Sunday, October 30, 2016

Census Bloodbath: Hit me, hit me, hit me, hit me with those laser beeeeeams

October's end draws near—and so once again it's time to pull the old switcheroo with Brennan Klein, the finest human being I know not related to me by blood or sexual intercourse!  And so shall it ever be: while Brennan reviews three wonderful Cardboard Science classics over at Popcorn Culture, handpicked by yours truly for their moral uprightness and fine craftsmanship, we intend to wallow in whatever sleaze and gore that Brennan's deemed fit for me to review, in the form of three entries from Brennan's centerpiece feature, the increasingly-complete encyclopedia of the 1980s' slasher phenomenon that he calls Census Bloodbath.  But we take our duties seriously here, and, as usual, I'm having a blast.


Directed by Jim Wynorski
Written by Steve Mitchell and Jim Wynorski
With Kelli Maroney (Alison Parks), Tony O'Dell (Ferdy Meisel), Karrie Emerson (Linda Stanton), Russell Todd (Rick Stanton), Barbara Crampton (Suzie Lynn), Nick Segal (Greg Williams), John Terlesky (Mike Brennan), Suzee Slater (Leslie Todd), Paul Bartel (Paul Bland), Mary Woronov (Mary Bland), and Dick Miller (Walter Paisley)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Every time we do our little crossovers, Brennan always manages to sneak in at least one slasher movie that does something great.  In 2014, it was My Bloody Valentine's blood-soaked grand guignol; in 2015, it was Terror Train's revenge thriller bona fides; and, now, in 2016, it's Chopping Mall, and Chopping Mall's utter ridiculousness.

"Ridiculousness," I imagine, is Mall's very signal quality.  After all, "ridiculousness" is what's granted Mall its surprisingly enduring reputation for an off-brand slasher movie made during the slasher genre's waning years.  Of course, the very words "ridiculous slasher movie" raise the most monumental kind of expectations for batshittery; and while I surely wouldn't want to start off on the wrong foot by suggesting that Mall's promises of exhilarating nonsense don't pay off—for they do in absolute spades—this film's ridiculousness is hardly the mysterious, inexplicable thing that you'll sometimes find folks treating it as.  Instead, Mall helpfully announces its real intentions right from the beginning.

Almost the moment Mall's clever little opening gambit, a film-within-a-film involving a robot chasing a burglar, hits its final frame, we spy a pair of very familiar faces in the crowd watching it—namely, Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, whom we quickly grok are riffing on (or, I suppose, outright cameoing as) their characters from Bartel's own cult flick, Eating Raoul.  They aren't too impressed by what they've seen here today, however, which turns out to have been a promo for SecureTronics, exhibited to the owners and assembled shopkeepers of the Park Plaza Mall during an extended sales pitch for the firm's last word in mall safety: a series of killer robots, glibly described by their smarmy hypeman as "the Protectors."

So, as the sales rep brushes aside all objections, Paul and Mary scoff and generally crack wise, letting us know that what we're really watching here isn't a horror movie, it's a horror-comedy (and one of the highest order, at that).  Indeed, if we somehow happen to forget that we're watching a horror-comedy, then the filmmakers have got our amnesiac asses covered, because Dick Miller shows up twenty minutes later as a janitor—named Walter Paisley, because why not celebrate the worst movie he ever appeared in?

Damn, it's enough to make you wonder if you weren't watching another uncredited Joe Dante movie.

It's a generous gesture on the part of Mall's co-screenwriter Steve Mitchell and actual writer-director Jim Wynorski, because once we're beyond their knowing little cameos, Mall takes on a tone that could've been mistaken instead for the merely earnest-but-inept.  With Bartel, Woronov, and Miller, however, alongside Mall's bevy of in-jokes, you have yourself the three-part key to decoding the thing that Mall actually is: a giddy, engaging lark that throws together all the leftover slasher tropes, action tropes, and sci-fi tropes of the early 80s, then adds just enough seasoning of sincerity for you to take its goofy premise remotely seriously, all while the deranged, loopy whimsy of the rest of it powers through its exercise in cheerful, unabashed kitsch.

