Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: C is for Chopping Mall (1986)

Opening with what appears to be a heist at a high-end mall, what this really turns out to be is a video and practical demonstration of Secure-Tronics latest in hi-tech security: the Protector 101 Drones -- kind of a poor man’s knock-off of OCP’s ED-209s, only these run on tank treads, are armed with top of the line scanners, grappling pincers, lasers, tasers, and tranquilizer darts. And while they look lethal, these machines are designed for pursuit and containment only, employing non-lethal deterrents, designed to stop and hold perpetrators until the proper authorities arrive, contacted via the central computer that runs them all, which is in turn monitored by several trained ST personnel.

At least in theory that’s how it’s supposed to work when these drones go online and start patrolling the spacious Park Plaza at the end of the week, where they will roam all three floors of the enclosed mall after it closes and the cavernous building is locked down tight from midnight to 6am. And when asked by a concerned merchant how these drones will know the difference between a criminal and some poor schlub who decided to work late, head tech guru for Secure-Tronics, Dr. Sam Simon (Coufos), demonstrates that with the proper ID badge the drones will essentially ignore you, assuring all that “Nothing could possibly go wrong."

Meanwhile, at the food court, it takes Suzie (Crampton), one of the waitresses, a whole week to finally talk her reluctant gal-pal Allison (Maroney) into joining her at a clandestine after-hours party in one of the malls’ larger department stores, promising a night of booze and sex if things work out with her blind date. Speaking of which, nerdy Ferdy (O’Dell) is in the middle of a five-alarm freak-out over meeting this new girl but is calmed down by Suzie’s boyfriend, Mike (Segal), as the rest of the gang shows up; couples Mike and Leslie (Terlesky, Slater), and Rick and Linda (Todd, Emerson), who pair up and kick off this boozecan.

Meanwhile, meanwhile, a huge electrical storm rages outside; and when several lightning strikes cause a power surge that races through the main computer and the drones’ CPUs, this massive Frankensteinian overload apparently burns out all the safety protocols in their programming as the trio of machines activate on their own and make quick work of the Secure-Tronics staff, tearing the throat out of one and severing the spine of the other before moving on and taking out most of the janitorial staff (-- including electrocuting a cameoing Dick Miller).

Meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile, as the homicidally malfunctioning drones patrol the concourses, as designed they were never supposed to go into the locked-up stores themselves, Leslie sends Mike for some cigarettes for a post-coital nicotine fix. (Good heavens, remember cigarette machines? Wow.) Anyhoo, Mike unwittingly leaves the safety of the store and is soon cornered by a drone, who promptly ignores his badge and tears his trachea out. And when Leslie goes looking for him, she finds the body. Her screams alert the others, who all arrive at the front of the store just in time to see a pursuing drone detonate -- and I mean DETONATE, the fleeing Leslie’s head with laser fire (-- which I’m gonna assume is another lethal side-effect of that lightning strike, and kudos to special makeup artist Anthony Showe for that spectacular gag).

And before the stunned others can really react to this, with one scream, all three drones form up and crash into the department store in hot pursuit of these designated trespassers, lasers firing and darts flying, leaving their targets to scramble for cover before they all lose their heads, too...

As the legend goes, Jim Wynorski abandoned a lucrative career in publishing in 1977, leaving Doubleday behind after a five year stint, including running the campaign for the novelization of Star Wars (1977) and its assorted spin-offs, to pursue his dream of a life in movies. Selling off his movie memorabilia collection, he self-financed a move to California, where he caught on as a production assistant at Fox, where he met a guy who knew a guy who knew Julie Corman, the wife of exploitation king Roger Corman. Wynorski finagled a meeting with Julie, no slouch herself when it came to producing films, who was so impressed with his script pitches she invited him to meet her husband, who hired him on the spot for his New World Pictures. From there, Wynorski joined the second wave of trailer cutters for New World, following in the footsteps of Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, who would later leverage that experience into a shot at directing a feature film.

During this period Wynorski became a bit notorious when he was charged with making a brand new advertising campaign for Sergio Martino’s Island of the Fishmen (1979) when its initial release as Something Waits in the Dark floundered at the box-office. And in grand New World tradition, Wynorski renamed the film Screamers and then made up a bunch of bullshit, namely some salacious scenes that weren't in the movie at all and added them into a retooled trailer. Claiming that audiences would “actually see a man turned inside out -- while they’re still alive!” to punctuate this nod to Arch Oboler, Wynorski recruited Rob Bottin (-- who hadn’t made The Howling or The Thing yet) and Chris Walas (-- who hadn’t made Gremlins yet) and filmed a new scene where a busty red-headed scientist is chased around by said reversible monster.

Now, what this had to do with a Jules Verne by way of H.G. Wells tale set in the 1800s where a mad-scientist transforms ship-wrecked sailors into were-amphibians so he can loot Atlantis, no man can say. What I do know is when Screamers had its (second) premiere at an Atlanta drive-in there was an alleged riot when the film didn’t deliver the promised transmogrifying scenes from the trailer. When Corman got wind of this he cornered Wynorski, who copped to the “dramatic liberties” taken and, figuring he was about to get fired, was surprised when Corman ordered him to somehow get that scene in the film, which he did, essentially just scotch-taping it onto the first reel of the film. And with a flop now a bona fide hit, an impressed Corman promoted Wynorski to screenwriter, who penned the sci-fi gorefest Alien (1979) knock-off, Forbidden World (1981), and the sword and sorcery Conan (1982) cash-in, Sorceress (1982) for New World.

