There are the classic movies: the ones everybody has seen a hundred times, the ones that you have to have seen to have any credible conversation about film. Then, there are cult classics: the slow burners, the films whose flaws somehow enhance them. Finally, there are the failures: the flops, the stinkers, the ones that went below and under. Sure, barring a few absolute truths (Citizen Kane is great, Battleship Earth is terrible, The Big Lebowski is a cult classic), every movie fan has their own ideas about which movies are which. We can (and often do) talk all day about whether or not certain movies are with or without merit and why or why not. But what about the other 99.9% of movies that get made? The ones that aren’t great, aren’t bad, but just are? What about the B movies?
There are places for these movies: The bottom half of a drive-in double feature bill, the bottom shelf at your local video store, more recently, the vast chasm of YouTube and Netflix. They get watched not because they are in any way outstanding, but because they are there and they look scary or funny or awesome. This is not to say that there are no such thing as spectacularly good or bad B movies, and many become cult films in their own rite. But more of them, probably, are forgotten, preserved only in the memory of a specific generation. In Chopping Mall’s case, as hundreds of nostalgic IMDb and YouTube comments can attest, that generation entails anyone who spent a good chunk of their teenage years in the 80s.
For the most part, it’s your by-the-numbers 80s slasher film. You’ve got your nerd, your jock, your babes, and your bloodthirsty villain. Not too many surprises. Nonetheless, like a lot of 80s slasher movies, it’s surprisingly easy to watch (provided that’s what you are into). As perverse as this sentence is about to sound, there’s just something inherently satisfying about watching groups of oblivious people -- be it horny teens, spaceship crews, or otherwise -- get stalked, killed, and take revenge. Chopping Mall seems to know this and gets right down to business.
With minimal exposition, the viewer is right in the action: a makeout party goes awry when an errant lightning bolt messes with the machinery of some recently installed mall security robots. Despite the inventor’s assurance earlier in the film that “absolutely nothing can go wrong,” the robots set out on a killing spree. There’s some great, silly stuff here: the jock character’s constant lunkheaded gum-chewing, a classic exploding head scene (the “second greatest” after Scanners, according to the director1), the opening credits’ unlikely mall bikini pageant parade, the sporting goods store (called Peckinpah’s, which can’t be an accident) that’s conveniently stocked with enough firepower for a small army, forgotten 80s slang like “slimedog” and “to the max!” The nerd even gets the girl! How often does that happen? It’s not exactly Isaac Asimov, but Chopping Mall follows a reliable formula (and subverts it, where it can) for a fun movie.
I don’t want to ruin it for you, but Chopping Mall is sort of a misleading title. While the film does take place completely in a mall, it contains precious little chopping, karate or otherwise. The tagline, “Where shopping can cost you an arm and a leg,” is especially misleading. Slasher-lovers needn’t fret, though. What Chopping Mall lacks in chopping, it makes up for in screams, nudity, and death: Death by laser, death by robo-arm, death by electrocution... These are robots, after all. In fact, it was originally released under the much more accurate title Killbots. After the movie tanked in theaters, it was recalled and rebranded for a much more successful re-release.2
This is fun, generic cheese but it’s not just any fun, generic cheese. Chopping Mall bears the Corman name, as in Roger “The King of the Bs” Corman, who co-produced it with his wife, Julie. The Cormans (particularly Roger) are among the most prolific and celebrated producers of all time. Their bread and butter? B movies, of course. Corman, who made his name in the 50s and 60s, was a Hollywood veteran by 1986. He had perfected the art of making cheap, entertaining, and profitable films. Though the heyday of the drive-in had long past by then, B movies often had long, comfortable lives on home video and late-night TV, and Corman was as prolific as ever. There are plenty of Easter Eggs for Corman fans: Dick Miller makes a cameo as his character from Corman’s 1959 film A Bucket of Blood, Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov make cameos as their respective characters from his 1982 film Eating Raoul, and two characters are seen watching the 1957 Corman flick Attack of the Crab Monsters.3
The director, Jim Wynorski, was an upstart in the B movie game, himself. After a stint fabricating stories for tabloids, Wynorski got himself hired by Julie Corman and worked his way up through the ranks of their B movie empire to become a veritable protege. Chopping Mall was the second film he ever directed. Wynorski would go on to have a long career in exploitation films, which he is still enjoying today. Judging from interviews with the man, his character, like his work, walks a fine line between charismatic and trashy4. He has become particularly known for softcore parody films with titles such as The Witches of Breastwick and (my personal favorite) The DaVinci Coed and often directs under wacky pseudonyms like “H.R. Blueberry” and “Tom Popatopalis.” He has continued to work with Corman, who as recently as last year produced his film Piranhaconda for the Syfy Channel.
The drive-in and the video store may be long dead, but the B movie now lives online. It’s not a question of preservation, but of appreciation. If you ask me, there’s an art to filming as many movies as possible as cheaply as possible in as little time as possible -- there’s some romance to that. It’s easy to be cynical about the Hollywood machine, and it’s often the right thing to be. But with unfettered access to reviews, trailers, spoilers, and forums, the average moviegoer brings a whole lot of baggage with them into a viewing. It’s nice to let that go every once in awhile. Make some occasional room for the quick, cheap, and dirty ones. Don’t let the teenagers and the Popatopalises of the world have all the fun.
1 Chopping Mall (Commentary). Dir. Jim Wynorski. Perf. Kelli Maroney, Tony O'Dell, Russell Todd. Concorde Pictures, 1986. DVD.
2 The new title was dreamed up, according to the DVD commentary, by “the guy who changes the light bulbs in [the] screening room.” Chopping Mall (Commentary). Dir. Jim Wynorski. Perf. Kelli Maroney, Tony O'Dell, Russell Todd. Concorde Pictures, 1986. DVD.
3 Another fun fact, unrelated to Corman, is that the film was shot in the same mall used for Commando and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
4 Choice quotes include, “I want the cash right here in my hand,” “I've been a fan of busty babes since I was a little boy,” and legend has it he’s the man who first claimed “breasts are the cheapest special effects we have,” although I could not confirm this.