repertory company, including Kelli Maroney, John Terlesky, Ace Mask, Lenny Juliano and—in an eye blink silent cameo as a bikini clad beauty queen—Toni Naples (see video below), all of whom would appear in many of his movies over the next decade.
Co-written by Steve Mitchell, Chopping Mall (originally released to theaters as Killbots) largely eschews the terrible puns and slapstick humour that defined The Lost Empire and instead replaces it with slightly more sophisticated in-jokes designed specifically to appeal to movie geeks.
For example, in the film’s first scene Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov appear as Paul and Mary Bland, the characters they played previously in Bartel’s Eating Raoul. Also in that same scene we see brief appearances by Lost Empire’s Angela Aames, Paul Coufos (who looks a lot better without the cheesy mustache) and Angus Scrimm (whose appearance is so brief I would have missed it if Wynorski hadn’t pointed it out in his commentary). Dick Miller also appears—once again—as an older version of Walter Paisley, the murderous beatnik artist from Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood, who apparently survived his original fate and went on to become a shopping mall janitor, Perhaps the funniest of all the film’s references comes when the embattled characters decide to head to Peckinpah Sporting Goods to load up on firearms and ammunition.
Shot in the same Californian shopping mall made famous by Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which also featured Kelli Maroney in a supporting role), Chopping Mall is a fast-paced variation on the Spam-In-A-Cabin subgenre (in which a group of people find themselves trapped in a building with a murderous threat of some sort) in which the killers turn out to be malfunctioning security robots armed with unsuitably powerful laser weapons (see video below).
Coming in at just 73 minutes, minus the credits, the film succeeds largely because Wynorski doesn’t give us enough time to become bored and populates the film with characters who manage to avoid being the usual obnoxious assholes normally found in this kind of movie. That said, the film’s brevity and lack of complexity also work against it since we’re never given enough time or any reason to come to care about the poor folks trapped in the shopping mall with the killer robots, robbing the film of any potential emotional impact. There are at least three deaths in the film that in theory should affect us, but Wynorski isn’t capable of exploiting the drama inherent in these moments and as a result elicits shrugs rather than gasps or tears.
To its credit, the film shows no signs of the potential misogyny I expressed concern about in my previous review. Kelli Maroney’s character is given the typical final girl character arch, which I appreciate since that happens to be my favourite horror movie cliché. My only problem with her character’s significance in the film comes from Maroney herself. With her teased 80s blonde hairdo and chubby cheeks, its hard not to think of her as a human version of a certain popular Muppet character who was famously prone to violent rages and deeply in love with a lovable, if slightly milquetoast frog emcee. Perhaps I would feel differently if the film didn’t also feature Karrie Emerson, an extremely attractive brunette (see video below), who retired from acting not long after appearing in Chopping Mall and another film in which her character should have lived to the end, but didn’t—the astonishingly terrible Evils of the Night.
If it seems like I’m not saying a lot here, it’s because there’s really not enough meat on Chopping Mall’s bones to deconstruct. It is what it is and by that standard it’s quite fun and a definite check in Jim Wynorski’s win column, which is good, because I don’t think it will be very long before the other column starts filling right up.
Big Bad Mama II