Popcorn (1991)

Sometimes, you end up loving a movie for what it could be way more than for what it is.

Popcorn would be one of those films.

Buried somewhere in its slasher framing story and four films within a film, there are some great ideas that should have been explored further. And the closer the film gets to its conclusion, the more it starts to explain itself. I’m more in the John Carpenter camp when it comes to too much information — I’m often just fine not needing to know every motivation of a film’s villain. To wit — I don’t need to know that Michael Myers made papier-mache masks to assuage his pain. I don’t even need to know that he’s a human being. I just want the story to thrill me.

Popcorn was filmed entirely in Kingston, Jamaica — which explains the later dance numbers. That’s right. Dance numbers. The more you watch this film, the more incongruous it becomes. The production was also fraught with changes, as Alan Ormsby was originally the film’s director, before being replaced by Porky’s actor Mark Herrier several weeks into filming.

Ormsby has a crazy bio — in addition to working with Bob Clark on Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Deranged and Death Dream, he also wrote Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People and My Bodyguard. And strangely, he’s also credited with creating Kenner’s 1975 action figure Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces!

At the same time, Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) replaced original lead, Amy O’Neill. In fact, Schoelen barely was in scenes with the rest of the cast because so much had already been filmed, so she mostly appeared in reshoots! Even the title had something to do with a plot element that was edited from the final film, but the producers and distributor liked it so much, it was retained.

The film begins with Maggie Butler (Schoelen), an aspiring movie writer and college student, who has recurring nightmares that she is a young girl named Sarah. These dreams — in which a strange man stalks her — happen so often that she has an audio diary of them. Those very same dreams may or may not be connected to the prank phone calls that her mom Suzanne (Dee Wallace Stone, The Howling, E.T., Critters and many more) has been getting.

Sarah is also dating Mark (Derek Rydall, Eric from Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge), who tries to get her to come to his dorm room. She can’t — the script that she’s writing based on her dreams is more important. And so is the all-night horrorthon (JOIN US FOR THE HORRO-RITUAL!) that the school’s film department is putting on. It’s all Toby D’Amato’s (Tom Villard, who was one of the first 90s actors to openly admit that he was dying from AIDS) idea — with the goal of purchasing new editing equipment. NOTE: One assumes that Toby is named for Joe D’Amato, director of Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Antropophagus, Absurd, Troll 2 and the Ator the Fighting Eagle series, plus 200 or more films.

The kids convert the Dreamland Theater — due to be destroyed in three weeks — with the help of Professor Davis (Tony Roberts, Annie Hall, Amityville 3-D) and a quick cameo from Ray Walston as Dr. Mnesyne, the provider of the props that will go with the films.

Ah, those films — these movies-within-a-movie provide the best part of Popcorn. They are:

Mosquito: This 3-D film is a tribute to nature gone wild and nuclear terror movies of the 1950s. Even better, it pays tribute to Emergo, the technology (well, as far as sliding a skeleton down a rope can be called technology) that William Castle used to gimmick up The House on Haunted Hill.

The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man: A callback to films like The Amazing Colossal Man, while at the same time it’s a nod to German expressionistic camera angles (certainly an odd blend). There’s a great scene here where the Electrified Man battles a gang of greasers armed with switchblades. There’s another gimmick here called “Shock-o-Scope” which is another tribute to William Castle and his film The Tingler.

The Stench: This is obviously a dubbed Japanese film, ala The Green Slime, but with the added gimmick of Odorama. There have been actual movies that use this technology, such as Scent of Mystery and, more dear to this author’s heart, John Waters’ Polyester.

Possessor: Found within Dr. Mnesyne’s — his name translates as memory — equipment, this short film is the most interesting part of Popcorn. It’s supposed to be a snuff film made by a Mansonesque cult of acidheads, but it looks and feels like something straight out of José Mojica Marins’ oeuvre (known as Coffin Joe, he’s made some of the strangest and best-titled films ever, such as At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul and This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse). Seriously, this strange little film, in which a voice just says “possessor” over and over and over while blood fills the screen is awesome. If only the rest of the film — and one scene I’ll get to shortly — had been as imaginative and odd as this, we’d have a real winner on our hands.

