Studio: Synapse Films
Director: Mark Herrier, Alan Ormsby
Writer: Tod Hackett
Producer: Torben Johnke, Gary Goch, Ashok Amritraj
Stars: Jill Schoelen, Tom Villard, Dee Wallace, Derek Rydall, Tony Roberts, Ray Walston, Kelly Jo Minter
A college film club stages a horror movie marathon, but they are stalked by a figure that might be a mysterious cult leader who died in a theater fire many years ago.
Every now and again a movie comes along that stumps you when it comes time to write the review. It is usually an unexpected title. Something that one might not think would cause so much consternation. “Popcorn” is one of those films.
Reviewing it for being a genre movie at its core, it demanded a negative critique. But I felt guilty going that route because of how much I smiled while watching it. I thought about writing two separate reviews. Maybe even in two separate voices. Like Statler and Waldorf of “The Muppets,” except with one of them actually liking what he saw. Eventually I realized I was making this review much more difficult than it needed to be.
This one is very easy. If your taste in horror mandates a serious tone, let’s say “The Shining” or “Last House on the Left,” then “Popcorn” is definitely not for you. It may even foster frustration and resentment in between eye rolls. If, on the other hand, you can stomach unintentional silliness and occasionally look the other way when it comes to ridiculous plot elements, then you might have some fun.
At the risk of sounding like Bill Hader’s Stefon character from “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live,” this might be the best way to put it:
This movie has everything: A Toyota-sized animatronic mosquito, people wearing clothespins on their noses, E.T.’s mom, the Max Rebo band dressed as the Village People playing reggae music, My Favorite Martian, a man who wears skin masks like he is Nicolas Cage in “Face/Off,” electrocutions, an acid-dropping film cult, death by exploding toilet, and not one, not two, but three (technically four if you count “The Possessor”) more horror movies within the movie.
None of that is made up. Colorfully worded for an exaggerated effect, yes. But all of the above is actually in the movie, and then some. Dialogue is absurd. (Make sure you’re not drinking anything when the last line of the movie is said, lest you wish to do an unintentional spit take all over your couch. Make sure that you are drinking beforehand, however. And heavily.) The acting is, well, not great. Neither is the staging. (Refer to the scene where Mark loses his popcorn after a punch in the face.) Yet somehow everything that can be criticized about the film comes together as something enjoyable when taken as a whole. It is a brisk 90 minutes too, with quite a bit packed into it.
Imagine if instead of music, the Manson Family made avant-garde movies after an acid trip. That is what the cult of Popcorn’s Lanyard Gates did. When critics ravaged his work, Gates had his revenge with “The Possessor.” Staging the last act of the film live gave him the opportunity to kill everyone in the theater, presumably even himself, when Gates set the place on fire. Years later, a girl who may be related to Gates suspects he has returned to kill her film school classmates as they stage a horror movie marathon for a fundraiser.
The movie marathon provides a great milieu. The audience shows up dressed for the marathon as if they are at San Diego Comic-Con. There isn’t a masquerade contest or anything. The majority of them just felt like ambitious costumes were appropriate for the event, I suppose.
The marathon itself consists of three separate faux horror films, each with its own William Castle-esque gimmick ranging from 3D to jolting seats to “Aroma-rama.” These movies are almost as goofy as “Popcorn” itself. The actors do not have that 1950’s look, even though the films themselves do. But they are an interesting enough distraction.
Behind-the-scenes issues reportedly plagued the production. One result of these troubles was the employment of two different directors on the film. That might explain some of the plot gaps and tonal changes. When examined after the fact, the film does not exactly hold water. Once the story behind the movie marathon murders is revealed, you can think back on the scene where Dee Wallace confronts a supernatural theater marquee and realize it does not fit with what happened. Although learning from the credits that “Popcorn” was shot in Jamaica explains the otherwise bizarre inclusion of a reggae band that provides no less than three songs. I guess it evens out.
Why someone would bring a crew from Los Angeles to Jamaica to make a film set in L.A. is up for debate. Particularly when 98% of the scenes are interiors. Hey, it’s just one more nonsensical curiosity that adds to the movie’s charm.
Even though it was released in 1991, “Popcorn” is a prime example of a fun 80’s horror movie. Turn down your nose for an hour and a half and indulge in some unmotivated lights with red and green party gels. It is the type of movie that Rhonda Shear would have hosted on “USA Up All Night” back in the 90’s. (Maybe she did.) If those are references that bring back memories and make you smile, then you know exactly what I mean.
Review Score: 65