Deadly malls: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Chopping Mall (1986), Elves (1989)

The shopping mall is an obvious and long-standing embodiment of commercialism, subject to critique. As such, it’s hardly surprising that the mall is also a popular site for horror films. Although… this may also come down to its appeal as a cheap nighttime location to shoot a film. I have recently watched a few flicks set in malls, but each has its own reason to be set there.

Dawn of the Dead (1978), more happy shoppers

First up, Dawn of the Dead (1978): This horror classic sets zombies up as the ideal consumer; to paraphrase: they don’t know why they have come here, they just know that this is where they want to be. A clear indictment of mall-culture, this film mixes horror with humour. This movie stands up quite well.

Chopping Mall (1986), glossy 80s tech

Second, Chopping Mall (1986): This B-grade horror follows all of the clich├ęs of the 80s horror pastiche. Starting with a bizarre opening montage exploring the mall in all of its glory, including a beauty pageant, this film doesn’t really seem to have anything to say. The mall is a place for young people to work and play. Cute killer robots stalk attractive young people. Only the virgins shall survive! This movie is bland and uninspired.

Elves (1989), the war on Christmas

Finally, Elves (1989): This tasteless monstrosity of a movie clearly uses the mall as nothing more than a cheap setting for a grotesque plot involving Nazis, incest, and one elf (no other elves in sight) as well as a homeless mall Santa. Imagining that there is some relevance to Christmas and the mall setting is giving this film too much credit; the mall is just an empty vacuum for characters to be lined up and killed, Christmastime a gimmick that never really makes sense. The tone of this movie is all over the map, but taken altogether it’s just unpleasant to watch. It was a real dud that I had hoped would go well with our gingerbread house making.

This selection of films, by chance, also seems to reflect shifting attitudes towards the mall itself. It has gone back and forth from a dangerous opiate to the people, as seen in early films like Dawn of the Dead (1978) and later films like They Live (1988), to nothing more than a regular blight on the landscape of modern life; another empty space. With e-commerce and boutique shopping now the norm, the mall languishes as a monument to another era, populated by discount shopping and bad food.

As we have largely moved on from the mall as a culture, these films become less relatable to audiences, but they remain an interesting time-capsule for our fears.

Apostle (2018)

Are you ready for some weird, gory, environmentalist horror? Well you should be. The Apostle (2018) delivers the horror movie you didn’t know that you wanted. Gareth Evans, director of The Raid (2011), seems like an unlikely contender in the period-piece-horror genre, but this film was delightful in just about every way.

While it starts out like a late-Victorian adventure story, with the simple premise of an opium-addled investigator, Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), looking for his kidnapped sister, Elaine (Catrin Aaron), the movie goes to places you probably aren’t expecting. Reminiscent of the original folk horror classic The Wicker Man (1973), the viewer explores an unsettling island environment alongside the investigating lead-character as the plot unfolds.

With Elaine taken by a cult on an isolated island for ransom, Thomas is forced to feign conversion to penetrate the secretive commune, run by Prophet Malcolm and his fanatical cronies with an apparent revolutionary-communist flair. Thomas immediately sets to finding his sister and planning his escape, but finds the cult’s basis to be more complex and frightening than expected.

The movie feels fresh and simple, because the cast is quite small, and there isn’t too much exposition to get through (except a bit of a flashback at the end which feels unnecessary). The characters are all set up simply, their motivations are clear, and the dialogue is limited.

The visual style is incredibly good, with bright, sere, cool-toned daytime scenes and dark, earthy interiors by night. Some of the later scenes will even evoke Guillermo Del Toro’s iconic look in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

“But wait, what was that you said about environmentalism?” Well, this film deals with the theme of environmental depletion and overpopulation. That is, in itself, quite a feat, but the fact that the tone is never sententious is really impressive.

I would definitely recommend this movie, but be prepared for some real gore in the end stretch. Heck, it’s even on Netflix! Enjoy.