Just by watching Possessor, Maggie passes out and has another nightmare. Upon awakening, Professor Davis informs the class that the film comes from Lanyard Gates (Bruce Glover, father of Crispin Hellion Glover), the leader of the aforementioned cult who ended his final film by killing his family onstage while the theater burned down in flames around the audience. There were no survivors and no explanation for why the film survived.

As Maggie grows more and more obsessed with the film, her mother becomes upset, telling her to just quit the film festival. That night, her mother gets a call from Lanyard Gates, telling her to meet him at the festival and to bring a gun.

The next day, when Maggie mans the box office, a man buys a ticket and calls her Sarah. She freaks, thinking it’s Gates. Meanwhile, just as the Professor is about to launch the mosquito prop during the film cue, a shadowy figure takes control of it, impaling him. Then, we see the same figure making a mask of the dead man’s face.

Oh yeah — Maggie’s mom shows up to the theater with a gun and in the best scene of the film, Gates takes over reality, transforming the marquee to read “POSSESSOR.” That said — this scene has NOTHING to do with the rest of the film, as our villain has no such psychic or reality warping powers.

No one will believe Maggie’s story and the films continue. A student named Tina (Freddie Marie Simpson, who along with Megan Cavanagh and Tracy Reiner, appeared in both the movie and TV series A League of Their Own) has been having an affair with the Professor, whose doppelganger kills her and then uses her body to electrocute wheelchair bound Bud while he sets off the buzzing seats during the next film.

When Maggie finds his body, she runs into Gates and has a flashback. Turns out that she’s really his daughter, Sarah Gates and Suzanne is not her mother, but her aunt who saved her. She tells all to Toby, who turns out to not be Gates, but his imitator. He was badly burned at the only showing of Possessor and holds Maggie and her aunt responsible. He prepares them both for his final act…of murder!

While setting up the Odorama, Leon is killed by Toby (but not before he pees all over him), yet he stops from killing Joanie when she confesses her unrequited love for him — an odd choice for a slasher film.

Whew. There are so many unnecessary characters and extra girlfriends and weird asides like a landlord who wants to be an actor which, honestly, take away from the film. Long story short, Toby reenacts the end of Possessor to the jeers of the crowd, revealing his full face — a gruesome visage of wires and burned flesh. Luckily, he’s killed by the Mosquito prop just in time to save everyone — which is either a cheap repeat or a previous kill or a sly comment on sequels. Let’s go with the former. That said — it has a really nice pre-Go Pro mounted camera effect as Toby dies, but not before hearing the cheers of the crowd.

Honestly, Popcorn is a mess. But it’s an enjoyable mess. It’s simultaneously a tribute to 1950s black and white gimmick films while attempting to be meta commentary on the slasher genre, with none of the teeth of a film like Scream. There are ridiculous parts, like death by toilet and a way too long musical number where a reggae band plays while a cosplay heavy crowd dances and Toby going from quiet kid to Freddy Krueger clone in the too quick conclusion to the tale. Throw in a balls out bonkers end song — “Scary Scary Movies” — that features lyrics like “psycho on the move got a blade two feet long, kisses for his wife while he slices the bitch….so long!” screamed at the top the rapper’s lungs and you have something worth watching.

As an aside, the rapper Kabal has been doing entire albums of cheesy rap songs from horror movies. He even covered the theme from Popcorn!

There’s a heart and inventiveness to the film. There’s a real love for movies in here, particularly the fun promotional style of William Castle. It’s definitely worth a watch, as the 90 minute or so runtime practically flies by. And while this film was impossible to find for years, Synapse Pictures has finally released a Blu Ray, so no need to buy bootlegs!

This article originally appeared in Drive-In Asylum.

11 thoughts on “Popcorn (1991)

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