(originally published in Re/Public on October 29, 2014)
So, for the second installment of “Night Terrors”, I once again picked three films of varying horror subgenres. This time the picks are a “killer robot”-film, a ghost story and a “man versus scarily intelligent beast”-film. Enjoy!
Well – it was about time for a Corman production, although “Chopping Mall” is actually produced by Julie Corman, wife of the legendary Roger. But she has a number of credits under her belt as well, including Martin Scorsese’s debut “Boxcar Bertha”. So, she wanted to do a picture about a killer in a shopping mall – and who of us couldn’t relate to that, especially during some holiday sale weekend? So a B-movie maker Jim Wynorski quickly assembled a script, cleverly NOT using the typical slasher-formula, but instead going for scifi…
Ferdy: “Look, I’m sorry if I made you angry, Linda.”
Linda: “It’s not you, Ferdy. I’m just not used to be chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.”
Taking place in a futuristic Park Plaza Mall(actually filmed in the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which has seen some screen use over the years, in films like “Fast Times at the Ridgemont High”, “Commando” and “Terminator 2″), where security guards are replaced with a brand spanking new system of three Protector robots, armed with both non-lethal and lethal weaponry for disabling and securing unwarranted visitors. As the night that they are to go online begins, four couples are staying in a furniture store for a night of drinking partying and sex. As a thunderstorm brews outside, a lightning strikes the building, overloads the computer mainframe that controls the killbots, causing them to go haywire and kill the technician who is supposed to oversee them. They spread all over the different floors and cause the death of a Janitor(Dick Miller, a Corman/Joe Dante movie regular) and pretty soon discover the kids upstairs. Death and destruction ensues, and the kids will have to either seek some way out of the heavily sealed mall – or fight back.
This film has the 80’s written all over it – which is not a bad thing, really. The thing that mostly sticks to your eye is the fashion – and HAIR. But anyways, who’s here to watch a fashion show anyway. These 77 minutes(with credits – gosh I miss the times when people made SHORT movies!) just flew by. The robot effects are actually damn well made. Kinda a miracle considering that the whole budget was just around 800,000 dollars. The Killbots basically look like meaner, nightmarish versions of Wall-E. Apparently they were pieced together from stuff like wheelchair frames and conveyor belts and there were five different remote-controlled units that coud do different things. The end result looks great – you really believe these are actual robots rolling around the location and causing mayhem – well, the only unrealistic thing is the laser beams that they shoot. But it was the 80’s, mang – gotta have those lasers. The actors do what’s necessary of them, no real acting prices won here – Kelli Maroney(“Nigh of the Comet”) is a capable lead; actually she and her blind date are portrayed as kinda nerds(as others are busy with the sex thing, the two of them are watching “Attack of the Crab Monsters” on TV) but hey, that cool. The nerds save the day. Yay! Scream queen Barbara Crampton(“Re-Animator”, “From Beyond”) also makes an appearence as one of the kids. She makes an impression…. A fun flick, not taking things too seriously(there’s a gun store in the malled called “Peckinpah’s”), cool robots, even a head explosion(albeit of the dry kind, but still). I can think of worse ways to spend an hour and 17 minutes.
As a strange inside gag, Paul Bartel and Mary Woronow make a cameo appearance in the opening scene as their characters from the movie “Eating Raoul”, watching the Killbot demonstration. And I have no idea what the connection to that picture is, other than for pretentious film geeks using it as trivia ;).
Eric Red splashed onto the horror/thriller genre map with a scripting one-two punch of “The Hitcher” and “Near Dark” in the late eighties. With a firm eye for genre-bending scenery and great dialogue, those two films practically wrote anew the at-the-time somewhat stale-ish slasher- and vampire-tales. A couple of years later Red wrote a great, sadly underrated psycho thriller “Blue Steel”, for his “Near Dark” director Kathryn Bigelow, and also wrote/directed a macabre horror story called “Body Parts”. But sadly, after that film and a werewolf film “Bad Moon”, Red disappeared from the limelights for a long time. During that time, he was also involved in a fatal car accident. Many years passed. Until suddenly – “100 Feet” emerged. And the years away from the filmmaking game have definitely not mellowed Red one bit.
Marnie: “The person who’s doing this to me….is Mike”
Shanks: “Mike’s dead.”
Marnie: “Yeah. You know, that ’till death do us part’-thing? Turns out it’s a bunch of bullshit…”
“100 Feet” tells the tale of Marnie Watson(Famke Janssen, “Goldeneye”, “The X-Men”) who has killed her violent, alcoholic Policeman husband, Mike Watson(Michael Pare, “Streets of Fire”) in a moment of self-defence. Marnie’s remaining one-year sentence has been reduced to house arrest – in the house the killing took place. Marnie is given a monitoring ankle bracelet, and can’t move nowhere further than 100 feet away from the middle of the house. Supervising this sentence is Mike’s old partner, Shanks(Bobby Cannavale, “Boardwalk Empire”, “Nurse Jackie”), who still holds a grudge agains Marnie. But as soon as Marnie gets settled, it becomes apparent that Mike has not left the building – at least in spirit. And Marnie is left locked inside with an angry spirit. What can she do? It’s not like she can kill him again… And how could anyone believe anything she tells them, as she’s a convicted killer?