Wynorski would make his directorial debut with The Lost Empire (1984), which he also produced and wrote, and proved so successful on home video Vestron, who distributed the film on VHS, reached out to the novice director and offered to help finance a follow-up feature for them, asking specifically for a horror film set in a mall. This, of course, planted the seeds for a film tentatively titled Killbots, which was eventually produced by Julie Corman under the Corman’s new Concorde Pictures banner after they sold off New World in 1983. The film was shot in 22 days at two different (and very familiar cinematic) Los Angeles malls; the Beverly Center but mostly at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, where the production had permission to film and do anything they wanted as long as there was no permanent damage done after the mall closed for the evening and had it all cleaned up and were out of the way when it reopened in the morning. Things went fairly smoothly except for a few run-ins with the mall’s real head of security, who tried and failed to get them booted on several occasions.

The drones were designed and built by Robert Short. I think there were supposed to be five but only three seemed to work at one time, with the other two used for spare parts or destined to be exploding stand-ins. Wynorski would provide the modulated voice himself, with the constant “Thank you and have a nice day.” And while apparently kit-bashed together these life-sized Go-Bots were surprisingly functional and effectively menacing as they chase and whittle down this group of teens, who are now trapped and sealed in the mall until morning. Forced to split up, the girls take to the air-ducts, hoping they can use them to reach the safety of the parking garage and go for help. The boys, meanwhile, break into a sporting goods store and arm up with shotguns and rifles, improvising a propane-fueled IED, too, which successfully topples one of the drones but fails to destroy it; and so, unbeknownst to these Rambo wannabees, the drone manages to right itself after they leave and starts prowling around again.

Thinking there are only two drones left, then, after the girls are flushed out when the heat is turned up to jerky-making levels, some improvised Molotov cocktails go awry and Suzie winds up burned alive. (Another fairly spectacular stunt.) However, they do manage to lure one of the drones into the elevator and blow it up with the last of the propane tanks, sending it plummeting three stories to the ground floor, taking that one off the board permanently. And when they realize there are still two active drones, not one, the group switches tactics and make an attempt to reach the top floor to take out the main computer. This, does not go well. Things do go better with a fairly ingenious follow-up plan of using a bunch of mannequins as decoys and mirrors to reflect those laser beams.

And while this works surprising well, with one of the drones getting taken out by all the ricochets, only Ferdy and Allison make it out of this firefight alive. And Ferdy only lives long enough to make sure Allison gets away from the last functioning drone. (Too bad, until the rampaging murder-bots showed up their blind date had been going rather swimmingly.) After taking temporary refuge in -- wait for it -- Roger’s Little House of Pets, Allison brushes off the spiders and snakes and sets up the final showdown, luring the final drone into a paint store, where she’s dumped a ton of paint and thinner onto the floor. And once it’s trapped inside, where the treads can find no traction, she lights a flare and tosses it in and kablooey. Good job, Allison. You earned that happy ending.

I believe it was Wynorski who once said “a naked pair of boobs is the best special effect a film can have.” Boobs and humor would become a trademark for the auteur, and Chopping Mall is chock full of both. The film is also full of references as it unabashedly steals character names, whole chunks of dialogue, plot points, and sound-effects from many sci-fi and monster movie of yore. There’s also plenty of cameos, ranging from store names, to Dick Miller and Angus Scrimm, to Gerrit Graham, to Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov. There’s also a lot of familiar soap and sit-com faces in the cast of partiers turned survivalists, with 1980s genre vets Barbara Crampton [Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986)] and final girl, Kelli Maroney [Night of the Comet (1984)] providing a solid anchor.

Funnily enough, when the film was released (very briefly) theatrically under the title Killbots it failed to find an audience and bombed. Not one to give up on a product, while tweaking it for a home video release, apparently one of the janitors at Concorde watched some of the footage and suggested the title Chopping Mall, which Wynorski immediately fell in love with and launched a thousand possible taglines ranging from “Where shopping can cost you an arm and a leg” to “Buy or Die” to my favorite “Shop til you drop, dead!"

I used to rent Chopping Mall a lot back in the days of VHS, falling in love with the humor, characters, carnage, the boobs, and even the name-dropping. I know it’s had a couple of DVD releases but due to some legal hassles they were all ripped from old chopped and cropped VHS prints which is fifteen minutes shorter than the theatrical cut. One of the earlier DVD releases was supposed to have a commentary track with Wynorksi, Maroney and Crampton but that appears to be lost forever, which is a loss to all of us, again, due to some copyright snafus which scuttled the release. The newest Lion’s Gate DVD has a new commentary with Wynorski and co-writer Steve Mitchell but I believe it was also sourced from the old Lightning Video VHS master, meaning we may never get to see Chopping Mall complete and the right aspect ratio, which is too bad because awesome 1980s schlock doesn’t get much more dementedly awesome or schlockier than this thing.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's three down with 24 to go!

Chopping Mall (1986) Concorde Pictures :: Trinity Pictures / P: Julie Corman / AP: Ginny Nugent, Charles Skouras III / D: Jim Wynorski / C: Tom Richmond / E: Leslie Rosenthal / M: Chuck Cirino / S: Kelli Maroney, Tony O'Dell, Russell Todd, Karrie Emerson, Barbara Crampton, Nick Segal, John Terlesky, Suzee Slater, Paul Coufos

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