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TCM Underground - January 2020
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Remind Me

Chopping Mall

Though now radically overhauled to the point of unrecognizability as an open-air mall since 2002, the Sherman Oaks Galleria shopping center in California's San Fernando Valley remains the key symbol of cinematic mall culture thanks to its frequent use in 1980s cult classics. The first film to make significant use of the location was Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), with subsequent titles like Night of the Comet (1984), Commando (1985) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) following suit. However, no film used the Galleria as extensively, or as inventively, as Chopping Mall (1986).

Released at the height of the slasher film era and featuring an indelible poster design with a severed hand holding a shopping bag (containing a corpse's head), Chopping Mall is actually less gruesome than its title implies. The simple storyline involves a new, robotic security force at a shopping mall that goes haywire after a lightning strike and begins picking off teenagers who have stuck around the premises overnight. The film's real trump card is its cast, a veritable who's who of cult favorites from the era, including leading lady Kelli Maroney from Night of the Comet (1984), Head of the Class star and future acting coach Tony O'Dell, Russell Todd from Friday the 13th: Part 2 (1981), Karrie Emerson from the absurd Evils of the Night (1985) and one of the decade's most beloved scream queens, Barbara Crampton from Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). Also popping by for an amusing and pivotal small role is Gerrit Graham, shot back to back with his role in TerrorVision (1986). There's even a colorful, culinary bit for Mel Welles, most famous as the original Mr. Mushnick in Roger Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). (Note the jokey presence of a "Roger's Little Shop of Pets" store in the final film, too.)

Originally scripted as R.O.B.O.T. and shot and given a limited release under the title Killbots, this film is now one of the most popular titles from Concorde Pictures, one of the many iterations of Roger Corman's company also known as New Horizons Pictures and New Concorde after his departure from New World Pictures. His wife, Julie Corman, served as producer on Chopping Mall, continuing a string of collaborations stretching back to Boxcar Bertha (1972) with her spouse. The film is loaded with familiar names from the Corman universe both in front of and behind the camera, including director Jim Wynorski, who co-wrote the script with his second unit director, Steve Mitchell, and had gotten his start writing Forbidden World (1982) for the Cormans. Actor and future director John Terlesky made his first of numerous Corman-connected appearances here as the gum-chomping Mike, paving the way for his comic leading man turn in Wynorski's giddy Deathstalker II (1987). Frequent Corman mascots Dick Miller, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel also turn up in amusing cameos as iterations of their famous roles, with Miller as Walter Paisley from A Bucket of Blood (1959) and the homicidal Paul and Mary Bland from Eating Raoul (1982), though in the latter case a significant sequence (involving a gag with a horse) ended up being dropped from the final cut.

Shot for less than a million dollars on a typically tight Corman budget, Chopping Mall had to make inventive use of the multi-storied mall location with crafty editing allowing the robots to run rampant through the property including up and down its signature escalators. The creators originally intended the story to take place at L.A.'s Beverly Center at the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, but they only ended up using it for a handful of exterior shots to exploit its large, looming fa├žade. Augmenting the look of the film is its jittery, infectious electronic score by Chuck Cirino in his debut feature film; since then he and Wynorski have been virtually inseparable all the way up to CobraGator (2018). As for this film, it came near the end of the wave of Concorde theatrical releases as part of a contract with Vestron Pictures, a then-recent branch of the beloved home video label, Vestron Video. Due to ongoing demand and thanks to Wynorski's years-long tenacity in securing a good presentation of the film, Chopping Mall ended up making history as the very first entry (#1 on the spin) in the Lionsgate genre sublabel for Blu-ray releases, Vestron Video Collector's Series.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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