Popcorn (1991)


The 2000s became the time for self-referential horror films.  Before that, although it did horribly at the box office, the movie Popcorn became a popular video rental.  While the main slasher story may have been a bit trite, and also be quite reminiscent of The Phantom of the Paradise in places, Popcorn decided to acknowledge the history of cheesy b-movies by celebrating them.  It was also a sweet tribute in some ways to William Castle, who famously used gimmicks to liven up some of his movies - although it turns out many of them still work today without them. 

Maggie (Jill Schoelen) is a film student at a small California university.  The department is considered largely an afterthought, so fellow student Toby (Tom Villard) and their teacher, Professor Davis (Tony Roberts) come up with the idea to do a horror film festival to raise money for their projects.  To do so they rent the Dreamland, an old movie palace that is scheduled for demolition.  The hook they come up with is presenting the old, largely forgotten films with the gimmicks their directors originally concocted in order to sell them. 

Unfortunately, one other film pops up, called Possessor.  It's a short film by a director named Lanyard Gates (Matt Falls).  Gates led a film cult and died while in the process of murdering his family back in the 1970s.  He also happens to be the man appearing in Maggie's dreams and inspiring her screenplay.  When strange things start happening during the festival Maggie becomes certain that Gates is still alive and is trying to kill her, an idea backed up by the fact members of her class start disappearing one by one.  The only one who believes her is her bumbling boyfriend Mark (Derek Rydall), who does what he can to help her. 

The plot is somewhat ridiculous, but not so much that it's unbelievable, at least in the universe that Mitchell Smith and original director Alan Ormsby came up with.  Everything in the lives of the students and their professor revolves around movies, so it's not out of the ordinary that Professor Davis is familiar with the Gates cult, as is Maggie's mom Suzanne (Dee Wallace).  The kills are okay, although unfortunately we don't get to know anyone to make any emotional connection, other than it's the usual slasher victims - authority figure, sexpot and smart-alec, making the way to the final girl. 

What sets this movie apart are the movies within the movie.  The first is Mosquito, a '50s giant bug movie, which is pretty faithful at recreating some of the cheaper films of the time, including the military stock footage.  Unfortunately, it also has a scene of one of the characters being attacked and sucked dry, which is a great '90s effect, but not something that would have been done in the 1950s.  The second is Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man, which actually looks like a movie I would not have minded seeing if the whole thing had been made.  The last is a Japanese film called The Stench, which we see little of.  The first involves a giant mosquito prop, the second buzzers in the seats (similar to William Castle's The Tingler) and the third with various smells piped into the theater, not dissimilar from the scratch 'n' sniff Odor-Rama cards handed out for John Waters's Polyester.  Not surprisingly they all play into the various deaths. 

The other great thing about this film is the killer.  It's an amazing over-the-top performance with a great ending, and although there are references to The Phantom of the Paradise this particular character is in no way sympathetic.  His motives are convoluted, but that just makes things better, since whatever connections he is making in his own mind definitely do not make any sense to his victims or the audience.  

The production of Popcorn was troubled, with Porky's actor Mark Herrier making his only appearance as a director, replacing Ormsby shortly into the movie.  Jill Schoelen was also a last-minute replacement for Amy O'Neill, who was fired three weeks into the production and after most of the scenes involving Maggie with the other students were shot.  Still, some of Ormsby's directing remains, and O'Neill went on to bigger things, while this is considered one of the movies that put an early end to Schoelen's career.  That's too bad, because even after its short theatrical run the movie began to find an audience on video and has since been recognized for the fun horror comedy it is.  

Popcorn (1991)
Time: 91 minutes
Starring: Jill Schoelen, Tom Villard, Derek Rydall
Director: Mark Herrier

 

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