I guess the short version of that description is this: it's a Roger Corman production.  Getting technical, it's actually a Julie Corman production.  (Still his wife today, there's something just so sweet about a Hollywood romance that tuned out to be as durable as the Cormans', and perhaps it's sweeter still when you consider that it involves the King of Boobs.)  But whether it was Julie's sensibilities or Roger's or both guiding Mall's creation, it's undeniably Cormanesque in its spirit: joyously slapdash in all the right ways, belying the vast reservoir of crowd-pleasing experience resting just below this film's paper-thin veneer of indifference and incompetence.

Well, despite all of Paul and Mary's doubts, the mall honchos wind up purchasing SecureTronics' Protectors anyway (along with a pair of unbreachable blast doors for each and every exit, natch).  Tonight they've deployed their new toys to guard their mall's spookily-empty spaces, one robot for each of three levels.

So: that's our scenario.  But our plot only comes together once we meet our teen hellions—or, at least, our early-20something hellions—a clutch of six mall employees and a couple of friends from the outside, who have decided that tonight shall also be the night that they take over the furniture store and turn it into a setting for a boozy orgy, a feat of dedicated hard partying that, speaking personally, I can't fail to be impressed by.

Our hellions can be broken down as follows: there's Mike and Leslie, the archetypal frat dick and sorority bitch, respectively; there's Greg and Suzie, the pair of unreliable hotheads most likely to scream "GAME OVER, MAN, GAME OVER!" when the shit hits the fan; there's Linda and Rick, a lovely married couple who jointly own and operate an auto body shop together; and last but not least, there's Alison and Ferdy, who wind up our most completely-sketched characters of all.

...Not a competitive contest.

This is due to the fact that nerdy Ferdy, the store's virginal assistant manager, has rather clearly only given leave to his friends' debauchery thanks to the prospect of meeting Alison, who, for her part, winds up Mall's increasingly-apparent Final Girl.  Now, she probably isn't a virgin herself, but she does abstain from immediately jumping Ferdy's obvious boner—which, cutely enough, seems to come as something as a relief to Ferdy, too.  Instead, the couple watch some old (Corman) classics on the store's TV, honestly getting to know each other, while the other six screw in the background.

It's one interesting approach to establishing the slasher ensemble: besides making it a lot easier to keep the Meat sorted—you only have to remember four "characters," who simply happen to be composed of two individual actors apiece—it's also just plain charming, with four couples who dress the same, act the same, talk the same, and, ultimately, die the same.  Not that Mall is totally lacking in nuance; Alison, privileged by her position, gets to have two dimensions, rather than just one.  We get to see her act out the difference between "being easily startled" (for example, by papier-mache Crab Monsters) and "being easily scared."  And thus one of Mall's better surprises comes when it turns out that Alison is the only one of their number who actually knows her way around a gun.

But quicker than you can say "Go get me a pack of smokes and I'll let you grab hold of my huge tits again," our hellions' party goes disastrously awry, thanks to an errant bolt of lightning that fries the Protectors' circuits.  Now, the 'bots can no longer distinguish mall employees (like their control officers, or Dick Miller) from vandals.  Better yet, with their First Law of Robotics thrown out the window, they no longer bother subduing these misidentified enemies with anything less than awesomely lethal force.  And so Mall's single best surprise arrives when the Protectors discover Leslie while she's out looking for Mike and her cigarettes, whereupon they chase her back to the threshold of the furniture store, and blow her freaking head off.  With their lasers.

Perhaps needless to say, this feature was not mentioned during SecureTronics' informational video.

It's surprising, too, because up till now Mall has been relatively goreless, and whether it was completely on purpose or not, Mall lulls you into a real false sense of complacency—right before it streaks the windows of the furniture store red with Leslie's blown-apart brains.  (Indeed, the worst thing you could say about it is that it's the film's best kill by too far, for nothing else even comes close.)

