In Praise of Chopping Mall

JOEY SHAPIRO // APRIL 27, 2018 

Sensual guitar fingerpicking echoes through an abandoned shopping mall furniture store as the camera slowly pans right to reveal two high school students aggressively making out on a couch. The boy, shirtless, pantsless, and charmless, removes his lips from the girl’s to look her deeply in the eyes and say those four words every teenage girl dreams of hearing: “You smell like pepperoni.” She’s taken aback, getting up from the couch and crossing her arms in protest—a reasonable reaction to being compared to a deli meat mid-hookup. “Well, if that’s the way you feel.” He bounces back with shocking grace by reassuring her, “Hey, wait a minute… I like pepperoni.” They have sex.

This exchange from the 1986 robots-massacring-horny-teenagers film Chopping Mall is not an anomaly. In fact, it’s a pretty typical scene in a movie made up of shockingly inane dialogue, stilted acting, and special effects that consist solely of robots shooting bright red laser beams and exploding heads. But that could be said about most low-budget ‘80s horror movies, and it would be a crime to lump Chopping Mall in with every other cheap slasher and direct-to-video exploitation film that the VHS boom produced. No, Chopping Mall is something else entirely: a movie with simple ambitions and not a hint of pretension, a low-budget miracle that’s there for a good time, not a long time. Chopping Mall is for me what Star Wars was to my parents’ generation: a movie deeply rooted in cinematic clichés that somehow did everything right in such a way as to change the game.

Unfortunately, not everybody thinks Chopping Mall changed the game. It may shock some readers to find that a small handful of critics (read: every film critic in the Western world) dismissed the film upon release as a run-of-the-mill B-movie with few if any redeeming qualities. It is admittedly derivative; while it technically doesn’t qualify as a slasher—the killers are mall security robots gone rogue rather than human serial killers—it follows the structure of the typical ‘80s slasher beat-for-beat, never quite diverting from familiar horror formulas. As is par for the course in low-budget horror, the characters too are paper-thin and their only two modes are fuck or die, which doesn’t leave much room for narrative complexity.

That being said, why do good movies have to be artful? Lincoln is artistically accomplished but I still fell asleep in the theater three—count ‘em, three—times while watching it, as did most of America. Chopping Mall is made with love, not art; there is a palpable glee in every frame as it transcends all bounds of good taste and coalesces into some kind of cannibalistic super-B-movie, stealing bits from countless sci-fi and horror films that came before it and forcing them all together like mismatched puzzle pieces. Director Jim Wynorski—who you may know from such real, not-made-up erotic horror films as The Bare Wench Project, Para-knockers Activity, and The Hills Have Thighs—is nothing if not transparent about his intentions to make a fun movie rather than a groundbreaking one, but the film is hardly cynical or lazily made; there’s more passion and joy embedded into Chopping Mall than in every bullshit Steven Spielberg prestige film combined. It’s a crass love letter to ‘50s B-movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and The Blob, appropriating their camp sensibility while amping up the sex and violence to the standards of mid-‘80s horror.

The idea that this brand of campiness and frivolity seen in Chopping Mall is an inferior cinematic mode to restraint and sophistication is one of the most destructive—and wildly elitist—ideas in modern film criticism. So many of the so-called cinematic greats are drenched in camp: King Kong has the production values of a middle-schooler’s claymation YouTube video and Sunset Boulevard is one degree of separation away from Mommy Dearest, Gloria Swanson practically redefining the word “diva.” Camp and greatness are not mutually exclusive and guilty pleasures are a myth: if you enjoyed a movie then why should you have to apologize for it? If you love Showgirls or Halle Berry’s Catwoman—and, if you’re human, you do—then shout it from a rooftop! God knows I would rather watch security robots shoot sex-crazed teenagers with laser beams than sit through a “real” movie like Lincoln again.

Contact contributing writer Joey Shapiro at jshapiro@oberlin.edu.

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