DECEMBER 21 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : POPCORN
After starting in Washington D.C. nine years ago, Horror Movie Night has expanded to include chapters in Austin, Dallas, and Chicago. GATW’s own Brian Kelley is the originator and programmer of this illustrious weekly Wednesday night tradition which features a “classic” horror film. Each week I will be reviewing/commenting on the past week’s selection so do your best to find the film, most of which have not made it past VHS, and follow along. Better yet, start your own chapter!
Most real film fans out there are suckers for movies that take place around our favorite subject - movies. Whether it is about a film production or just someone else obsessed with the medium it makes for a fun, at times meta, viewing experience. Is there a better way to show the fun of movies than through horror and sci-fi? Some would say that we horror fans are lowest common denominator when it comes to cinephiles, but I would greatly disagree. We are some of the most passionate and fun filmgoers out there, and we can love cinema just as much as the art film freaks. How many French New Wave conventions do they have all over the world every year? I digress...the important thing here is a Horror Movie Night pick centered around a horror/sci-fi film fest put on by a struggling film class and full of homage and fun. POPCORN (1991) is a great flick with a ton of replay value. For horror cinema enthusiasts it’s also a sort of wet dream...er, wet nightmare.
A small college’s budget is getting slashed, and one of the departments to feel the brunt of it is the film department. Although, I’m not sure if a class with a mere seven students can be considered a whole department. Anyway, the group needs to come up with some way to raise money to insure their beloved class’ future so they decide to put on a horror movie marathon in an old theater that has been abandoned and is a few weeks away from demolition. Things come together quickly, with the aid of an awesome montage sequence and song, and everything seems to be going off without a hitch; at least until they realize that Lanyard Gates, the presumed dead leader of a late '60s film cult, may be there to finish the murderous real-life flick he started years earlier that ended in a tragic theater fire.
Patron: “What time does the first show start?”
Bud: “Check the Shock Clock ma’am. When it screams, a feature beams.”
The premise of this film is simple enough and the director, Mark Herrier (who you might know as Billy from the PORKY’S trilogy), pulls it off rather well. Of course this film plays a lot into the mind of people who love having a good time watching horror flicks in a crowded theater of like-minded people. The film class picks three films which used gimmicks upon initial release, paying homage to the late ultimate showman William Castle. There is a giant glowing mosquito that flies above the audience for one, funky smells pumped into the theater for another, and the third feature sees electric shocks going off underneath the seats of unsuspecting moviegoers. This may all sound familiar because Castle did all of these in his heyday, but also because Joe Dante would pay tribute with some of these same techniques, along with his fictitious director Lawrence Woolsey, in MATINEE. That film is a barrel of enjoyment and has probably been seen by many more people, but it doesn’t have the body count this one does - small though it may be.
I was not alive for all of Castle’s gimmicky flicks in the late '50s/early '60s, but I love them and feel an almost nostalgia-like affinity toward them. I know that’s not reallypossible but I want to have been a part of that exciting time in genre film’s cinematic history so much that it warms my blackened heart when thought about. Hell, I still have my Odorama card from when IFC re-released John Waters’ fabulous film POLYESTER back into theaters five or six years ago. If only time travel was at my disposal.
Aside from the gimmick, this theater they used is gorgeous. Billed as the Dreamland, it’s a wonderful one screen with a full balcony and a big backstage behind the screen. This is the kind of movie palace that has been run out of business by multiplexes over the last twenty or so years. They actually say that this theater is destined for the wrecking ball in three weeks on the day they go to take a first look. Here’s where suspension of disbelief must be relied on rather heavily. Usually in these film it’s because of supernatural elements, but not in POPCORN! Here you have to really stretch your imagination for a lot of standard everyday things. For a theater that has been empty for a while, it is in damn good shape. During the “getting ready montage” all they really have to do is a little cleaning and changing of light bulbs. The projectors work and the screen is in great condition. Odd for an old closed movie palace soon to be a big pile of rubble.