But it's at this point that the film turns serious (or "serious") and becomes a borderline-legitimate survival-horror nightmare.  It steadfastly refuses to let its characters ever wink at the camera, at least, no matter how preposterous their situation gets.  As a result, even Mall's joke deaths—and, arguably, they're all "joke deaths"—land with actual drama.  That doesn't just make them more memorable, it makes them funnier, too, because even a ludicrous cartoon like this one still requires some kind of stakes.  Hell, sometimes it's honestly emotional: the cast is surprisingly good, and whatever else is or isn't dumb about Mall, these couples do genuinely seem to love each other, twice to the point of effective suicide when their partner is lost.

So what we have is a horror-comedy that becomes increasingly horrific as it goes along, and that works foremost as itself.  But we have one that works, also, as an automatic parody of a whole spectrum of genres, simply by existing.  The genius of it—if you wanted to call it genius—is that the screenplay and the direction mostly just let the two completely incongruous modes of the film smash right into each other, without further comment.  It's a bone-dry parody of the slasher format, of course, where we find the metaphorical unstoppable killing machines of most such films replaced with actual, literal unstoppable killing machines; meanwhile, it's a much-wackier parody of every 80s sci-fi actioner, too, only with our usual cadre of 80s badass heroes replaced with this gaggle of retail clerks, who've equipped themselves with a cache of small arms liberated from the mall's sporting goods store, and who apparently never quite figure out that the robots are almost totally bulletproof.  It's enough to give one the impression that, in some actual war, these idiots would've kept firing their AR-15s and shotguns at a fucking tank, only to be humorously dismayed once they finally got its attention.

Yes, their tactics do grow a bit more sophisticated.  But plans rarely survive contact with the enemy, and more rarely still when the enemy is a team of super-scientific murderbots.  That means that Mall's very subtlest joke, and therefore its most abidingly amusing, is also the one it never says out loud—namely, the outright insane mismarketing of military-grade cyberwarriors as civilian rent-a-cops.  I cannot say if Mall's foundational gag was supposed to be an intentional satire of the era's well-attested terror of rising crime rates—or its avarice-driven arms industry—or if satire just happened to arise out of the film's avowedly-dumbassed scenario accidentally.  But no one ever said satire had to be on purpose, and thus satire is exactly what we get.  Of course, the other great unstated joke of the film is how everyone takes these war machines running amok as part of their warped 80s universe—a dangerous part, obviously, but certainly nothing they can't explain.  Thus the closest we ever get to any acknowledgment that our heroes have wandered into a dimension of abject genre-bending madness is Linda's tossed-off little line, "I guess I'm just not used to being chased around a mall in the middle the night by killer robots."

But you can't blame them for accepting their situation.  Designed and built by Rob Short as real, working mechanisms, these killer robots turn out to be rather astonishingly plausible objects.  There aren't many moments in the whole movie where Wynorski has to work to hide the seams in Short's special effects, because (essentially) there aren't any seams for him to hide.  (You can't say quite the same thing about the Sherman Oaks Galleria, Mall's major shooting location—but give Wynorski credit for more-or-less concealing the transitions between the Galleria and his blown-to-pieces soundstages.)  Mall winds up a sterling example of the Cormans' legendary talent for getting the most out of their small budgets: put together, Short's robots and the sense of place you get from the Galleria represent the producers' slightly-more-than-minimal investment in their project yielding surprisingly-high aesthetic returns on the screen.

They also owned a dolly, all the better to capture these poor souls sprinting from place to place with the faintest whiff of actual purpose.

But then, Mall has an X-factor that the Cormans, and possibly Wynorski himself, couldn't have easily foreseen, and that's the unholy wailing of Chuck Cirino's synthesizers on the soundtrack, something that starts so cheesily-good that it almost registers as affectionate parody—but eventually winds up somewhere so urgent and savage that it's perhaps not too much to say that Mall's mood of almost-serious horror-absurdity owes more to Cimino than it does to anybody else.

