Studio: Synapse Films
Release date: March 7th 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Why horror? What is it about this particular genre that inspires such fervent devotees? Why have hundreds upon hundreds of horror sites popped up on the internet over the years? I’m not even sure I have a clear answer even though a good chunk of my identity is defined by this particular fandom, but I do think there’s something to be said for how goddamn rad horror is. From the moment we start watching this stuff—most of us at way too early of an age, I’m guessing—we just know there’s something cool about it: the monsters, the effects, the gore. Basically, horror is at its best when it’s fun, and that explains the communal aspect of this fan base—deep down, we like to celebrate and revel in this stuff.
Few films understand this more than Popcorn, a 1991 slasher looking to fill looming void left by the 80s stalwarts. But in doing so, the film didn’t look to the immediate, slasher-filled past but instead peered even further back to the days William Castle thrilled and chilled audiences with monster movies bolstered by tremendous gimmicks. Even the most average matinee could be transformed into one hell of an experience, and that’s exactly the spirit Popcorn attempts to recapture: what you see unfold before you is essentially leftovers of the slasher genre, only they’ve been reheated in the clever context of a horror movie that’s in love with horror movies. Certainly, it would not be the first—and definitely not the last—to take such an approach, but it offers proof that even the most mundane, overdone genre can come alive within an infectious atmosphere.
In this case, it’s within the context of one of the most sacred horror experiences: the all-night movie marathon shared amongst fellow freaks and geeks. Within this film, said marathon is the last ditch effort of a fledgling college film department to raise funds. Not content to simply stage any old festival, they’ve gone to great lengths to restore a classic theater and outfit it with classic movie memorabilia. What’s more, they’ve even secured the old gimmick props that once really brought their triple feature to life: a giant mosquito, electric shocks, and an “odorama” gimmick. For all intents and purposes, the audience will be transported back to the heyday of these faux-Castle productions.
Unfortunately, the film students aren’t the only ones looking to recreate the past. One of the most ambitious of the bunch, Maggie Butler (Jill Schoelen) is haunted by a recurring nightmare that she’s convinced will simply serve as inspiration for her next screenplay. However, when the images from her mind intersect with footage from a lost film the kids uncover, it becomes clear that something much more sinister is at work. While the lost film’s director, Lanyard Gates, supposedly perished shortly after its only screening, the rediscovery as seemingly conjured him from beyond the grave to wreck the festivities. Shortly a mysterious patron arrives at the box office, a maniac begins stalking the students behind the scenes as the manic, enthralled crowd watches the screen, oblivious to the horrors unfolding around them.
And it’s fucking awesome. You know the opening scene in Scream 2, where the crowd of hooting, hollering maniacs in the crowd howl as a girl dies right before their eyes? Popcorn is sort of like that, only it’s for about 75% of its runtime. As such, it’s carried by the infectious, raucous energy of these costumed maniacs* who effectively bring Popcorn alive—not unlike how a familiar film takes on a renewed vigor when you witness it with a group of likeminded horror hounds. Because everyone involved seems to get this, it’s easy to overlook the very weird, ludicrous shit underpinning its storyline: supernatural elements that are quickly forgotten, a ridiculous killer sporting the most convincing masks ever, and a mid-marathon reggae concert interlude.
To be quite clear, Popcorn only makes the faintest lick of sense—and that’s okay. What it lacks in sense, it makes up for with its willingness to approach this material on the level of the fans it was so clearly made for. While Popcorn isn’t quite like the self-aware meta-horrors that would arrive a few years later, it’s most certainly a harbinger for them. Just as Scream thrives on its references and nods, so too does Popcorn flourish with its obvious love of this genre. This is a film that just gets what it’s like to be a horror film: it knows the allure of forbidden, lost movies and crafts an intriguing mythology out of it with the Lanyard Gates backstory. It knows the thrill of discovering (or rediscovering) classics within the magical walls of a repertory screening and indulges it by often transporting viewers into the fictional films playing on-screen during the marathon.