Still, within three weeks they get the Dreamland up to specs, with prints of the old films and all the fun accoutrement involved. Most interesting of all - they pack the place! Maybe I’m jaded from living in a town that is about as excited about cool film events as most people are about watching city council meetings on cable access, but they get the word out and the theater is crawling with patrons, cash in hand and even donning costumes. There are more people in masks and heavy make-up for a triple bill film event than at most Halloween parties. They even got a band to come and rock the house. At first it’s weird combination to have a Jamaican-accented group playing a reggae-ish style of music at a horror-thon, but the credits show everything was shot on location in Jamaica. Ossie D & Steve G supply the songs “Scary Scary Movies” and the montage music, “Saturday Night at the Movies”, which kind of feels like something that you would hear on a special Jamaican vacation episode of FULL HOUSE. Not only do they play some cool tunes accompanied by nauseating camera angles, but they have magical powers as well. At one point they play in the theatre while all of the power is out. Not sure how their electric guitars and electric hexagonal drums (!) were heard, but I’ll chalk it up to the power of the Dreamland.
Quick side note - one of the excited moviegoers in costume appears to be wearing a Syngenor mask! I’m not sure if it was a popular item back in the day, if someone on this film knew someone involved with either SCARED TO DEATH or SYNGENOR, or if it just happened to be something they grabbed off a shelf. No matter the reason it’s nice to have a little inter-HMN connection.
You kind of have to question this group of future filmmakers. The only ones who really seems to care a lot about cinema are our female lead, Maggie (Jill Schoelen), who is always either sketching storyboards or dictating her ideas to a small cassette recorder, or Toby (Tom Villard) who is the main brain behind this horror-thon idea. The rest are pretty much idiots. One of the guys suggests putting on a play to raise money. A play...to raise money...for the film department. Not too bright. But what do you really expect from a small group of “filmmakers” who has someone arguing the merits of POLICE ACADEMY 5 over anything made by Ingmar Bergman? Really? The one where they all go to Miami? Then when they watch the infamous Lanyard Gates’ short, THE POSSESSOR, immediately they are mocking it for being pretentious. What film school has no one into artsy and/or pretentious films? This must be where Michael Bay learned the ropes.
One thing this film really has going for it are the make-up FX. There are some really cool scenes involving our killer, who switches faces quickly to take on the identity of those he has killed. Of course he has to since his face was badly burned in a fire. Once again we must ignore anything we know about making latex make-up appliances and, well, science in general. There’s a contraption he uses to make a mold of the face and then make the appliance to fit his face that only takes a few minutes instead of hours like in real life. It’s all capped off by applying these prothstetic face lifts with precision and ridiculous speed. Either our killer has some skills that are out of this world or people like Dick Smith have been lying to us for years. There is a big moment in the film where Maggie has been captured and the baddy is explaining his motives and all about the high-tech prosthetics he wears that is just incredible. There is a wonderful actor behind all that make-up and having the half-on face flopping around the whole time is a nice touch.
Cheryl: “What makes you think people are gonna pay six bucks to see some crappy old movie they wouldn’t even rent for 99 cents?”
A while back, in 2001, Elite Entertainment released a DVD of POPCORN and it was met with whimpers of enthusiasm. People were happy to have it on the format but the only extras were a couple of trailers and the transfer looked like a rip of the VHS. It is now out-of-print and the fans want more - a lot more. Enter Kristy Jett, who many of you may know as working at the phenomenal horror t-shirt site Fright Rags. She has taken to the streets with a few others to get a new DVD of this classic released with some realextras such as a cast commentary, a collector’s booklet, new artwork by Jeff Zornow, and a big retrospective documentary! They have a distributor and a release date of March 23, 2012 lined up but they are still raising funds for the extras. The IndieGoGo campaign will have a few days left at the time this post goes live so you can donate to that HERE and get some cool swag along with your contribution. The project also has a blog that you can follow and “like” them on Facebook to keep up-to-date on all the happenings - including some 35mm screenings!
Actual popcorn may have very little to do with this film (according to IMDb that title had to do with a removed story element) but it’s still great fun. There are some great people behind the scenes from make-up artist Wayne Toth (who recently has been working on Rob Zombie’s films), to writer Alan Ormsby (CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, DERANGED), and produced by the one and only Bob Clark (BLACK CHRISTMAS, PORKY’S). There is a lot about this POPCORN that makes little to no sense but that only adds to the charm. A film like this is full of the fun and spirit of those great Castle films from decades past mixed with the slasher films of a more recent generation. A definite classic!