Wynorski has said his major inspiration for the robot monsters of Mall was Gog, a rather awful 50s movie; and surely there's a ton of Doctor Who in here, too, not to even mention The Terminator, which Mall's climax takes on pretty directly, up to including Alison's final action heroine quip.  (You'd presume that Short Circuit must've been on Wynorski's mind, but perhaps it wasn't—maybe even couldn't have been—for that movie came out two months afterward.)  Meanwhile, Wynorski says he never saw Trapped, the TV picture about James Brolin getting caught in a locked-down mall guarded by vicious attack dogs—and, honestly, I believe him, inasmuch as consumers caught in a capitalistic edifice of their own making was also the premise of Dawn of the Dead, a much more widely-seen film.  (And, obviously, there's 1983's own trapped-in-a-mall slasher, The Initiation—looking so wan and weak in comparison.)  Of course, if Wynorski ever claimed he never saw Westworld, then punch the man—because nobody ever says "Nothing could possibly go wrong" in a movie like this, unless the screenwriters are directly and deliberately referencing the robot masters (and overreaching marketing department) of Delos.

Still, a list of influences doesn't really sum up Chopping Mall all that well.  If hardly devoid of precedent, its strangeness remains special.  It's not just one of the 1980s' finest slasher movies, either; it's one of its best efforts at blending horror and comedy.  That was something that decade did often—but rarely as completely or as successfully as the Cormans and Wynorski managed to do right here.
Killer: Protectors 1, 2, and 3
Final Girl: Alison Parks (though technically two of 'em actually survive!)
Best Kill: Leslie's 'splodin' head, beyond obviously
Sign of the Times: Malls aren't empty during the daytime, too
Scariest Moment: When Alison is chased into a pet store, and winds up covered in SPIDERS and SNAKES (oddly, Kelli Maroney, who is relatively decent throughout, completely fails to sell the terror of being covered in SPIDERS and SNAKES; presumably, she was a bad-ass in real life)
Weirdest Moment: The uber-80s closing credits, which offers the names of the principal cast over freeze-frames of their characters, and which therefore elects to depict Suzee Slater, playing Leslie, as a blown-apart skull; it was at this moment that I decided that this movie was actually, legitimately great
Champion Dialogue: "The one in the middle has an unpleasantly ethnic quality."  (For context's sake, that would be Paul Bland, referring to Protector 2.  A robot.)
Body Count: 9, or 12, depending on how much consciousness you ascribe to the robots
1.  Marty, one of the robots' controllers, is strangled by a strong, cold hand
2.  Marty's coworker is killed with a grappling hook
3.  Dick Miller is electrocuted by a taser wire that lands in the puddle caused when Protector 1 overturns his slop bucket
4.  Mike is strangled so hard by a robot he may have died of exsanguination before he died of asphyxiation
5.  Leslie is de-noggined
6.  Suzie is set aflame
7.  Greg is thrown from the highest level to the lowest, smashing his body on the floor below
8.  Linda is cut down by laser fire, although unfortunately does not explode
9.  Rick is exploded and electrocuted by an optical effects light show, when he plows an unattended golf cart into his wife's robot murderer, which is epic in the most incredibly stupid way
10-12. The Protectors themselves, assuming they count
TL;DR: One of the most radical underseen gems of the 80s, Chopping Mall is an absolute-must-watch for any B-movie aficionado.


  1. If it helps, Walter Paisley isn't a direct reference to Hollywood Boulevard. Dick Miller first played that character in Corman's A Bucket of Blood, and whenever he appears in a movie from the Corman elite and his character has no specific name, that's what they call him. It's pretty cool, actually!

    I'm so glad you liked this one! Chopping Mall definitely has a lot to offer to the connoisseur of 80's cheese, and the actually really decent robot effects are just the cherry on top.

    Plus, MARRIED slasher victims? That's pretty unprecedented in this subgenre of teen bacchanal. And the fact that this movie has so much to offer that a comprehensive review could entirely leave out "Waitress, more butter!" and be wholly satisfying speaks to the film's quality.

    1. You know, I think I actually knew that about Bucket of Blood, and totally forgot; I shall leave it up as a testament to my frailty.

      Chopping Mall is the best of this lot, to be sure, but let's be a little more forceful: all by itself it totally justified the project.