Now here is a ghost tale of the finest calibre. It’s not like Eric Red is trying to reinvent the wheel or anything – not at all, there are all the tropes from a ghost film; ‘Boo’ scares, poltergeists, cat scares, creaky noises – but the concept that you are locked in this house, and can not get out without triggering an alarm and ending right back in jail which already was a hell on earth is a clever one. And Famke Janssen is exactly the kind of strong, feisty, no-bullshit actress to tackle this kind of part. She is not one to hide cowering in corners – she confronts this spooky bastard head on. Bobby Cannavale is solid as the suspicious ex-partner of the ghostly Mike. Ed Westwick(Children of Men, Gossip Girl) also makes a solid supporting part as a food-delivery guy, who basically becomes Marnie’s only friend in the entire neighborhood. Eric Red and his team make all the use of the one big house that basically all of this event takes place¨and I was surprised to see that the film, while it takes place in Brooklyn, was almost entirely shot in Hungary, save for some exterior shots. I sure as hell couldn’t notice that. The ghost effect probably could’ve used some more cash in the visual F/X budget, but that’s just nitpicking. Great build-up, good, creepy ghost effects(which are NOT overplayed – many films tend to make that mistake!) and a powerhouse leading performance from Janssen.
George P. Cosmatos was more known for his 80’s action films like “Rambo – First Blood part 2″ and “Cobra” and later on from the western extraordinaire “Tombstone”, but there are some less known gems in the man’s filmography as well: “Escape to Athena” – a WWII action adventure which will forever be remebered from having Roger Moore play a German officer. “Leviathan” – a pretty well-made and exciting deep sea scifi horror-piece which steals/borrows/homages both “Alien” and “The Thing” from all the right places. It was also Cosmatos’ second collaboration with actor Peter Weller(“Robocop”). The first one – is much less known. It’s a Close Encounters of a Vermin unkind – piece called “Of Unknown Origin”…
Meg Hughes: “Oh, my God! Bart, what happened?”
Bart Hughes: “I had a party.”
Bart Hughes(Weller) is a winner; he’s got a nice, freshly self-renovated house, a trophy wife and a son. He’s a yuppie, an up-and-comer, plays squash with his boss and is destined for a promotion. Bart is also a bit of a neat freak, and it’s also hinted that he’s a bit of a germophobe. As Bart’s wife and son leave for a week to her rich father’s vacation resort, Bart stays home, because he’s got a major presentation to prepare for work – the one that’s gonna lift him waaay up in the corporation ladder. There’s just one problem: Bart’s not home alone. There’s a rat in the house. A BIG rat. What begins as rattling noises and some mild pestering like biting up the dishwashers waterline and flooding the kitchen, shredding the mail or destroying the dry foods in the cupboard soon escalate into vicious attacks. And as Bart tries to respond with traditional means; rat traps that get chewed up, poisons that do nothing, a stray cat that cets chewed up too…it becomes apparent pretty quickly that this is no ordinary rodent. The way it shreds up a check that was meant as payment for an exterminator and completely destroys the report that Bart’s been working on, shows that this bastard is intelligent too. As Bart slowly descends into obsession and madness, there is no other choice but a devastating battle face to face. Mano y rato.
I first saw this film on TV about 20 years ago, and had actually completely forgotten that I had it on DVD. So it was really nice do discover this again. Cosmatos has always been about visual flair, and he does not disappoint here. The rat is pretty much played like the shark from “Jaws”; all point of view-shots or partial/distorted close-ups untile the very last reel. It is a crossing between real rats and some puppetry, i imagine, because it IS a big mofo. Weller does tremendous work and is in almost every scene of the film. I don’t know if the film was chronologically filmed, but you can really see him becoming more and more exhausted and mentally unhinged from scene to scene until in the end he basically goes all primal as he arms himself up to take care of his squeaky problem. You might call this film a gender-swapped version of Polanski’s “Repulsion”, and there actually is a clever nod to that film, as Cosmatos occasionally cuts to the slowly withering away houseplants. Some other nice little nods to Bart’s mental state are him reading “Moby Dick” or watching “Old man and the sea” on television at some point. Besides Weller, the only known stars here are character actors Kenneth Welsh(“Twin Peaks”) and Maury Chaykin(“Dances With Wolves”), who play Bart’s scheming co-workers and Shannon Tweed making her film debut as Bart’s trophy wife, Meg. If there ever was a true “hidden gem”, this film is it – check it out!