DECEMBER 21 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : POPCORN
Even if you pretend they are naked, it won't make this picture less painfull.
BHM Reader Submitted Review
Does Popcorn ever redeem itself in a fit of unbridled horror? Nope, but thankfully it never takes itself too seriously- except in the respect and admiration it gives to Old school 50’s shock horror, in the vein of genre legends like William Castle-and that makes all the difference…
Remember when independently owned video stores housed a bevy of classic horror, before the popularity of DVD and pre-Blockbuster WalMartization. It was a simpler time, when any self-respecting horror freak could find a primo copy of Bad Taste sandwiched between 'C.H.U.D' and 'Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things'. It was at just such a store that I first glimpsed Popcorn. Even with the smudgy fingerprint tracks of some horny, obese teenager, the front cover looked bright and alive, almost cartoonish in its simplicity: A coy skeleton hiding behind a mask barely resembling our Girl Friday, Jill Shoelen, as 20-something theatre student Maggie. I pleaded with my big brother to see it, but he brushed me off, and years later I have the feeling he knew something I didn’t: This Popcorn is certainly an acquired taste.
Anemic, Caucasian faces molded of latex float lifelessly in a jar of preserving fluid. Popcorn is splashily etched across the screen. In my book, as far as memorable opening scenes go, Popcorn ranks among 'Suspiria' and 'Ghost Ship', but for all the wrong reasons. Rather than follow my gut and grab for the clicker to push EJECT, I lock my knees and lean back. This is the pose I hold for the first 30 minutes of the movie for fear of bolting out of the room, as I’m ushered through a quick and dirty dream sequence, care of Maggie-which I actually enjoyed for its queerness, Italian style cold red and blue color schemes and the genuinely odd dream character Lanyard Gates, whom at first appears to be the central villain in the film- but my enjoyment ended with the introduction of some of the lamest college co-eds to have ever graced my television screen. A group of rag-tag film students of average looks (except for Schoelen, known for banging Brad Pitt in the 80’s) and varied talent are forced to come up with some cash to keep their beloved theatre program running, and their teacher, Mr. Davis (as played by Tony Roberts), employed. Roberts takes the role of the sweet, Jewish soul who we quickly guess has more than a fatherly appreciation for one of his students (and their relationship thankfully leads to the only really tasty delivery of gore later on in the flick).
Mr. Davis, with the help of lame-brained student Toby, comes up with an idea to solve the lack of funding: All Night Movie Marathon Bitches! And thank God for that, because at least the venue they use is fantastic, a gorgeous send up to oldtimey theatre houses, which provided at least eye-candy while being forced to watch the co-eds schlep around the theatre, cleaning it up, being obnoxious, and generally trying to fill time while seemingly inexplicable Jamaican music drums along-which makes sense only after the credits scroll and ‘Filmed On Location in Jamaica’ streams by-looks like somebody shopped around for a bargain locale?
It’s worth noting that the movie’s failing points may be dependent on the well-known casting and behind-the-scenes issues, including directorial changes and character swaps, even switching leads from Amy O’Neill to Jill Schoelen while in production. (Wikipedia).
In the process of getting the theatre ready the group find a film reel stuffed in a box of decorations and decide to Christen the theatre in the only proper way: they toss on the reel and take a seat. It appears to be a film directed by acid-head-AKA Maggie’s dream demon from earlier-Lanyard Gates, whom Mr. Davis informs us was ushered out of the hip 1970’s film scene because his self-proclaimed movies looked more like trash to the high-brow critics than art. In an act of rage against his naysayers, Lanyard attempted a show with a live ending: the slaughtering of his family while under a drug induced trance. Sound a little like a classic 1970’s exploitation/retribution flick in the making? Hell yes! But, be forewarned, Popcorn itself never veers towards seedy 70’s grindhouse status, instead, it takes its cues from another bygone era.