Unsurprisingly, these films have become synonymous with Popcorn itself, with each representing a throwback to specific eras and genres: Mosquito evokes the giant bug movies of the 50s, while The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man recalls that same decade’s other science-gone-haywire parables. Finally, The Stench is a Japanese import that seems like it could have been a lost Toho production, complete with lush, garish widescreen compositions. Director Mark Herrier allows just enough of a glimpse of these films to allow their B-movie matinee aesthetics to resonate and guide Popcorn to a similar verve. This is very much an update of these cheap, effects-laden thrills—it just so happens that the gags are now in the service of grisly gore and wicked makeup effects.
And so, even though it was easily the hundredth (or so) riff on slasher movies by 1991, Popcorn nonetheless feels somewhat fresh. With little recourse but to go big or go home, Herrier fucking went for it here by staging a rambunctious, action-packed take in an attempt to resuscitate a stale genre. Bolstered by a weirdly great cast (Dee Wallace Stone, Ray Walston (!), Kelly Jo Minter, and Tony Roberts all appear) and its bonkers energy, Popcorn doesn’t shy away from one of the primary purposes of a slasher movie: to have as much trashy fun as possible in the space of about 90 minutes. Far from an attempt to reclaim its more respectable, suspenseful roots, it instead opts for the wild, over-the-top pop-splatter approach of the late 80s, right down to the villain taking a page out of the Freddy Krueger and Chucky playbooks, what with his outsized personality and sardonic wit.
While he and Popcorn didn’t exactly carry on the slasher tradition into the 90s, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Popcorn might be a bit of a mess, but it’s an earnest, spirited one looking to please an audience it knows all too well—call it pandering, I suppose. I can never be too upset at a film that dares have a giant mosquito prop impale people, nor can I dismiss any slasher that boasts not one, but two catchy theme songs. It turns out that Popcorn might have been more of a last gasp than a genre reinvigoration, but what a rousing, breathless gasp it was.
*Though I have to say, the crowd tends to grow a bit too obnoxious as the marathon wears on--no true film fan would goof on the movies and act above them like this one does.
After spending over a decade in home video limbo following a lone DVD release in 2001, Popcorn makes its triumphant return with Synapse’s latest collector’s edition steelbook Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. For fans, this has been a very long time coming, and the release does not disappoint: Popcorn has never looked or sounded better, especially to the generation that was introduced to it via VHS. We’re a long way from that here, as Synapse’s transferred a restored, 35mm interpositive vault element for this release and produced a fair number of supplements to boot.
Where the original DVD only featured a handful of promotional material, this one boasts a commentary with Herrier, Schoelen, Malcolm Danare, and effects artist Mat Falls, plus an hour-long making-of retrospective featuring most of the cast and crew. It’s a fairly no-holds-barred, frank look back too, as nobody shies away from the film’s troubled production, which saw both its director and lead actress replaced early on. Producer Bob Clark’s presence also looms large, with many of the participants confirming what has been suspected for years: that he had a heavy hand in actually directing the film alongside Herrier (who understandably denies as much—he owns up to the film, warts and all, and even compares his experience to Tobe Hooper’s on Poltergeist). The cast and crew also look back fondly on Tom Villard, who passed away a few years later—it won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen Popcorn, but it turns out he had one of the most infectious personalities on set.
All told, it’s a nice, comprehensive little retrospective that traces the film’s conception to the shooting (in Jamaica, which explains all the reggae) to its release, an arc that will be quite familiar to those who have seen similar Red Shirt Pictures special features. A separate interview with Bruce Glover—who appears as the titular Electrified Man—also appears alongside a theatrical trailer, TV spots, promotional stills, and liner notes from Michael Gingold. It’s just about everything long-time Popcorn fans could have asked for from a release that’s been in the works for years now. Yes, it arrives at a premium price point, but I can't imagine fans being disappointed with a final product that's been crafted with utmost care. Even if the possible venue for Popcorn would be your favorite rep house, but this is easily the next best thing. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: