The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Chopping Mall (dir by Jim Wynorski)


This 1986 film tells the story of what happens when one local mall decides that it’s had enough of thievery and vandalism.

First off, automatic locks and shutters are installed.  What that means is that, at a certain hour, anyone who is inside the mall is going to be trapped there until the morning.  Secondly, three robots are used as a security force.  They’re called Protectors and they roll around, looking for thieves and keeping people safe.  Don’t worry about getting mistaken for a thief, of course.  As long as you’ve got a badge, the protector will just say, “Thank you and have a good day.”

It all seems perfect but …. what if the robots malfunction?  What if they ignore the badges and just start killing anyone unlucky enough to be trapped in the mall for the night?  Surely, that could never happen, right?

Of course, it does happen.  Thanks to a freak electrical storm, the Protectors come to life and set out to keep the mall safe from intruders.  First, they kill the technicians that are supposed to keeping a watch over them.  Then, they kill a janitor named Walter Paisley (played, of course, by Dick Miller).  Then, they set off after the six attractive people who were having a sleep-over in one of the stores.

So, what did I learn from Chopping Mall?

Well, I was tempted to say that I learned not to shoplift but actually, no one in the movie gets in trouble for shoplifting.  I guess the main thing I learned is not to walk around the mall in my underwear because that definitely seems to be something that will cause the Protectors to blow up your head.

I also learned that, if you’re tapped in the mall with a bunch of killer robots, the best place to go is the sporting goods store because that store not only has a lot of automatic rifles but also an unlimited supply of ammunition.  Of course, I already learned that from Dawn of the Dead but it’s always good to be reminded….

Anyway, Chopping Mall is a lot of fun.  It’s undeniably dated.  Just the fact that everyone’s life revolves around a mall tells you just how dated it is.  I guess if they made the film now, it would have to take place at an Ikea store or maybe an Amazon warehouse.  But the fact that the film is dated is a part of what makes it so much fun to watch.  Seriously, it’s amazing all of the stuff that apparently used to go on at the local mall in the 80s.

Despite the fact that they have a bad habit of killing people, the Protectors are actually kind of cute.  If nothing else, they’re unfailingly polite.  You have to love the fact that they’ll wish you a nice day even after they’ve killed you.  Surprisingly enough, the humans are just as likable as the Protectors.  For a film about killer robots, Chopping Mall is surprisingly well-acted by a likable cast.  Russell Todd, who was the best-looking man to ever be killed by Jason Voorhees, is in this film and he’s as broodingly handsome here as he was in Friday the 13th Part II.

Chopping Mall is a good mix of humor and thrills and robots and exploding heads and Dick Miller.  This is 80s mall horror at its best!

Cinemax Friday: Not Of This Earth (1988, directed by Jim Wynorski)


Since today is director Jim Wynorski’s birthday, I want to review one of his early films.

A remake of the Roger Corman classic, Wynorksi’s Not Of This Earth stars Traci Lords as Nadine Story, a nurse who works in the office of Dr. Rochelle (Ace Mask) and who has a boyfriend named Harry (Roger Lodge) who is also a cop.  (The leads to jokes like, “Harry called.  He said he left his nightstick with you last night.”)  Dr. Rochelle’s main patient is the mysterious Mr. Johnson (Arthur Roberts), who dresses in all black, always wears sunglasses, and who needs frequent blood transfusions.  When Dr. Rochelle takes a look at Mr. Johnson’s blood, he sees that Mr. Johnson has a strange blood disease that has apparently never been discovered before.  Dr. Rochelle sends Nadine over to work at Mr. Johnson’s home as his private nurse.  Of course, Mr. Johnson is not of this Earth.  His planet is dying and, as Nadine discovers, he is on Earth to search for a new supply of blood.

Wynorski’s version of Not Of This Earth follows the exact same plot of the Corman original, right down to having a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman fall victim to the alien’s bloodlust.  (In the original, the salesman was played by Dick Miller.  In the remake, he’s played by Michael Delano.  Miller does not even get a cameo in the remake of Not of this Earth, which is surprising considering it was still a Corman production and Wynorski previously cast Miller in Chopping Mall.)  They’re both enjoyable movies, especially if you’re in the mood for something that won’t require much thought.  The main difference between the the two versions of Not of this Earth is that the Wynorski version features a lot more nudity and that it makes no pretense towards being anything other than a comedy.

This was Traci Lords’s first role in a non-adult film and she knocks it out of the park.  The scandal surrounding her adult film career has always overshadowed the fact that, for all of her notoriety, Traci Lords was actually a pretty good actress who could handle comedy.  While the deliberately campy humor in Not of this Earth is no one’s definition of subtle, Lords shows good comedic timing and, most importantly, she delivers her lines with a straight face and without winking at the audience.

