Popcorn is one of those flicks that I’ve heard a lot about but never got around to checking out. Word on the street was that it’s a funny, affectionate tribute to horror movies past and present, and all but a guaranteed good time for any film buff who enjoys the scary stuff.
Well, I just got around to giving it a look, and honestly, I don’t really think it’s all that successful. I WANT to like it more than I do, because I can see what the filmmakers were going for - but it falls short of its ambitions. For me, anyway.
The story revolves around University of California film student Maggie (Jill Schoelen), who has been having recurring nightmares that she hopes to turn into a screenplay. She and her fellow classmates, under the supervision of teacher Mr. Davis (Tony Roberts), decide to hold a one-night horror film festival at the local Dreamland Theater before it’s torn down. Three movies will be shown: Mosquito, The Amazing Electrified Man, and The Stench, all 50’s and 60’s era flicks presented with their original in-theater gimmicks intact (3-D, Shock-O-Rama, and Aroma-Vision, something like that). The students get everything ready, the night of the fest comes and everything starts off according to plan. . .but there may be an unknown factor in this equation. Years ago, at the same theater, the leader of a “film cult” (Charles Manson by way of Quentin Tarantino, I guess, who the hell knows) named Lanyard Gates premiered his latest film there, minus the last reel. Gates performed that finale live before the audience, which basically culminated in him slaughtering his family and meeting his own demise onstage. But perhaps Gates is still alive after all, and is back for more live-action mayhem all these years later.
This flick goes back and forth for me. One minute I was rolling my eyes, the next I sat with the hint of a smile on my face, before suddenly finding myself yawning. It’s a shame, too - as I said, I really wanted to enjoy this as I sat there watching, but never truly did. The movies within the movie were actually much more entertaining to me than the flick proper; the goofy, mock-serious tone and overly cheesy special effects along with acting right out of a bad soap opera perfectly nailed the feel of those old movies. You know the kind of flicks I mean - these were the stuff that classic episodes of MST3K were made of. I had a great time watching those parodies here, and then the “real” movie would kick back in and it just wasn’t as fun.
I hate to bag on Popcorn ‘cause it seems like it comes from an honest place with a genuine soft spot for our beloved genre, but it just didn’t click with me. Director Mark Herrier (best known, I suppose, as Billy in the Porky’s series) was obviously working with a low budget but he doesn’t do much to overcome that. The script by Alan Ormsby (under the pseudonym Tod Hackett) gets quite a few minor details right - once again, especially in the mini-movies within - and creates a decent character or two along with a mildly compelling mystery at the center, but overall seems to blow the big moments (like that mystery‘s resolution). In fairness, there IS a running gag involving Maggie’s knuckleheaded love interest suffering steadily increasing pain and suffering that amused me. But again, the ups and downs really take away from the experience. The look of the villain is a result of some decently executed makeup effects; however, said villain is in no way scary or threatening and that’s pretty much bullshit in any self-respecting scare flick. There’s a touch of Phantom of the Opera here (in fact, the original title was Phantom of the Cinema), but the death scenes are unimaginative, uninspired and undoubtedly some more “un’s” I’m unable to think of right now. Other pros: 1) Malcolm Danare, as the kid in the wheelchair, also played Moochie Welch in Christine; 2) Kelly Jo Minter, another student, is kinda cool; and 3) the whole set-in-a-theater/movie-within-a-movie-thing recalls Demons. Point by point cons: 1) thinking of Christine makes you think of John Carpenter flicks and wishing you were watching one of those; 2) Minter was in Summer School and the gore FX in that COMEDY were way better; and 3) Demons made that premise kickass in a gloriously stupid way and this does not. I can also add that we do get genre vets Dee Wallace Stone and Ray Walston in the cast - but Walston’s screen time is maybe a minute, and both of them have this look on their face whenever they’re on screen. The look that says: “I’m here because I lost a bet.”
Lastly, Jill Schoelen as our main character is fairly disappointing. There’s no doubt that she’s got something about her that makes her an appealing screen presence - I assume this would explain her roles in similar fare stretching from the mid-80’s to early 90’s. Problem is, Popcorn is not The Stepfather. And Schoelen has a tendency to either overact or underact from scene to scene and she doesn’t have Terry O’Quinn to play off this time. She’s got fucking Tony Roberts.
The DVD from Elite is also, sadly, underwhelming. The transfer could be generously described as Serious Fugly (I believe that’s the technical terminology there); it looks like a VHS recorded off late night cable and I mean that. The Dolby 2.0 sound is decent enough, I suppose. “Extras” consist of the theatrical trailer and a few TV spots.
Unfortunately, Popcorn turned out to be one of those flicks that I always knew I’d get around to, but ended up wondering what the point of it all was once I did. If you’re one of the people who love it, that’s seriously great and I’m happy you get some enjoyment out of it. After all, I don’t hate it - I just wish I liked it.
(P.S. - On two occasions there is the appearance of a reggae band performing at the film festival. When these scenes come, you may think, “what the fuck?” I did. A look online, however, answers all: for some unknown reason, Popcorn was filmed in Jamaica, passing as California, by a predominantly Canadian crew. Take that as you will.)