CHOPPING MALL: Killer Robots vs. Crazy Teens (and Dick Miller)

by John S.

Scarecrow’s “What a Character” Crosscut Theme for February explores Love. Specifically, cinema’s love for its Quirky Character Actors.

You know who they are: those memorably vivid folks who show up as support in a whole array of films. Like spices on meals that would otherwise be bland without them, Quirky Character Actors liven up the proceedings and are essentially the polar opposite of Glamorous Movie Stars. However, they enjoy much more flexibility than their above-the-title colleagues since the flicks don’t rest squarely on their shoulders. They come in, jazz up a movie with their schtick, then get on out of there before their welcome wears out. And one of the most entertaining Quirky Character Actors is Dick Miller.

Born Richard Miller on Christmas Day in 1928, Dick moved from his native New York to California in 1952 and went on to become a cohort of the great Roger Corman himself, starring in many of Corman’s output. Dick’s long and colorful career saw his lovable Perma-Scowl and razor tongue gracing such flicks as Gremlins, Gremlins 2, The Terminator, Piranha, The Howling, Explorers, Night of the Creeps, Small Soldiers, The ‘Burbs, and today’s review: Chopping Mall. He is also the subject of the 2014 documentary, That Guy Dick Miller. And – bonus – the man apparently also has a doctorate in Psychology from NYU!

As Dick Miller appearances go, his role in Chopping Mall is a pretty brief one. He sadly doesn’t get in on the action, like in Gremlins and Gremlins 2, or provide valuable intel that helps the leads, as he did in The Howling. Nope. Here he plays a mall janitor named Walter Paisley (a moniker he’s used in other films) who shows up for two whole minutes before biting it and exiting stage left. However, he does spend his fleeting screentime mouthing off, in classic caustic Dick Miller fashion, to a malfunctioning security robot. Too bad the ‘bot responds by electrocuting poor Walter right where he stands before wishing him a very nice day.

Which is a shame, because the bulk of Chopping Mall focuses on the killer robots hunting down eight of your usual 80’s Slasher Movie Teen Fodder and whittling their numbers down. Fortunately, they are played by some likable familiar faces like Kelli Maroney (Night of the Comet), Barbara Crampton (From Beyond, Re-Animator), Russell Todd (Friday The 13th Part 2), John Terlesky (The Allnighter), and Tony O’Dell (Head of the Class). Extra points also go to the flick for letting our imperiled mall workers fight back in such a way that makes the whole thing feel kind of like an Alien movie. No lazy idiots sitting around waiting to die here.

While not as well-executed and smoothly-helmed as other mid-80’s minor classics like Night of the Comet and April Fool’s Day (most of that low budget must have gone towards the robots themselves, leaving little for re-takes), Chopping Mall is still quite enjoyable. However, you can’t help but wonder how much more entertaining (and hilarious) it would’ve been if Dick’s role were expanded and Walter allowed to join the teens in their battle for survival. Imagine the constant barrage of insults and barbs he would’ve lobbed at the robots. I don’t think lasers and pincers and electric darts are any match for Dick Miller’s deadly wit. He would have undoubtedly made it clear to the homicidal rust-buckets where they can shove their nice day.

After all, Quirky Character Actors are like All-Purpose Seasoning. Add them to a big movie like Gremlins, Gremlins 2, The Terminator, Small Soldiers, and The ‘Burbs, and you get a touch of character. Sprinkle them on a low budget movie like The Howling, Piranha, and Chopping Mall, and you get a touch of class. That guy Dick Miller sure is something else.

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order.

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