Wynorski later said that the movie was so popular on video that he was able to buy a house with his share of the profits.  Not of this Earth is a classic Wynorski production, featuring everything that made Jim Wynorski a late-night cable and direct-to-video favorite in the 90s.

Back to School #27: Fast Times At Ridgemont High (dir by Amy Heckerling)


Mike Damone

Mike Damone

Mike Damone, you little prick.

I’ve watched the 1982 high school dramedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High a handful of times.  I’ve reached the point where, every time I watch it, I know exactly what’s going to happen.  I know when stoner Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is going to order pizza.  I know that Charles Jefferson (Forest Whitaker) is going to go crazy during the big game against Lincoln High.  I know that when Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kisses the sweet but shy Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), he’s going to end up panicking and scrambling for an excuse to go home.  I know that Brad (Judge Reinhold) is going to get caught masturbating.  I even know when Anthony Edwards, Nicolas Cage, and Eric Stoltz are all going to appear in early performances.

Nicolas Cage, 30 years before he would agree to star in a remake of Left Behind.

Nicolas Cage, 30 years before he would agree to star in a remake of Left Behind.

In other words, I know exactly what’s going to happen.

But, Mike Damone (played, very well, by Robert Romanus, who is only an actor and shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of a fictional character) — every time, I find myself hoping you’ll do the right thing and every time, you let me down.

Oh sure.  I know that you tried to raise the money to help pay for Stacy’s abortion.  I saw the scene of you on the phone in your bedroom, begging people to finally pay for the tickets that you’d sold them.  I know that you tried but when you couldn’t get the money, where were you?  When Stacy had to ask her older brother, Brad, for a ride to the clinic, where were you?  After Stacy left the clinic, she found Brad waiting for her.  Brad agreed not to ask Stacy who had gotten her pregnant.  He agreed not to tell their parents.  Brad was there for his sister.  Where were you, Mike Damone?

What really upsets me is that, up until you abandoned Stacy, you were one of the more likable characters in Fast Times At Ridgemont High.  I mean, sure — you didn’t get to deliver any classic lines like Spicoli did.  And you weren’t adorably shy like Mark.  But, Mike Damone — I believed in you!  We all believed in you!  (Imagine me doing my best Tyra Banks imitation here.)  You were a cocky guy who spent all of your time selling concert tickets at the mall but you know what?  We all assumed that, underneath all of the attitude, there secretly lurked a good guy.  I mean, we could tell that you sincerely cared about your friend Mark and, because we’re all fools apparently, we even thought that maybe Stacy could bring out the real you.  When Stacy sat there writing “Mrs. Stacy Damone” on her test paper in history class, we understood.  Because, after all, we’ve all had a Mike Damone in our life.

Rat and Mike

Rat and Mike

But then, what happened?  Well, first, you had sex with Stacy despite the fact that you knew Mark liked her.  Of course, for all your bluster and talk, it turned out that sex with Mike Damone amounted to 2 minutes of squirming followed by that classic line, “I think I came.”  And then you left, saying those words that every girl dreams of hearing from someone she’s just been with: “I’ll see you around.”  (Or maybe you said, “I’ll give you a call,” or “I’ve got to go now.”  Either way, it was a pretty shitty thing to say, Damone.)

fast-times-at-ridgemont-high.19729

As you may have guessed, Fast Times At Ridgemont High is not your typical teen comedy.  In fact, over three decades since it was first released, it remains one of the best and most perceptive films about teenagers ever made.  Over on the A.V. Club, Keith Phipps refers to Fast Times as being “a Trojan horse of a teen comedy that balanced lowbrow gags with subtle humor, genuine insight .. and pathos,” and that’s such a perfect description that I’m not at all ashamed to repeat it word-for-word here.

Don’t get me wrong.  Though Fast Times At Ridgemont High has a lot more drama than you would expect from a film with the words “Fast Times” in the title, it’s also an undeniably funny film.  It’s just that, unlike so many other teen comedies, the comedy comes from a very real place.  This is one of those rare films where the characters are funnier than the situations that they find themselves in.  You laugh because you relate to the characters.  (Admitedly, you might also laugh at what some of them are wearing.  Mike Damone’s keyboard print scarf comes to mind…)

Hey I Know That Guy

Spicoli and Hand

Like many classic teen films — American Graffiti, Fame and Dazed and Confused, to cite just three obvious examples — Fast Times At Ridgemont High is an ensemble piece that follows several different students as they survive a year at Ridgemont High.  Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli is the character that everyone always mentions as a favorite and indeed, he does get the best lines and his battles with Mr. Hand (Ray Waltson) are definitely a highlight of the film.  People also always mention Linda (Pheobe Cates), who has a boyfriend in college and who walks in on Brad while he’s fantasizing about her.  And yes, Linda is a memorable character and not just because she bares her breasts during Brad’s fantasy.  She’s also Stacy’s best friend and I think we’ve all had a friend like Linda, someone who we looked up to and assumed had all the answers.  For that matter, Brad is also an interesting character and there’s something undeniably fascinating about watching as he goes from being a carefree, popular teen to being a guy working behind the counter at 7-11.

(If only Brad had not gotten Arnold that job at All-American Burger…)

Agck!

Agck!

However, for me, the film will always be about Stacy, if just because she’s the character to which I relate.  I know when I was 15, I felt a lot like Stacy and, every time I watch Fast Times, I feel like some of Stacy’s experiences could have been taken straight out of my diary.  I had the same combination of confidence and insecurity and the same questions about why boys could talk like men but never act like them.  Stacy, of course, is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh who gives a remarkably brave and vulnerable performance in this film.  Off the top of my head, I can’t tell you who won the Oscar for best supporting actress of 1982 but it doesn’t matter.  Jennifer Jason Leigh should have won it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Fast Times is often referred to as being a Cameron Crowe film, largely because Crowe famously went undercover at an actual high school while writing the book that served as the basis for his script.  And yes, Fast Times is filled with scenes and characters that feel undeniably Cameron Crowe-like.  However, Fast Times was directed by Amy Heckerling and thank God for that.  Heckerling brings a sensitive touch to material that a male director would be tempted to play solely for exploitation.  Cameron Crowe may have written the script but it’s definitely an Amy Heckerling film.

And, sorry, Mike Damone — you’re still a little prick.

Mike Damone, a.k.a. Little Prick

Mike Damone, a.k.a. Little Prick

Quickie Review: Night of the Comet (dir. by Thom Eberhardt)


Night of the Comet took advantage of the return of Halley’s Comet hype which ran through nation and pretty much most of the world throughout most of 1984 and into 1985. Hollywood being the opportunist industry that it was (and still is) were quick to produce and release a movie about the return of Halley’s Comet over the planet as soon as possible. The 1980’s was a good decade for the low to mid-budgeted horror and sci-fi movies which had a quick death at the box-office but which gained success and cult status in the many displays racks of the tens of thousands of video rental places. 1984’s Night of the Comet was one of these films and it typifies the cheesiness that was 1980’s scifi horror.

The film opens up with everyone partying the arrival of Halley’s Comet which could be seen in the night sky every 75-76 years. This time around the planet will pass through the comet’s tail which has only happened once and that was 65 million years in the past. People are out on the streets as night falls celebrating the Comet’s arrival and we meet two of the main characters in the film in the form of Regina (80’s genre icon Catherine Mary Stewart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney). Two sisters who truly epitomizes the mall and valley culture of 1980’s Southern California, Regina and Samantha are not enjoying the night of the comet as Regina ends up working the night shift at the local theater she works at and Samantha is stuck at home with her stepmother and all the partygoers attending her stepmom’s party. In the span of a few sequences both Regina and Samantha end up locking themselves up somewhere quiet and safe to get away from the party going on around them.

While they stew in their own little, steel-lined hideaways the comet makes its pass over the planet with everyone who can see looking up to take a peek of the returning comet. What happens next sets up the rest of the movie. The comet seem to have turned anyone not protected behind heavy steel structures into red dust and those only half-protected end up turning into zombie-like creatures. Luckily for the two sisters they were inside such heavy steel structures when the comet did its pass over and were well-protected. The rest of the movie deals with Regina and Samantha dealing with the possibility that they may be the last people on the planet (though this soon get shotdown with the arrival of Commander Chakotay of Star Trek Voyager…I mean Robert Beltran) and trying to keep themselves from being eaten by the zombie survivors and being tested upon by shady, secret government scientists.

Night of the Comet won’t win any awards even from horror and science-fiction groups, but it will entertain to a point. For those who grew up during the 80’s the movie will bring back fond, if painful memories of just how cheesy that decade was in terms of pop culture. Catherine Mary Stewart as Regina would be seen in more cheesy horror flicks of the era. In fact, she pretty much became the PG-13 version of 80’s Scream Queen Linnea Quigley. Where Ms. Quigley wasn’t against gratuitious nudity and sex in the movies she was in, Ms. Stewart was very chaste and very girl next door in her roles.

Would I recommend this movie to people? Yes, I would but buying the dvd might be more for the hardcore horror and scifi completist since one can easily see Night of the Comet on regular and cable TV. In the end, the movie is a fun romp back through time to a weird and different era. The movie is not great, but it’s not bad either.