Somewhere near the latter half of the movie-also the point where it stops completely sucking-ass, due to us finally seeing some kills, some movement and even dialogue from previously comatose actors, and the slightly contrived, but admirable plot twists in action, I wondered: Where is the sex? It’s got so many foreshadowing ingredients: the dark, shitty film transfer reminiscent of 'Grindhouse', the heady dose of B-movie cheese, college co-eds, an R rating for Christ’s sake, the over-sexed professor having an affair with a Mariel Hemingway look-a-like, and still NO DICE. I’d of loved to see at least one hormone riddled 18ish kid sidle up close to his lady love with a tub o popcorn, while all the while a surprise schlong waits inside to turn their date at the movies into a hot and heavy stroke-fest…
It is here that Popcorn looses an audience of willing genre fans who will gladly sit through a ringer of a flick, if given enough sex, gore and general playfulness along the way. Sadly, Popcorn has very little, if any, of these important details, allowing it to gravitate towards ‘made for TV movie’ territory more than once. When I find I’m missing gratuitous violence, flesh and other fillers I know that the movie itself is lacking something. All the audience is left to focus on is the movie’s saving grace- the fantastic use of hokey, old-school 1950’s style B-Grade horror flicks played on the theatre’s big screen. These segments are generally funny and clever reflections on the greatness of old-school horror at its height. If you have a copy of William Castle’s, The Tingler, you’ll appreciate the attention to detail, including the gimmicky use of nurses delivering shots to out of control movie-goers, that Popcorn lends these little films. Gems like ‘Mosquito,’ which include the use of a giant-sized bug swinging through the theatre aisles on a tethered rope draws some actually funny bits of heckling from the viewing crowd, but these movies add life to the flick the way a stronger ensemble cast could have done here, driving climatic scenes and providing humor where it is surely lacking.
Character development in the film is almost nonexistent, save for Tom Villard as Toby, whom I at first found painfully annoying with his North Dakota-like accent and ‘Aww shucks’ demeanor, but he eventually grows some much deserved balls throughout the course of the film, lending his character a sense of fanaticism that is at best genuinely bizarre and at worst tiring and whiny. As for the rest of the cast, I really don’t remember much about them. Kelly Jo Minter, who plays the mostly mute Cheryl, is a recognizable character from the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' franchise, but her brazen, smart-ass attitude isn’t properly taken advantage of here, instead she’s mostly ignored, along with genre vet Dee Wallace-whose on-screen appearances with her character’s daughter, Maggie, make her look more like the butch half of a lesbian relationship with her femme girlfriend than a mother daughter combo. Hot? Maybe, but not at her best, and certainly not what you expect from a woman who's played opposite a demon dog in Cugo and fighting for her life against hillbillys-gone-wild in the original The Hills Have Eyes. Schoelen’s Maggie is mostly a wreck: boring, uninventive and monotone, which is really a shame as she is handed the film's climatic scenes on a platter. I had to convince myself that this was the same girl from 'The Stepfather'.
Is it watch-able? Somehow, yes, despite innumerable flaws, and some of the worst dialog I’ve ever heard-including a request from Maggie to her horny boyfriend, would you “…hold me..” We understand that we’re seeing something that often finds itself trailing towards terrible, but it’s just so damn easy to watch, which is partly due to all the stimulus: A fascination with color, fantastic practical makeup effects, sometimes bumbling but consistently interesting camera work, elaborate sound effects (especially in one scene with Dee Wallace alone in the empty theatre at night that is an all-encompassing, cheesy, sensory experience I loved), over-bearing Jamaican music, and of course some satisfying, and often strange, slasher genre kills. And best of all, there seems to be an understanding among the cast to not take themselves too seriously. No pretense, no affected air, it’s like a group of public school freshman putting on a play who are just as surprised as we are to find out that they are not completely incompetent.
I recommend Popcorn with a warning: Only watch this in the presence of those who can appreciate old-school 50’s horror charades, the kind that would get the boys from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 all riled up, as they will be the least likely to make fun of you for wanting to watch it in the first place-and having someone around to bitch about the tiresome aspects of Popcorn will make it all the more tolerable while waiting for the good stuff.